Edgardo Colon-Emeric

Edgardo Colón-Emeric

Duke Divinity Admissions is spotlighting faculty members in our first series: Essential Questions with Duke Divinity Faculty. As our first episode in the series, host Rev. Todd Maberry has a wide-ranging discussion with one of our core faculty members, Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric. Enjoy their conversation that covers surprise and transformation in the global church, the wounded history of our communities, longing for winter weather while living in Puerto Rico, and suggestions of beautiful places in the world you can take a long run while listening to theologians. This interview was recorded in the summer of 2020 and in separate locations due to the physical distancing required at the time.

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Rev. Todd Maberry: Welcome to the Divcast, the podcast that gives you an inside look into the Duke Divinity School community. I am Todd Maberry, your host for this episode, as well as a 2006 M.Div. grad and current senior director of admissions, recruitment, and student finance. We are launching the Divcast with the series called Essential Questions with Divinity Faculty. Our first guest is one of our core faculty members, Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric. He is the Irene and William McCutchen associate professor of Reconciliation and Theology, the director of the Center for Reconciliation, and a senior strategist with the Hispanic House of Studies. Dr. Colón-Emeric was the first Latino to be ordained as an elder in the North Carolina conference of the United Methodist Church. He is also deeply involved in training Methodist pastors in Central America in places like Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama. Please enjoy this conversation with Dr. Colón-Emeric. Dr. Colón-Emeric, I'm grateful for you taking this time to have a conversation with me. We've worked together for many years, and I know some things about you, but there are many things about your life I don't know, so I've really been looking forward to having this opportunity to ask more about you and your life. 


Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric: It's my pleasure, Todd. I also know that we've been working together for a long time at different phases in your life at Duke Divinity, and I'm glad that we can continue to work together now. 


TM: I want to start by digging into your background and acknowledging that we all need people in life to help us to get to where we are. So, I'm curious about who some of those important people are in your life. Who is the person, or who are the people most responsible for you being where you are today? 


EC-E: Yes, wow, that's a good question. It's going to sound somewhat cliché, but I must start with my wife, Cathleen, because she is the one who was Methodist before I was, and so she brought me into the Methodist church. She was also the first one to voice out loud, my call to ministry in the Methodist church. And so it was because she asked a question whether God was calling me toward a ministry that I am where I am, too, and also that she was the one who was first expressing interest in Duke University as a place where she would work on her internship and residency in internal medicine. And so really I am here because of her, which I say sounds cliché, but very, very significant, of course, in addition to being my wife and the mother of my children vocationally, she's, it's been those encounters that have also led me here. I also would have to name along the way different teachers and different voices that have been very, very important in my own coursework at Duke Divinity when I did my Master of Divinity work. Certainly, theologians like Geoffrey Wainwright and historians like David Steinmetz and Susan Keefe were very important in shaping me, but then also Willie Jennings. I took every class he taught, whether for credit or for audit, because he represented for me the kind of theologian that I aspire to be that integrated the knowledge and appreciation for Christian tradition with questions and concerns coming from marginalized communities. So, his influence also was, his voice was very important in shaping me. 


TM: That's wonderful. And many of those teachers that you named are also influential for me, as well, in my own formation. You have been a Methodist minister for many years now. I think you have a background in the church and in the faith. Have there been moments in your life where you've experienced the presence of God? 


EC-E: Oh, many times. Couldn't survive in ministry without it. One of the things I discovered early in the practice of full-time ministry was that God better be a part of this or there's no hope here. When I graduated from Duke Divinity, I was appointed to start a Hispanic ministry. And I would say that that time that I served as a pastor in the Hispanic community here in Durham has marked me vocationally, has marked my intellectual career, my research, my teaching, who I am. It was truly a transformational time for me. And it was a time when I, as I said, realized that God better be a part of this because the challenges facing my congregation, who were first-generation immigrants from Latin America, were tremendous in terms of matters regarding employment and documentation and economics and the welfare of families under so much stress that I knew that I was not sufficient for these things, and so God better be part of this picture. I would always tell my students that, my field entrants that they were going to feel overwhelmed pretty quickly, and that was a good thing, because that also meant that we needed to rely on resources that were beyond us. That even as we worked, we needed God to be a part of this, or we just needed to go do something else. 


TM: During those early days of your ministry as a pastor, do you remember any moments where God showed up? 


EC-E: Yes, I remember on one occasion, for example, having a group of guys come to my office and admit to me that challenges, saying, we use drugs and we have substance dependency problems, and we want to change. We want our lives to be changed. We want something different for us. What can we do here? And so, I saw the grace of God leading these men to want something different for life. They're awakening to the reality of their challenges and looking for hope and looking to the church and to the gospel for hope. And so, from that initial visit to my office, we started a Bible study in East Durham with these guys for some time to just read the Bible and trying to find it at life. And so there were many encounters like that of God surprising me and upending my expectations that convinced me that, yes, God is real and that God is part of this ministry, and that that's the only hope we have. 


TM: That's great. I'd like to focus now a little bit on your scholarship. You're a theologian. My understanding is that early on, your work put Wesley and Aquinas in conversation, and I think more recently, you focused a lot on Oscar Romero. If you had to explain your scholarship to a person without theological education in a couple of minutes, what would you say? 


EC-E: Well, if I were to explain my scholarship, it's that it's from the church, with the church, for the life of the world, in that I am engaging theological voices, Christian voices, Christians who have come before us, Christians who are around us, believing that God has spoken and continues to speak, and that what God has to say is good, and it's life-giving, and so that my scholarship seeks to be a scholarship that is very rooted in the church, and in my case, of course, to the Methodist church, but a Methodist church that has expressions that are global, not just United Methodist North Carolina, and a scholarship that is also in conversation with the church catholic, with other Christians around the world, and that scholarship being directed to transformation, to empowering people to discover the call of God in their lives and churches to discover, rediscover the power of the gospel to be transformative in today's world. So that it really makes a difference in that sense. But the difference is not my scholarship. The difference is the church. And so, my scholarship in that sense is trying to remind the church of the surprise of the gospel. 


TM: Has there been a specific moment when you felt alive as a teacher or a scholar, when it feels like you've gotten it right? 


EC-E: I don't know about getting it right, but about being in the right places, perhaps, I would say. And so for me, the moments when I come, when I feel like I'm the most alive, that I am where I need to be as a teacher, is when I'm with my students in a place that is seen as being on the margins, but that is actually at the center of the gospel story. And so when I am with students, and that means not being necessarily in the classroom settings at Duke Divinity, but when we actually are outside those classroom settings in, say, in Durham, when we had as part of a class that I taught a requirement that we had a Durham pilgrimage of pain and hope. And so, we're walking together, students and I am walking together, say, through Stagville, and engaging the stories of race and slavery and oppression of people of African descent in Durham. Or when I am with students from Divinity or students in the global context that I engage in, say, in Latin America, reflecting on the history, the wounded history of our communities, but also the power of the gospel to transform that history, and that I am surrounded by people who are witnesses of these things. That's when I think, okay, I'm in, I get to be a participant in what God is doing. And so that's why I say it's, for me, one of the amazing gifts of the time I had at Duke Divinity is to be brought into those places and among people who have been called by God and who are struggling to be faithful to that call in their settings, and I get to walk with them in doing so. 


TM: On the reverse side of that, we all have moments of struggle. I'm wondering if you recall any moments along your vocational path when you just wanted to quit. 


EC-E: Yes, struggle, for sure. In terms of quitting, there is a sense of, I would've quit a long time ago, but I've not been let go of. Struggle for sure in that feeling of inadequacy. As a pastor, I really felt that I was insufficient for the ministry that had been entrusted into my care because I was from a different context from my, compared to my parishioners. I'm Puerto Rican, and I'm working with people who are Mexican and Central American. Because of my privilege, educational, economic privilege, documented citizenship privilege, that separated me, and both empowered me and put me in a position where I could support and assist my congregation, but also made me separate from them. And so trying to negotiate that in a way that was faithful was very hard, and feeling that ultimately, that I was perhaps not as successful in ordained ministry and in the care for that church as I could have been had I been able to, had I done away with some of those privileges or had God sent someone else into that context who was more like the people in that context. So certainly, a sense of frustration and of failure, and some sense of failure with ministry, as well, in those regards. And then at Duke Divinity, I think that there's always the sense at Duke Divinity of wondering have I been, have I utilized the gifts and opportunities that have been given to me in the most faithful manner and avoided the temptations of careerism and resisted those as I should have. And so that's an ongoing struggle. It's not a past struggle. It's an ongoing struggle of how to serve in settings like Duke Divinity that are settings of privilege without becoming, having my vocation turn around the pursuit of career advancement. And so, I'd say, that's what I'm saying. I think it's, for me also, it's always an ongoing struggle, and beyond that, really, at rock bottom, it's a struggle to answer the question that I was asked at my ordination. Am I going on to pursue perfection and do I expect to be made perfect in love in this life? And how much progress have I really made over these many years of walking with Jesus? How much transformation has already occurred and conformity with Christ has already occurred in my life? These are ongoing questions. And the sense of wonderment at perhaps not finding myself as far along as I hoped I would have been when I was in my 20s looking to my time in ministry after Duke Divinity, graduation from the master of divinity program. 


TM: Yeah, thanks for sharing that, and I certainly resonate with a lot of what you're saying both personally and professionally. I did want to quickly dig more into that story of how you came to Duke. You mentioned your wife was influential in your life and had mentioned she was interested in coming to Duke. Is there more to the story of how you ended up here as a student? 


EC-E: Well, I'll say that when I was looking to come to the United States for college, I never looked at Duke or any place in this area because I was interested in going to universities in the North. Those were the ones that I knew about growing up in Puerto Rico, and the Ivies and those kinds of places. And, frankly, because I liked winter weather. I had had enough of; I grew up in the tropics and I wanted a change in seasons. And so that weighed significantly on me, and when I applied to college, I did not look at anything that was south of Pennsylvania. So that gives you an idea what I was hoping for. And so, Duke was not in the radar because at one level, also because of its latitude. It was too far south of, or because of weather. But that's a silly thing. But how I ended up really at Duke, as I said, was because of the convergence of calls to ministry. In my wife's case, as a physician, the selection of a place for her residency, and in my case, looking for a divinity school that would have a, that would be Methodist, because that was what I was when I heard the call to ministry, and that would also have a good program for my wife. And so that narrowed the field down significantly. And the way it works in medicine is that you first, you match to a place. You rank the places that you've interviewed at and they rank you, and then it all comes out from a computer that matches you. And so, we found out that we were coming to Duke Divinity before, sorry, to Duke University before I knew that I'd been accepted to Duke Divinity. And there was a contract, so we were coming to Durham, and I was hoping that I would be accepted at Duke Divinity. And so, I called the director of admissions, and they had some questions still that I think that were not quite so sure, but then finally it worked out, and so that we ended up here in Durham. And for me, it's again the surprise that Durham has now become my home and that I've been here now for 26 years. Not something that I had planned to or expected, but it's been a gift, and I continue to be surprised by how God continues, opens new possibilities for ministry and for growth for me wherever I find myself in different settings where I've been. 


TM: Yeah, I think you came in '94 and finished your M.Div. in '97, and then you stuck around and did a Ph.D. and finished that in 2007, I believe, and then have been a professor here now for many years, more than a decade. So, having that as a background, could you comment on some of the reasons why you've stayed at Duke, why have you stayed at Duke and in Durham? 


EC-E: Yes. Duke has formed me theologically. I studied in other institutions for other degrees, but those were not in theology. And so, Duke is my theological alma mater, and in that sense, it's been a privilege to be able to stay here. The reason we've stayed is because God has made, opened opportunities for us to stay here. I did not think it would be possible for me to stay here. I dreamed it in some ways, because it was a wonderful setting for both my wife and for me. It's where our children were born, and we were raising them. It's where we, because of my time in service in the church, my church, connections in North Carolina and the North Carolina conference are strong. And so, I get to be in my own home conference and continue to serve my church in that way. But I could not dream that we could both stay here. And it's been, it required opportunities being opened and created for both my wife and for me to remain at Duke. And now at this point, we are embedded at Duke and in Durham and in North Carolina, and so it's hard for me to imagine wanting to leave because it's home. It's become home for, again, in a surprising way has become home for us, home in terms of institutionally and our careers, our vocations. Home also in terms of family and church. So therefore, we're here. Because I wasn't looking for this to happen, but God surprised us and made it possible for us to be here. 


TM: Well, wonderful. And I'm personally thrilled that it's worked out for you to remain here as a part of this community. I have one final, bigger question to ask you. So, in addition to being a theology professor, you're also the director of our Center for Reconciliation. You're also a senior strategist for the Hispanic House of Studies. I also know that you're heavily involved in theological education in Central America. So, I'm wondering if you could offer your insights on why theological education matters for this current moment that we find ourselves in. 


EC-E: Yes. Theological education matters, I would say, because the church matters, and theological education is for the church one of the ways in which the church continues to renew its commitment to an embodying of the Gospel. Theological education, we form leaders for the church. The church needs leaders, leaders who see in the Gospel the good news of God, and that it's both good and that it's also news. So always an element of surprise, of newness. And the need for the church to be a witness to life and to justice and to reconciliation is very pressing today. The church fails at this task, has failed at times, and theological education also has that role of helping to, in that way, to reform and renew the church's theological vision, the church's gospel vision. And so, I find that that for me, the contacts with churches, say, in Central America and Latin America is always life-giving, because it shows me the stakes of what's at play here and that theological education really matters. And I see that it really matters because it matters so much to people that I interact with who are sacrificing so much in order to study theology and scripture and history and so on, because they believe that the church can really make a positive transformational impact in their communities and that the church has something to say to the economic injustices that are affecting so much of Latin America, to the situations of chronic crime and corruption affecting the life of everyone in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala. And so, for me, those contexts renew my conviction that yes, what we're doing really matters, and what we're doing is also something that really matters that no one else is going to do. Because there are other institutions that are going to be offering important guides and light for responding to the challenges of our time, lights and guides that are coming from other sciences, from other disciplines, but only in theological education do we say, yes, that's important, but we need to look at the gospel, and we need to look at how Christians have witnessed to and interpreted the gospel throughout history, and acknowledging the need always for reform, for repentance, for conversion, but also the possibility, and the certainty more than the possibility, that this is the power of God at work. And it goes back to the church, to my experience in pastoral ministry, that God better be a part of this, or then we do need to give up. But also, at the same time, the sense of, yes. None of us is sufficient for these things and that none of us is sufficient for the challenges facing the church in contact with the world. But then again, it's not just up to us. God is part of the picture. 


TM: Well, I can share with you that you and I are perfectly aligned on having that as a mission and purpose. And the reason why I do my job is I want to be a part of equipping leaders for the church, and that's the point of this podcast, as well. I'm hoping someone would hear this and be inspired by your work and your scholarship, Edgardo, and want to continue to do that work in the world. 


EC-E: Right, yeah, I hope so, too. I'd say this is very important, and that the church has a word to say today, and a word that no one else is going to say. It's been entrusted to us. And that the purpose as I see it of theological education is to help us have greater, develop better ears to hear and mouths to speak this word in today's world. 


TM: Well, I want to finish by doing something I hope is a little fun. I want to have a lightning round where I'm just going to throw some random things at you and just see how you react, and just looking for real brief one or two-word answers. The first one is would you consider yourself an early bird or night owl? 


EC-E: Early bird. 


TM: What's a book that you've read recently? 


EC-E: Oh, now, that's not a lightning round one. There's too many! 


TM: Any that you remember, any that are on your nightstand right now? 


EC-E: Okay, right now I'm looking at The English Catholic Community from 1570 to 1850. How about that? 


TM: Okay. 


EC-E: Completely random. It's just next to me right now. 


TM: Nice. Do you like pets? You consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? 


EC-E: Dog person. 


TM: What's the last movie you remember seeing? 


EC-E: Oh, well, last night I watched The Court Jester. Danny Kaye. 


TM: Okay. We've talked that your roots are in Puerto Rico. Is there something that you miss about Puerto Rico that you simply cannot get or see or find or experience here in North Carolina? 


EC-E: Oh, the island, the people, the sounds, the colors, the sun, the water, everything. 


TM: What's some recent music that you've heard? 


EC-E: Oh, here I'm going to betray my taste preferences. I just, well, The Barber of Seville. Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia. 


TM: Okay. 


EC-E: Just heard it Saturday. 


TM: I know that you enjoy running and that a favorite pastime of yours, you travel certainly to Central America and all over the world, and you like to run in those places. What's a beautiful run that you recall? 


EC-E: Oh, it's been incredible, and of course that's not happening now, but running by the Tiber River in Rome or the Moscow River, just glorious, just being out in places, these places around the world for a good long run, and while listening, here's going to be the geeky part, to some kind of theologian. So, a lot of runs, for the past couple years, I had a lot of runs with listening to Oscar Romero's homilies as I was running. So those are original broadcasts from his homilies. So, Romero and I have done a lot of running together all over the world.  


TM: That's great. Last one here. What's a simple pleasure that you love? 


EC-E: Oh, a simple pleasure that I love. Well, there's the hiking. Love going hiking, and my family does, and that's what we do for most of our vacations, they always involve some hiking. But then also the silly things of curling up with a book or watching some movie, those are all fun things. And I have to admit to that also food, wonderful food and diverse food, it's all for me a tremendous gift. And it's one of the wonderful things with travel, but also here at home where I get to have some wonderful food. 


TM: Wonderful. Well, Edgardo, once again, I'm grateful for you being on this podcast. I wanted to end by telling a story about you. Several years ago, I was a pastor at a Methodist church in Kansas City, and we developed a relationship with a church in Honduras, in a tiny little rural village out in the middle of nowhere in Honduras called El Obraje. And while we were there, we had a relationship where we would send people back and forth, and I went there with some people from the church and was able to spend time with that community and with the pastor. And somehow, I got talking with the pastor through an interpreter, and he learned that I had a Duke connection, and he asked me if I knew Dr. Colón-Emeric. I said yeah, I know him. I've worked with him and I've known him for years. And he then just proceeded to gush about how important your work was in providing him education, and I just left that feeling so blown away at the reach of Duke and incredibly proud of you that in this random village, in the middle of nowhere in Honduras, I had this profound connection with this pastor. So, thank you for the work that you do and thank you for being a part of this community. 


EC-E: No, for me, it's a gift, and this is something I wish more, and thank you for sharing that story. For me, it's an expression of what it means to be church, that we have sisters and brothers everywhere. And one of the amazing gifts that God has given to me is the opportunity to experience a little bit of that communion, of what it means to be the body of Christ in the global sense. And so, I thank you for sharing that story. We'll have to, maybe offline, I would like to hear a bit more about it. And thank you for this podcast and the work that you're doing to share with other people the vision and the mission of Duke Divinity School, a place that I'm really happy and excited to call my home, as I say, my spiritual birthplace in terms of my theological vision, and also where I hope to continue to work for many years to come. 


TM: Wonderful. Well, thanks for your time. It's been wonderful to talk to you, and I hope to be able to see you in real life at some point in the future. 


EC-E: Very good. 


TM: Thank you for spending time listening to the Divcast. Be sure to subscribe to our feed, available anywhere you find podcasts. You can send us feedback and questions by emailing divcast@div.duke.edu. Our executive producer is Morgan Hendrix. Sound design is by Brandon Holmes. Research help for this episode came from Brooklynn Reardon, M.Div. 2022. Our music is from Christian DaPonte, M.Div. 2021. We will always end the Divcast with a Div Did You Know, which is a fact or interesting aspect about Duke Divinity that you may or may not know. Did you know that the Duke Divinity School logo bears an image of a cross positioned atop a small boat, which is a nod to scriptural stories of Jesus walking on the water? You can see the logo's image engraved in stone above the Westbrook entrance. I hope you will join us again on the Divcast.