Written by Gregg Brekke
ONA relevance and the culmination of a personal theological transformation took bold steps forward May 22 as the UCC ordained two Hispanic pastors to serve primarily Spanish-speaking congregations.
A staunch advocate for social-justice issues – including the UCC's Open and Affirming (ONA) position – the Rev. Jose Claudio was ordained as pastor of Iglesia Unide De Cristo El Nuevo Camino in Buffalo, N.Y.
Claudio's ordination, held in El Nuevo Camino's mother church, Pilgrim-St. Luke's UCC, was attended by 130 people and helped set in motion El Nuevo Camino's intention to become ONA.
"In my research in talking to LGBT family members, I noticed there was a lot of pain from people who wanted to be in a church, but they felt they were rejected and marginalized," said Claudio, a 2010 graduate of Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School. "When I heard that, I said, 'Wow, this can't be happening in the Hispanic churches.' "
A second research project centered on pastors proved equally demoralizing, said Claudio.
"One night I was dreaming that I was preaching in the pulpit, and I saw people coming in with chains on their feet and handcuffs," explaining the origins of his call to ministry. "One man came into the church, sat in the front pew, and I could see the handcuffs falling off and the chains breaking off, and hear the noise of the chains hitting the floor."
Soon, Claudio began to gather Spanish-speaking Christians in home meetings. By last September – with encouragement from Pilgrim-St. Luke's pastor, the Rev. Bruce McKay – Claudio led El Nueva Camino in its first formal service at Pilgrim-St. Luke's. Twelve people showed up. "Right now, we have 25 to 30 people at a service," said Claudio.
Among his three children and seven grandchildren, none is LGBT, said Claudio. "But I would like to treat this community with dignity and respect, and provide a welcoming environment. Pastors say, 'We receive everyone.' Well, yes, it's one thing to receive everyone, but another thing to let them be who they are."
In addition to pursuing ONA standing, Claudio emphasized that his church extends welcome to all cultures; advocates for social justice for all; and provides leadership that varies widely from the "tyrannic" style of many Hispanic churches.
"We're creating an elbow-to-elbow relationship where we can work together," he said. "I do not lose authority as a pastor, but we are ministering with everyone at the same level."
Claudio grew up in Puerto Rico with eight brothers and four sisters. Raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, he attended a United Methodist Church at age 18. In 1981, he brought his family to the United States and worked on a vineyard in Pennsylvania. He helped the Rev. Alberto Pons organize San Juan UMC, the only Hispanic church in that part of the state, and served as its pastor from 2000-2007.
As for Mateo, he frames his ordination as "a blessing, a challenge and a new discovery."
"I've been receiving a lot of blessings from wonderful individuals who have showed me, by real and sincere actions, that radical hospitality, social justice and unconditional love is the way the Kingdom of God works."
Coming from a "closed and fundamentalist tradition," Mateo said he gradually realized that his gospel was hurting others. "I was using the Bible as an oppressive instrument, and my preaching not only was exclusivist, but charged with intolerance and condemnatory ideas.
"Were my intentions to hurt others? Absolutely not," said Mateo, currently concluding studies at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary. "But I noticed that something was wrong in the way I was approaching God, the Bible and my community. Since those critical moments of theological reflection, I began a new understanding of what to be Christian is all about without denying my spiritual journey.
"This ordination step not only represents a decision to devote myself to a particular denomination or theological vision, but to the people, the poor and those for whom the Kingdom of God was given."