June 23, 1997
Volume 49, No. 34
Machado came to Atlanta from Texas last fall to serve as program director of the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI) headquartered at Candler School of Theology. HTI is a four-year initiative to help increase the ranks of Hispanics completing their PhDs in theology. Funded by a $3.3 million grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, HTI recently made its first-ever fellowship awards totaling $225,000 to 25 Latino scholars pursuing PhDs in theology at institutions across the country.
Machado was drawn to the project because, among other reasons, "it was an opportunity for me to encourage others," a theme that has dominated much of her life and work. A native of Cuba who immigrated to New York City with her family at age 3, Machado said her parents fostered a strong interest in giving back and helping others.
That drive led her to complete a bachelor's degree in sociology from Brooklyn College, a master's in social work from Hunter College and to plunge into clinical social work in New York, where she worked with women in violent and abusive relationships and started several thriving discussion/support groups. But even with these successes, Machado came to realize that "there was a spiritual dimension that I was missing."
Seminary seemed a natural next step, but "there were no women ministers in our church at that time," Machado explained. But Machado had other ideas that quickly gelled as a student at New York's Union Theological Seminary where she found the curriculum, which emphasized scholarly reflections of great theologians, had no reality, no bite. The seminary, sandwiched between Spanish and Black Harlem, "had no contact with the churches in that area."
Despite expectations to the contrary, Machado was asked to lead an inner city congregation in New York after graduation. The church, located "in an area that looked like somebody had dropped a bomb" was riddled with poverty, crime and drugs, but the struggling congregation of about 75 grew to over 280 during Machado's tenure.
While in New York, Machado met and married her husband, also a minister and a native of Nicaragua who shared her interest in congregation growth and development. Together they went to Texas and started Houston's first Hispanic Disciples of Christ congregation.
Unfortunately, in Texas Machado "came across racism in ways that I had never experienced before," she recalled. The predominantly white congregation that served as host church for their budding effort "had no idea about Hispanics," she said. Even though the city's Hispanic population numbered around 800,000 in the mid 1980s, no one at the church knew where any of the Hispanic congregants lived or worked. The church also refused to let the Hispanic group use the baptistry or their nursery.
Historically, Texas "anglos" thought of Hispanics as poor, uneducated Mexicans, ignorant of the fact that "Latino culture is a mosaic," said Machado. As a Cuban-American, she added, she had never even tasted a tortilla until she moved to Texas. It was then that she decided to get her PhD. Getting a doctorate was "an issue not only of survival for me, but it was a way of focusing on the issue of dignity for my community," said Machado.
Leaving Texas behind temporarily for the University of Chicago, Machado completed her coursework in two and half years, studying with well-known theologian Martin Marty, who became her dissertation advisor. After graduation she returned to Texas and began teaching church and regional history at Texas Christian University. "History became for me an intellectual tool," she said. "It was a way for me to put people's hate and animosity into perspective, to put a name and label on it, not only in a way that Latinos could understand but my students as well."
Using history as a springboard, Machado plunged herself and her students into real world problems such as illegal border crossings in the Rio Grande Valley region along the United States-Mexico border. They sat in on deportation hearings, visited sites, talked with government officials.
"As Christians in a theological setting we need to speak a language of justice," said Machado. "And you can't speak that language unless you include the smallest of these-the folks who don't have any kind of identity, don't speak the language and who come from a poverty that . . . makes you cry.
"One of the reasons I'm here is that I'm pushing the students to make commitments to the community so that education is not just an abstract exercise," said Machado.
HTI grant recipient Hugo Magallanes, for example, is focusing his doctoral research on the ethical and moral implications of extending church membership to undocumented Latinos. "I think our great contribution as Latinos," said Machado, "will be to bring people and theology back to what theologians in America call 'practical theology,' which talks to people where they are in a way that God becomes clear."
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