Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Story About All of Us...

Steve Blow, columnist for the Dallas Morning News has an interesting article that further interested me in a story that had appeared in the paper several days ago. 

A Hispanic pastor Rev. Julius Ruiz of a mission church in Frisco, Texas, was fired from his congregation by the mother church First Baptist Church of Frisco. But, the pastor's congregation, loyal to the leadership he has provided has followed their pastor. It is a heartbreaking and inspirational story about a people who have determined to be in charge of their own destiny, even if it means rejecting the resources of their sponsors. 

"In Frisco, a Baptist church sits mostly empty while the congregation that once filled its pews holds services on the sidewalk across the street."
"The church doors have been open the past two weeks. But members of Primera Iglesia Bautista de Frisco have refused to enter without their pastor, who’s been banned from the building."
"The Rev. Julius Ruiz was fired last month by the First Baptist Church of Frisco, which holds title to the Hispanic mission’s building at Fifth and Ash streets near downtown."
"For nearly a dozen years, Ruiz and his wife, Ivette, also an ordained pastor, have counseled and cared for the congregation of about 10 families. Primera Iglesia’s members speak primarily Spanish. Most are poor even though they have full-time jobs. They have little formal education. But they take pride in their church and its focus on giving."
"Primera Iglesia members say they’ve legally incorporated and are ready to go out on their own — with their pastor at the helm. About 50 people have signed a petition declaring their unconditional support of Ruiz and refusal to accept intervention from First Baptist Church."
"First Baptist officials say the issue is a confidential personnel matter and decline to go into details."
""Ruiz, who described the situation as “ungodly,” said bricks and mortar do not make a church.""
"“The church is us, the people,” Ruiz, 57, said during Sunday’s services over the noise from passing vehicles and a neighbor’s weed trimmer. “The Lord is with us wherever we go.”"
I'd probably wouldn't have paid that much attention to the story, had it been reminiscent of a similar story I know of years ago with a colleague of mine, a black pastor and church, in south Dallas.

Blow's column, however, speaks volumes about attitudes we have towards others. Stereotypes which overtly or inadvertently, probably play more into this disagreement than even leaders of Frisco's First Baptist Church realize...

"Awhile back, I was invited to a dinner honoring the senior members of Frisco First Baptist. The church staff served as waiters that evening."
"When Ruiz stopped by our table, tea pitcher in hand, the older folks all greeted him warmly. When he left, they told me what a great guy he was, how he preached at their Spanish church and was also in charge of cleaning all church facilities."
"“Where is he from?” I asked. And the table fell silent. “Well, uh, Mexico, I guess,” someone ventured. People looked at each other around the table. No one really knew. “Yeah, Mexico,” they agreed."
"When Ruiz came by our table a few minutes later, someone asked, “Hey, Julius, where did you grow up?”"
"“Bolivia,” he replied, creating puzzled looks all around. “And then Venezuela. But I was born in Marseille — in France. And served in the French Foreign Legion in Africa.”"
"Well, the church folks had their mouths hanging open by this point. Ruiz had been on the church staff for years, and they all just thought of him as the nice Mexican who cleaned and preached."
"I visited with Ruiz and his wife, Ivette, this week. They laughed knowingly when I told them that story. They understand stereotypes. “Brown skin and a Spanish accent — everyone here just assumes you are Mexican,” Ruiz said."
"“I just say ‘Orale, orale, sure, I’m from Mexico,’” Ivette said with a laugh, using Mexican slang. She’s Bolivian. “The funny thing is,” she added, pointing to her husband of 37 years, “he has never even been to Mexico.”"
As I read Steve's column, I wondered whether or not church leadership would have treated Rev. Ruiz with more respect had they realized his diverse and distinguished background. Would he have been only a member of the wait staff and cleaning crew (positions with the church from which he has also been fired), or would he be a member of the pastoral staff? Would they be touting his leadership as a significant part of their mission of reconciliation and outreach, and saying that they seek to provide the best pastors to their mission ventures? Or in their minds, have they seen the Bolivian cleric as 'just a Mexican'. And even if they think he is 'just a Mexican', why should that make a difference. 
Now let me say, I have no idea if the church's leadership knows any of this and if there are extenuating circumstances that go beyond the articles. 
I do, however, know church. And I know, that under normal circumstances, Ruiz, with his background and his commitment to his calling and his people, would be receive a significant amount of respect. 
At the same time, I can't cast stones - at least not huge ones - at First Baptist leaders. I recently recognized stereotypical behavior, equally, if not more stupid in myself. 
Recently while taking a break on our office floor's patio, I encountered one of the tenant's in our building out there. I spoke to him and made a couple of comments about the nice weather. I've seen him around enough to realize he doesn't speak much, if any English. When I went back inside, I realized that I had done something really silly - in exchanging pleasantries with the man, I raised my voice as if he was hard of hearing, or somehow less intelligent!
Isn't it interesting. As much as I might criticize the First Baptist of Frisco, for being unceremonious and patronizing to the pastor of their mission congregation, I was unconsciously doing the same thing pretty much the same thing. 
Does it mean we ought to cut one another some slack? Realize we all 'mean well'?
Uh, no...
It means that we ought to go out of our way to treat one another with more respect and with more dignity. There may be more to us than our lapses in courtesy, kindness and respect - but there's more to those whom we lightly regard too!

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