Dr. Patrick B. Reyes, the author of Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community, and Surviving to Adulthood (Chalice Press, 2017) is a scholar who serves as Senior Director of Learning Design at The Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE). His portfolio includes designing and delivering resources and grants for leaders in the church and in theological and higher education to create conditions for the next generation to thrive.
Reyes was recently interviewed by Dori Baker, who is also a scholar of practical theology and serves as Senior Fellow at FTE. In the following interview, Reyes engages in a conversation about finding meaning and purpose during times of uncertainty, grief, and suffering. Reyes’ vocational autobiography defines vocation as following God’s call to survive, a theme that has new resonance in the aftermath of the novel coronavirus and global pandemic.
Right now, we find ourselves in a moment of collective, widespread grief and uncertainty. Your book defines “vocational discernment” through the lens of your childhood and adolescence as a Latinx person, growing up in one of America’s most underserved communities, where generational poverty and ensuing violence continue to threaten life. Can you set the context of your story, and tell us how it relates to our current historical moment?
I grew up in an education desert, where Latines/os/as/xs young people have next to no opportunities. Salinas, CA is considered the second least educated city in the United States. The industry is mostly agricultural with one of the highest rates of poverty and gang violence per capita. I am also a survivor of domestic abuse.
Vocation is the call to life, the call to survive. That’s my starting place. At this moment, mi gente are working to put food on our tables, when their own families struggle to survive. They risk their lives at a time when our government has disregarded us, locked our children in cages, and continues to deny us social services and view us as less than human.
Vocation is the call to life, the call to survive. That’s my starting place.
These were realities before Covid-19 and have only heightened since. With all my heart, soul, and might, I teach that God’s call, vocation, is a call to live, to survive; honoring and recognizing that I am the product of generations of survival, generations of my ancestors loving me into being.
Your story honestly acknowledges the hard places, the grief, the lament, and the trauma of surviving conditions that were not built for your flourishing. Your life provides a counter-narrative to the stubborn Horatio Alger myth that says hard work and perseverance will suffice. Can you reflect for us on why the stories we tell matter? Why are certain stories so utterly important for us in times like these?
Authors, poets, and scholars of color have all written tons to explore the “why” of life in ways far more masterfully than I have. But our stories, the stories of people of color, for me Latines and Xicanxs, in particular, are under attack. The violence of colonization is not some practice buried in the past, but an active reality, where my people are disregarded on the border and neglected on islands. Our stories, traditions, practices, and lives matter. Because of historic marginalization, we, as scholars and people of color, are doing this work to combat erasure.
As people respond to my book, I hear them saying that this was the first book about discernment that names that surviving is sometimes enough; or that validates the experiences of the Latinx/o/a community and people of color; or gives voice to the trauma and how that shapes vocation and call; or recognizes people of color and the stories that shape us as real scholarship.
But plenty of authors of color have done this work well. Jimmy Santiago Baca, who wrote the foreword to my book, has been doing that through his poetry for decades. I have had the pleasure to work for two of the best to ever do it in Matthew Wesley Williams and Stephen Lewis.
However, these stories are not seen as central or frequently lifted up. It matters that we write so that the next generation may have the opportunity to read something from our neighborhood, from our streets, from our experiences. We labor right now in this pandemic, and yet those in power vilify us, lock our children in cages, deny us health care. To write in this moment is to claim a right to live.
That leads us into the idea of community, so central in your work. How do you define vocation in an era in which some of us practice social distancing, while others must risk their health to keep hospitals running and grocery stores stocked?
I cannot imagine discernment away from my grandma’s tortillas. Though she is in the above and beyond, I can see my children learning to love like her in the way they roll and knead the tortilla dough, when they wait patiently to flip on the comal, when they taste a shared meal, and the way they send and give our tortillas to neighbors and friends in this time of social distancing. In all of this, they are learning to do ministry as my grandma did: in the midst of deep suffering and pain, showing an abundance of love and healing.
This seems to be so profoundly important in a time of social distancing. When young people are trying to discern their next most faithful step, to know that work cannot and will not be done alone is so important. That does not mean we do not do the deep inner work that Howard Thurman so eloquently calls us to in Meditations of the Heart, or that you, Matthew, and Stephen write about in Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose. That work is still crucial. It needs to be sharpened, expanded, challenged, supported, and explored in our communities, because that is where our vocations are lived.
When we are living into our vocation, it will be in community. There is no ministry away from the community. Vocational discernment in community allows us to discern so that the textures, sounds, smells, landscapes, and tastes of our cooking capture our imagination.
I can see my children learning to love like [my grandmother] in the way they roll and knead the tortilla dough, when they wait patiently to flip on the comal, when they taste a shared meal, and the way they send and give our tortillas to neighbors and friends in this time of social distancing.
Given the strong convictions you speak of here and write about so beautifully — that we must hold one another in community, that we must remind one another of our humanity, that we must be the voice of God, calling one another to survive and calling one another to life — what practical wisdom can you offer to people now?
Slow down. Telling stories takes time. Engaging in practices to settle into our life’s many “purposes,” as Thurman would have it, requires a different pacing than what I see in the world.
People are scrambling to reach people online, to speed up their work to remain relevant in this time of responding to Covid-19. We are missing so much about what is important for life on this planet. At the time of this publication, I will have spent more than 150 hours in online meetings: the pace, speed, the challenge, has all been reactive to this moment. Of that 150 hours since March 13, 40 have been spent providing online facilitation and teaching. In every second of those 40 hours it has been my promise to slow down, to recognize the humanity in every single person, and to let them know how they are loved and called to life in this moment.
Slow down. Telling stories takes time.
There have not been dry eyes on any call as I use the practices that my grandma taught me all those years ago and that are reflected in the stories in my book. It is from her Mexican Catholic faith, rooted in a particular community. Her vocation – calling others to life – met and continues to meet the call of others just to survive, to live. Her love is reaching out to people she never knew.
That to me is an expression of vocation, not of my own but of my grandma’s, passed on for my children and their children’s children. A gift from generation to generation, to know that our breath is enough, to live is enough. To love with that breath is enough.