In July 2020, the Collegeville Institute hosted a virtual writing workshop led by Dori Baker and Patrice Gopo called Our Deep Wells: Writing on Vocation Across Race and Culture. The workshop invited faith leaders and scholars who center the voices of marginalized communities and/or grapple with power and privilege as an element of vocational discernment. Writing about vocation that is rooted in an individual’s distinct identity holds power to transform people, communities, and the world.
The online workshop began each day listening to participants’ responses to the prompt: “Tell a story about a specific person, practice, or tradition that called you to life.” The writing prompt was inspired by an interview with Patrick Reyes, author of Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community, and Surviving to Adulthood, for Bearings Online, in which he defines vocation as following God’s call to survive.
We are pleased to share this last collection of three short responses from the Our Deep Wells writing workshop cohort. To view others in this series, please click here.
Maria Alejandra Salazar
I listen closely to my maestra’s instructions. Peniel explains the steps for how we will open in ceremony. As she talks my breath slowly returns to normal, the high altitude of the Andes mountains no longer burning my lungs. Among the large rock formations we present our offerings of coca leaves and honey, asking for protection and thanking the Apus, sacred mountain spirits, for letting us share this space. Peniel has spent a week preparing my San Pedro cactus. San Pedro, or Huachuma, is grandfather energy and it is in this clearing that I will drink.
I receive the lit mapachito, a small roll of wild tobacco. I purse my lips so the sweet smoke flows directly into the bottle, watching it swirl on top of the thick, brown liquid.
“Hold your lower belly, ask Huachumita to heal where you most need it. Pray for release, in whatever form it takes.” Peniel’s voice is clear.
The syrupy concoction makes its way down. Inhale. Exhale, feeling the medicine reach the constellation of cells I inhabit.
It is three days before the total solar eclipse, four days before my thirtieth birthday. Two months after graduating from seminary, I traveled four thousand miles to start this new decade of life in my home country. Publicly, I was the recipient of a brand new master’s degree. Internally, I knew the work was just beginning. I felt called to release toxic relationships, heal old wounds, address ancestral trauma. I needed an altar to lay down my rage, exhaustion, and grief so that I might fully exhale. I needed to go to the root.
Maria Alejandra Salazar is a budding artist, writing at the intersection of faith, social justice, and ancestral connection. She is passionate about theologies that center lived experience as sites of liberation and transformative healing. A Chicago resident, she works for a national philanthropic organization.
Altagracia Perez Bullard
The classroom fills up, amphitheater style. I’m in the back, watching the room crowd with people. I know no one. The teacher, this pastor, speaks fire, and it ignites a fire in my belly, lights me up and burns me down. I know his words are true, although everything he says contradicts what I have been told about God, about right and wrong. And although they burn everything down, the whole building, this life I’d constructed—the charred wood, discarded bricks, the acrid smoke, opens a space.
“Homosexuality is not a sin.” The whole room shifts. Like a double dolly shot in a Spike Lee Joint, I am moving past the scenarios of my life. It feels dizzying. I must have heard wrong. I focus, I look at him and I look at the ceiling and back again. Back and forth waiting for the bolt of lightning that is surely, at any moment, going to come through the roof and strike this man down dead where he stands. It never arrives.
I never recovered. Never recovered the perception of safety the building had provided. That structure, however confining, was clear and defined. Until it burned down, I didn’t know how much I needed space. Space to be, to grow, to actually live in the freedom of God’s love.
That class during my senior year in college marked the beginning of a journey, my seminary journey, that led to a recognition that among God’s many beautiful creations was me, not in spite of, but because I am Queer. Different, odd, misfit, also rare, special, precious. Gone were my childhood notions of God’s will for my life. All that burned away, and a renewed faith came like a mighty wind. I was tossed about by the force, but my passion for justice, my love for God and the people was intensified. And now the real me was included among the beloved.
The Rev. Altagracia Perez-Bullard, PhD is the Director of Contextual Ministry and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary. An Episcopal priest and community leader for over 25 years, she is passionate about supporting leaders committed to the Gospel, working for justice.
For most of my adult life I have worked in bookstores. Big stores, small stores, mall stores. I have shelved and shelved; counted endless magazines; pulled espresso; and finally, became the buyer for a small college bookstore.
My brother and I were the first in our family to graduate from college. It was a very big deal for our parents, and they took us to a glorious wood-paneled, relish-dished Wisconsin supper club to celebrate our (their?) accomplishment. Jason began his lucrative and steady career in mechanical engineering, and I… well, I got a job at a bookstore.
We grew up on a tobacco farm in a very small town in southern Wisconsin – Mail Pouch country. I spent my summers from the age of eight pulling small green plants out of the ground, root and all, for hours each day. This kind of steady repetitive work is both boring and fruitful – boring in action; fruitful in the imagination. I would daydream while pulling those plants, about life in the city, away from the endless flat and boring fields. In the afternoon, when the sun was too high for my Nordic complexion, I would read about kids getting lost in big city museums and flip through magazines and catalogs showing young women in heels and shoulder pads standing in front of endless skyscrapers. I would dream, then, of my future.
My bookstore life inched me closer to the life I dreamed of. I earned my Master’s degree part time while working at that college bookstore, out in the suburbs of Chicago, not quite in the city just yet, but close enough to spend my weekends driving around the fields of steel, dreaming of living there one day. During our Master’s capstone weekend, where we share our visions for the future, one of my professors told me that she hoped my dreams would come true.
I’m writing this essay now from my perch in my vintage city apartment. I’m surrounded by the books I’ve acquired through my former vocation. They have come with me as I journey toward a new one. Sometimes, when I crack the spine of a new world in ink on paper, I remember daydreaming in those tobacco beds, pulling those plants out of one location so that they could be transplanted someplace bigger.
Dr. Jennifer Moe is Assistant Director of the Young Adult Initiative at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary where she works with area churches to help them realize young adults as vital members of their congregations. She has lived in the Chicago, Illinois area for almost twenty years and her brother now lives on the small Wisconsin farm where they grew up..