What I Did for Summer Vacation–Dissertation Work!

Over the past three years, I have been part of an eleven-person global cohort from Kenya, Nigeria, Greece, India, France, Korea, China, and the US. Together we are discovering how to further the Kingdom of God around the world through our individual research projects. We meet annually at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA, and are always amazed at what we learn from each other.

This summer I am faced with the daunting task of writing the rough draft of my doctoral dissertation on the results of my research project. After discussing it with Missions Pastor, Rich Leatherberry, and with the support of my amazing Missions+Serve Team, I scheduled an unpaid leave for July 5th– Aug 21st to focus on accomplishing this huge task. Halfway through this leave, I thought it would be a good time to share with everyone my research project.

My research project is the result of my long-term interest and work in walking alongside young Latinas in urban poverty contexts. These Latinas acquire significant strengths in survival and leadership skills; they have powerful hopes and dreams for a better life for themselves and their children. However, many have suffered abuse and abandonment and are on the margins in life experience and behavior. These wounds rob them of the ability to envision themselves as uniquely created by God, and as women of value with gifts and leadership skills that are essential for their personal lives, their communities, the church, and the greater missio Dei. Through many years of working in medical education and ministry with Latinas in urban poverty, I came to see Christian mentoring as a powerful tool in the work of bringing healing and restoration to Latinas struggling to find their way in a majority culture.

In my study, I address how urban poverty has marred Latinas’ identity, their understanding of being created in the image of God, and their value within the Kingdom of God. The study also looks at Christian women who desire to walk alongside Latinas in urban poverty through mentoring relationships. I found that mentors discover their own stories of marred identity and develop in their understanding of being created in the image of God and their own role.

What is “marred identity”? Jayakumar Christian, PhD, is the National Director and CEO of World Vision India. In God of the Empty-Handed: Poverty, Power and the Kingdom of God, Christian writes, “Poverty mars the identity of the poor and hurts the soul of all” (Christian 1999, 139). Marred identity is not simply defined by, or the result of low income, lack of access to resources or inability to succeed in mainstream society. Rather it is a pervasive and all-inclusive robbing of the poor’s identity as created by God, in God’s image, with “intrinsic dignity and worth, a worth which belongs to all human beings” (Christian 1999, 67). Marring of the poor’s identity sets the groundwork for further exploitation through objectifying the poor and legitimizing using the poor to serve the structures of the powerful.

In my research, I have witnessed the formidable influence urban poverty holds in numerous aspects of Latinas’ lives and the results of such influence. Many of the Latinas I worked with did not believe that they were capable of breaking out of the cycle of poverty in which they lived. This belief impacted their present and their future; rather than act with a vision of the future, their decisions were frequently made with the immediacy of the present in mind.

Additionally, fundamental issues of shame and lack of self-confidence, brokenness of families, and broken systems of support appeared to overlay every aspect of their lives. Many Latinas experienced deep-seated prejudice and judgment of their ethnicity and poverty status. They also struggled to navigate generational differences and expectations of their “home” culture with the majority culture in which they now lived. All this interwove to create a profound sense of hopelessness in being able to recover from a marred identity and to break out of the cycle of urban poverty.

What became evident in this research was the importance of listening to Latinas’ stories of their experiences. Sharing with Christian mentors brought dignity to Latinas along with an understanding that, at the heart, marred identity is a spiritual issue. Christian mentoring became the avenue for Latinas to discover their inherent value as created in the image of God. Recovering from a marred identity enabled them to envision a good future for themselves and their children. This vision then led Latinas to begin breaking free from the constraints of urban poverty as they made daily positive choices with the future in mind.

Latinas in urban poverty and their Christian mentors are integral to God’s mission and to furthering the Kingdom of God. As well, the church benefits and grows when it reaches out to those in urban poverty by intentionally learning about their experiences and where God is at work in urban poverty contexts. I am so grateful for all the encouragement I have received from the BelPres staff and congregation to pursue this important work! I am excited to share with you how the stories of Latinas and of Christian mentors interweave to bring healing and restoration, furthering God’s Kingdom on earth.