Rev. Dr. David Vásquez-Levy serves as President of Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California –a progressive, multidenominational seminary and center for social justice that prepares theologically and spiritually rooted leaders to work for the well-being of all. A committed pastor, a nationally recognized immigration leader, and a sought after speaker, Vásquez-Levy leads at the intersection of faith, higher education, and social change.
Vásquez-Levy regularly contributes a faith perspective to the national conversation on immigration and is the author of various publications that explore migration stories in sacred texts and in people's lives. He has lived in four countries and taught courses and led international study and service trips across the globe, including a course in France entitled, “Immigration/Refugee Crisis, Religion, Globalization and the Post-Colonial Immersion” and a course in Guatemala entitled: “Guatemala: Roots of Migration.”
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[00:00:00] Intro: Welcome to the Holden Village Podcast. Holden is a community of education, programming, and worship located in the remote wilderness of the Cascade Mountains. These snapshots provide a glimpse into the learnings taking place in our community. Let's tune in to this week's highlight.
[00:00:22] Dev: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Holden Village Podcast. I am your host Dev (he/him) pronouns...and I'm with one of our wonderful week nine faculty of the 2023 summer program: David Vasquez-Levy. How would you like to introduce yourself? And what's one inspiring thing that's happened to you this week.
[00:00:47] David: Well, again, my name is David Vasquez-Levy. I use he/him/el pronouns. I serve as president at Pacific School of Religion (PSR)...it's a seminary in Berkeley, California. I'm ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, so I'm an ELCA pastor. But I am serving a seminary that is not ELCA affiliated, but is part of a consortium together with a Lutheran school in Pacific Theological Lutheran Seminary, PLTS.
I'm a parent of two kids...married to Carla Sumala...with whom I am teaching this week. I'm originally from Guatemala and have sort of lived and moved all over the place. A lot of my commitments/interests in my life have to do with connections between academic communities, faith communities and social change.
So, something inspiring this week. It's been great to be back at Holden. I came pretty regularly, you know, for about 10 years with our family...and this part early on when Abriendo Caminos first started. And that was just really a moving experience. For the last several years, we haven't been able to travel. So one inspiring thing is just being back...take some of the hikes here and just being back with the community. The conversations have been great in the studies and then just listening to others in their presentation.
[00:02:04] Dev: How would you describe Abriendo Caminos to our outside listeners? What is that week like at holden?
[00:02:11] David: it's interesting because I was just talking with some of the folks who were here at the very beginning of it. The words abriendo means to open and caminos is way...so opening the way. So I think that the origins...it's one week in which Holden tries to create/accommodate a broader space of welcome by utilizing language...you know...Spanish as well as English. A lot of the programmatic offerings are creating a space for a richer presence of culture...particularly started out with folks from the Yakima Valley, which many of you listeners may be familiar with.
It's on the Eastern part of Washington...and it's a large agricultural community that has a significant immigrant population. And so a lot of the folks in that area...somebody began to kind of say...you know...we should bring some of those folks to participate up at Holden. That group really loved their experience here and then together with others began to advocate for creating for opening some space for that.
So for this week you know like many other things that got disrupted by various transitions the last couple of years with the pandemic and mine remediation. But it's great to be back There's about a hundred and some participants that are part of six different groups this week from Yakima, Sacramento/LA area, up in Seattle...you know...folks that are coming from Spanish speaking communities and just bringing food, culture. There'll be a fiesta this week...there's tortilla making this morning...tamales making tomorrow...there'll be the world famous soccer...the Holden Cup.
[00:03:52] Dev: The most important part of the year.
[00:03:55] David: I think there's another World Cup going on this week somewhere, but this is the one. We're all happy.
[00:04:02] Dev: So how would you like to articulate what you are sharing in your presentations with the village
[00:04:08] David: So Carla my wife and I are having an opportunity...we're picking up on the theme for this summer...Eden this calling...and titled our session based on one line in Genesis where Cain...after is exiled from the area and so lives east of Eden. So he settles east of Eden. So the image of east of Eden has been picked up by a number of different authors over time...Steinbeck's probably the most familiar one in terms of the title of one of his books. But it's sort of this image about living outside of Eden...paradise.
And so we're really trying to invite a conversation about how these sacred stories...the stories that we find in the biblical text...and we're referring to others...but how those particular stories really help us think about these big questions and big issues we are wrestling with as a community...as a nation today.
Particularly looking at the narratives...the big stories we tell ourselves about immigration...about environment and how the two connect. So in a way we're wrestling with these...Bishop William Barber has called God sized problems that need a God sized solution, right? So how do we think in big picture about these large issues we are facing around...you know...environmental crisis as well as its implications on massive mobility of people...and the need for us to wrestle with the sacred text that might help us think about these in new ways.
[00:05:44] Dev: I'm curious for you...how much of like the internal...like emotional mental work goes in with the work that you do?
[00:05:53] David: We need a much more integrated solution. We actually have to challenge those binaries of internal and external...of practical and theoretical. We need to queer all of these binaries, right? So the project of colonialism begins...as most folks will know...with in 1492...Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Right before that...what Columbus is doing,..what led to that was this papal bull, right? It's a papal edict that just basically justified the fact that Europeans...you know... supposedly on the pretext of conversion could just go anywhere in the world and just take over land and things.
Behind that was a taxonomy...the need to divide the world into certain things. So then the concepts of race that we now live with...you know...come out of that taxonomy in which you're basically taking the world and analyzing it...dividing it into categories and placing certain things in categories. Right? In some ways, it led to great developments of knowledge, right? We can organize the world...understand it...and create categories of plants and animals and other things. But the negative implication of it is that they began to...we then made the categories we created to understand a very organic world...and then they somehow become standard...or the reality...even more real than reality in the world.
So when we apply that level of categorization to humans...put them into categories of race...put them into categories of who's savage and who's not, right? And what kind of knowledge value and others are not. Then that's where there is this fragmentation...including the fragmentation of the internal and the external, right?
Most religious traditions actually do not have in its origin...and a lot of the traditions we live with today are Eastern in origin...including Christianity and Judaism. They have the sense of an integration of the self rather than the separation that really is sort of taking a lot of Greek thought...this very binary thought...and driving it increasingly so to create that division. And I think that separation actually leads to...has significant consequences both on ourselves...on our psyche...on our well being...and on the way we relate to the created world to the existing world.
[00:08:08] Dev: Are there specific binaries that are close to your heart that you want to integrate in your work?
[00:08:13] David: I think there's a lot of queering that I'd like to do so that might be helpful just to say a word about my current context. So again, I'm president of Pacific School of Religion. This is a seminary in Berkeley, California that has had a long history of kind of progressive...being on the sort of progressive end of many social causes throughout its history.
You know, for 150 years, but really it's only in the last 10 years or so that the institution has become truly majority people of color and it has had a long history of being majority LGBTQ. So our current student body is majority people of color...majority LGBTQ...about 55% of the student body are part of the LGBTQ community.
And that's the case also for faculty/staff, board. So part of it is sort of...first, creating a very alternative reality in a space where these two binaries/categories of the full inclusion of humans around their self identity and their understanding of themselves and sexuality... oftentimes is viewed as...particularly within religious settings...as counter to our commitments around racial inclusion.
So many churches are splitting over this choice they feel they must make either to be sort of siding with communities of color or to be siding with LGBTQ communities without the...so that's a binary. I'm very committed to challenging right in the sense that actually...if you look outside of many of our faith communities at social movements...many of our contemporary social movements...the dreamers in immigration...black lives matter within African American advocacy work...many others. The leadership of these groups is majority LGBTQ. So they're coming from communities of color that also are LGBTQ committed.
What's important to me that gives me lots of hope is that we know something from being in the in-between. Right? People actually live in that queer space, right? So part of our work in theological development and thinking and rethinking the world and challenging binaries...it needs to draw from that experience of what it's like to live in the in-between, right? To challenge the binaries of gender...of sexuality...of race.
And what do we know from that experience? Either created by migration or identity or a movement. And what have we learned about that? Because that is the wisdom that this colonial project sought to eliminate, right? It's that fragmentation in order to divide and conquer.
[00:10:48] Dev: Are there specific stories that have shaped your faith journey or shaped your activism?
[00:10:54] David: I think a particular story that I want to share about. You know an early experience here at Holden with Abriendo Caminos was that I was teaching a course. We were looking at the story of Exodus and in fact a lot of the experiences here were captured in a short Bible study I wrote with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services that's called Out of the Waters.
And we were reading the story of Moses...just reading through the text in Exodus and the scene where in that particular day...we were reading the scene where Moses's mother places Moses into the river. And as we sat in the space...a woman began to cry in the room...who was a participant in Abriendo Caminos...an immigrant woman...a fairly recent immigrant. Well, not fairly recent...but first generation immigrant. And she began to cry in the class...and so there was silence. We were just kind of trying to create space for listening. And then she began to tell the story of 20 years earlier. She had said she had stood at the U.S./Mexico border on the Rio Grande and had to hand her child to a coyote. So she was with her child who was barely a year old...and she needed to get across the border.
And the way that they would do it is that she was going to go by land and run across...you know...however she could get across with a group...but the baby was going to be taken by the coyote with another child's papers through the border checkpoint...but using somebody else's ID, right?
And she had to let go of the child at that moment...not knowing whether she would be able to make it across...see her baby again across. And so she stood there...and that just transformed for me...reading a text that I read a million times...about what is going on for Jochebed, which is the name that the tradition gives to Moses mother...to make that decision.
And at that point, with many periods of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States...there was this sense of the questioning about why...people will often say...how can they do this to their children? Right? And...you know...to be able to understand in the sacred text what somebody whose commitment and love for their children...you know...forces them to exercise whatever agency they have within extreme limitations...you know...and so at that moment for me...there's a phrase about...it's been popularized and I've heard it a number of times to the point I don't know the source.
But it's that all the stories in the Bible are true...and some of them even happened. So at that moment...that story is true. It is the story of an immigrant woman who is desperate by her displacement and by the fear of power that threatens the life of her child. And so she makes the only choice she feels she can make. You know, she exercises whatever agency she has. We know what happens in that story. Right? But not at that moment. She doesn't know what will happen...at that point...just like this woman in the Bible study...when she had made that decision 20 years earlier. Her son was with her at Holdun that week and turned 21 while we were here.
[00:14:26] Dev: That's wonderful. How would you like to see your work evolve?
[00:14:30] David: Talking about my own work, right? So this week we are focusing on this connection between environment and migration. It's a deeply integrated reality. And my hope in my work as well as all of our work is to see the connections between these various passions that we hold, right? There's a lot of communities/congregations that are committed to the environment and are becoming increasingly aware of the kind of crisis we are living with.
Sometimes we look at that. And we are focused on one conversation and sometimes they may think we don't have space or energy for other issues, right? And so we might not have...as a congregation or as an individual...the capacity or the attention to look at something like immigration. And the reality is that they're deeply connected, right?
And so the face of the environmental crisis is most clearly captured in displaced immigrants around the world right now. Because the environmental shifts, they are the canary in the mine,...you know...we are becoming more aware because smoke is flying over across the Canadian border into our land. So we have as well dealt with massive fires...we are becoming aware of this heat wave...so we are beginning to deal with this heat wave.
Even though much of our population continues to deny the impacts of climate change, the realities are becoming more self-evident. Many of us...depending on our affluence and privilege...can shield ourselves from those impacts. So we have to pay attention to those most significantly affected...who are much more vulnerable to the implications of that.
A lot of the immigration that is taking place today is fueled by environmental degradation and changes. My work focuses on...again...this integration of faith communities, academic communities, and social change. So, in the study this week, we're trying to think about how these sacred texts actually address these issues.
How the ancient ones wrestle with the same questions we're wrestling with today...when we think about them as big God-sized questions. Right? So they were wrestling...most of the stories in the Bible that have to do with migration are triggered by an environmental shift...famine. The book of Ruth, which we'll touch base on later this week begins by saying in the time of the judges...there was a famine in the lay of the land.
Now you can read right past that introduction and not pay much attention to it. But if you stop for a moment...what it means is in the time of the judges...so the book of judges is right before...and it ends by saying in the time of the judges...so you get the same phrase...everyone did what they thought was right in their own sight. So as a reference to the breakdown of a political system, right? That is collapsing, right? There's a failure of political leadership. So in the time of the judges...when there's a failure of political leadership...there is a famine in the land. So what you have is this twin crisis of political collapse together with an environmental crisis.
They're often connected. That leads into this story displacement...you know...Naomi ends up having to leave with her family. There's death...there's loss...so my interest in my own work is to say...how do we listen to these stories? What happens in the story is what's called a chaotic structure, right?
Everything reverses through the story. It begins in famine. It ends in harvest. It begins in death. It ends with the birth of a child that eventually becomes David. It begins with a very xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment and hatred across two groups, you know, they go Mal...the hatred place and it ends in this integration...and it challenges even gender...right in terms of the assumption that salvation and all of our well-being will come through the male line and you end up with these two women that make a commitment to each other...an unsanctioned relationship between two women.
Imagine that...that leads to a change, where she is told at the end that Ruth is more valuable to Naomi than seven sons. So these stories are phenomenal, right? So my work...my meditation...my hope in the world...can we read the Bible?
[00:18:52] Dev: That's fantastic. One final question. With all the work that you do, you know, some of it can be very serious. There's a concept in Holden Village called Holden Hilarity. So I'm curious, how do you create levity and hilarity in your work? So that you don't get too dour, which happens to a lot of people.
[00:19:15] David: I think this is one of Holden's values that I think has to be really embraced at a time of planetary crisis. A lot of the issues that we deal with in my work...particularly now and in leadership formation as a seminary and Leadership program...our focus is on the development of leaders...and the burnout rate of clergy or other not for profit leadership is really significant right now. It is and for all kinds of reasons...you know...the growing gap of just what people are trying to navigate...that tragic gap that's widening about the world...as it should be and the world as it is...is taking a toll on many of us and so we do need a deeper well.
We need hilarity. We need joy. We need possibility. Growing up in Guatemala in the middle of a civil war...that's how people deal with everything...a joke. You know, I spent every recess walking around with friends telling jokes. I was amazed as a child about the sheer number of jokes that would be created like, you know, every day.
You heard and told jokes. What I really...my actual training is as a preacher, right? It's homiletics...and so stories and telling...and so I'm fascinated by jokes and stories...reading books. What I'm grateful about and where I think, you know, how do we not burn out is to just tell stories...listen to stories.
In the Bible study session we're doing this week, we started out with this phrase from Elie Wiesel. And then he quotes the rabbi saying, God created humankind for the love of story. So the reason God created us is because God loves to tell and hear stories. Well, as humans right now, we are telling the most stories.
[00:21:12] Dev: Well, thank you so much for blessing the village with your presence. Once again, your articulations are awesome. Great to listen to. And thanks for taking the time to have this conversation.
[00:21:24] David: Great. Appreciate the opportunity.
[00:21:26] Outro: Thanks for joining us. Be sure to view the links in the description for more information or visit our website to find out more about the village. We hope you will make a pilgrimage to Holden. Blessings and peace to you.