Finding Vocation

Vocation is a tricky business, full of surprises. The work we are called to do seldom follows a predictable playbook.

And so it is for the Rev. Carla Roland Guzmán, a 2002 ECF Fellow. “I just want to geek out in the library and write,” says Carla, but the academic career she envisioned is just one of aspect of a threefold ministry. Firmly planted in academia, certainly, as Affiliated Professor of Church History at General Theological Seminary, Carla is also a tireless advocate for Latinx and LGBTQ welcome and inclusion in the Church, work that began at college and seminary and grows from experience as a Puerto Rican and a queer woman. The third branch of Carla’s ministry is as senior pastor at St. Matthew and St. Timothy’s, a bilingual, multicultural Episcopal congregation on New York’s Upper West Side.

That makes for a rich perspective on the life of the Church, one shared in Unmasking Latinx Ministry for Episcopalians: An Anglican Approach, coming out in mid-February. Available from Church Publishing and Amazon, Unmasking Latinx Ministry brings Carla’s research and experience to bear in an analysis of the Episcopal Church’s ministry with and among Latinx persons and communities.

“The book discusses the institutional history of ministry with Spanish-speaking persons over the last 500 years,” says Carla. “It takes it back to the 16th century and discusses how we’re dragging all these dynamics with us and how racism and misogyny function in the Church.” Carla considers racism and misogyny the most significant issues in the Church today. “Initially I thought being an out person in the church would be my greatest challenge. I have since found the racism is an even bigger challenge.”

Vocation rooted in family, church and academia

Throughout Unmasking Latinx Ministry, Carla’s story is woven into the Episcopal Church’s, beginning with a family-centered childhood in Puerto Rico and Texas. “It was lovely, literally – all about family, with lots of great aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins. We were a tight family and we valued education, hard work and family.” From baptism on, the Episcopal Church has played a significant role in Carla’s life.

Participation in Cornell University’s Episcopal Chaplaincy as an Engineering undergraduate helped set Carla on the path to ordination. The Rev. Gurdon Brewster was chaplain then. “Gurdon had a gift for helping you identify your vocation. He never said, ‘let’s do some discernment,’ but made it about our own journeys,” says Carla.

The shift from Engineering to ministry doesn’t seem such a large leap to Carla, who says, “If I’d continued in engineering, I would be in an NGO, not corporate America. And my training in industrial engineering and management are helpful background for the nonprofit aspects of a parish.”

Advocacy for LGTBQ and Latinx rights

Cornell also marked the beginning of Carla’s LGBTQ rights advocacy, work that helped develop the school’s LGTB Resource Center. During seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), Carla began working on Latinx issues, as well and today serves as coordinator of Faith, Family, Equality: The Latinx Roundtable, a program of the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion (CLGS). The Latinx Roundtable works to promote understanding, acceptance and affirmation of Latinx/LGBTQ persons and their families by transforming Latinx faith communities and the wider Latinx community.

“The bottom line for me,” says Carla, “is that I don’t want to negotiate any part of myself – and I do not think anyone else should have to do that either.”

Life, work and study in Texas, California and New York

In 2001, Carla completed concurrent programs in Berkeley, California, to receive a Master of Divinity at CDSP and a Masters in Church History from the Graduate Theological Union. With fellowships from ECF and the Hispanic Theological Initiative, Carla began Ph.D. studies in Church History at the University of Texas in Austin the following year.

After completing oral exams in 2004, Carla took leave from doctoral studies for personal reasons, entering parish ministry at the Episcopal Church of St. Matthew and St. Timothy and teaching at General Theological Seminary as an adjunct professor.

When Carla was ready to resume Ph.D. studies in 2010, the Hispanic Theological Initiative stepped back in, providing mentoring support and a connection with Hartford Seminary. With the assistance of the seminary’s academic dean, Carla entered the doctoral program at Exeter University in the UK and received a Ph.D. in Theology with a focus in Church History in 2017.

Thoughts on teaching and theological education

Carla finds that academic work balances parish work. “I see that I am helping in the formation of my future colleagues. I want to make sure they get this right and that I get it right for them, because I think church history is relevant for preaching, for justice, for the future, for liturgy. It’s foundational.“

Carla wonders, though, if we in the Episcopal Church have not become a more anti-intellectual tradition than we notice or care to admit. “And if we notice that we are, would we want to do something to change that?

“When you look at seminary structures today, so much is rightly contextual and practical, but the other foundations are still needed. The challenge with theological education is that decisions made today are going to have repercussions 30 years from now, so every year we wait creates a gap. Trained and prepared clergy are able to raise vocations, and that’s important for the church’s future. I think there is room to double down on theological education. And it doesn’t need to look like it did in the past. There can be a plurality of views.”

Historically silent voices may be key to a global understanding of the Church

“What I focus on with my students and where I’m having fun,” says Carla, “is teaching them a particular critical way of reading church history. I tell them, ‘I’m not handing you a list of dates, not a chronology, but I will teach you to pick up any church history text and critically think, What are the gaps? What is useful? What is transformative? What voices are silenced and not included? How do we find them?’ It opens up a whole different way of looking at the Church. And it’s challenging to them, which is fun.

“What’s really interesting is to see students grappling in another course with theology and history and thinking about them in terms of the Anglican Communion. Anglicanism outside of the British Empire may hold the key to unburdening the current stalemate between what is encompassed in the binary of the Global North/South. We need a new way to read our history, to write our history. ”

Carla seeks those missing voices everywhere, even in the long history of St. Matthew and St. Timothy’s, which goes back to 1794. Younger generations of Germans in Zion English Lutheran Church were bilingual, and they wanted to worship in English. They were told to go to the Episcopal Church. “Even in this micro church history,” says Carla, “as a scholar I read it and think, what can we learn? what voices are not mentioned?”

A prophetic challenge

Along with the challenge to double down on theological education, Carla sees a prophetic challenge and asks, “Can the Episcopal Church open up itself to be evangelized by the other? We see in our own churches where we need to be evangelized, and if we open ourselves to God there might be a transformed future for us.”

Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, RenewalWorks and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She was Director of Communications at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” now in it's 23rd year and published by Forward Movement.