Reflections on History, Culture, and Community - Princeton Theological Seminary

The January 2023 travel course to Brazil, “Towards Understanding Other Cultures,” generated unforgettable experiences that fostered community. The problem of mutual understanding across cultures is a classic topic in anthropology, sociology, history of religions and theology. In today’s multicultural and globalizing societies this problem is not only a theoretical preoccupation but an urgent necessity. Is it at all possible to achieve such a mutual understanding? What problems do we encounter in intercultural relations in spite of any claims or notions of a common humanity? This course intended to offer theoretical, historical, methodological and empirical insights to the matter of whether, why, and how we can understand other cultures. This travel course involved a 2-week trip to Brazil, combining visits to select cultural, religious, and natural sites, pre-arranged lectures and meetings in host institutions.

In their reflections, students speak of their travels and their new perspectives on culture and their calling.

Andy Hall visiting Brazil

If I had to summarize my time in Brazil in one sentence, it would be a quip from an Anglican priest we met at the Cathedral of the Good Samaritan in Recife. He told us, “There are many Jesuses here in Brazil.”

We saw a colonial Jesus in the paintings at the Franciscan monastery in Salvador. We saw a gun-toting Jesus rolling with the Evangelical drug lords, whom we heard about at the ISER think tank. We saw the Jesus of slaveholders, whose chapel sat beside the plantation’s casa grande. We saw a crusading Jesus vandalizing Candomblé terreiros, a nationalist Jesus being invoked by insurrectionists in Brasilia, and a queerphobic Jesus trying to legislate away identity.

And yet, I am also a witness to another Jesus in Brazil. I saw the Jesus of the margins, the Jesus of the quilombos, the Jesus of domestic violence survivors, the Jesus of liberation, the Jesus of la quotidiana, the Black and indigenous and woman and queer Jesus.

This Jesus is never front-page news. But this Jesus is alive. And, for those who can find her, this small gate and narrow road still lead to life (Matthew 7:13-14).

Andy Hall, MDiv candidate

Shaina Ciaccio visiting Brazil

I’ve heard it said before that the pastor preaches to themselves as much as they preach to others. When God lays a message on the heart of the pastor, sometimes it is as needed and convicting for the pastor to hear as it is for the congregation.

In the late evenings, I would wander up to the airy balcony of our hotel in Recife, Brazil, listening to the ocean with the breeze ruffling my journal pages.

What do you want me to say Lord? What is the message for your people?

The words, flowing onto the pages, told me of the moment the people had been so angry at Jesus after he read from the Temple Scroll in Luke 4. They had been so full of rage. Now I knew that they had also been afraid. They didn’t know if there was enough room for them to also receive Jesus if He went to other places outside of their congregation. Jesus worked and continues to work in the places I will never experience and in the people I may never meet. The message that came forth was not just for the people, but had also been for me.

Do not be afraid to leave your people and come to other places to look for Me. Do not be afraid to discover Me in the secular, in the religious, in the ecumenical, and in the mundane. Do not be afraid to see where I am at work outside of your religion and your theology. Leave your home and take nothing, not even the fear with you. Go out into the villages, and when you search for Me with all your heart, there you will find Me.

Jesus had always been there. It had been me who needed to open my eyes.

Shaina Ciaccio, MDiv candidate

Angel Nalubega visiting Brazil

There is a palpable warmth to Brazil that breaks boundaries.

That warmth especially came through in the worship services we took part in. Pastor Paolo’s church in Recife felt like what church should always feel like – open, loving, boldly proclaiming the gospel message amidst the reality of people’s lives. Church felt dynamic and alive, yet you could also see the deep divisions present.

The Brazilian church is explicitly political. In the US I think the church often pretends to be neutral, but in Brazil, there is an ongoing battle for the church and its legacy. There is an active fight for what it means to be Christian, and for what it means to practice African religions. It’s about life and death, especially for poor, black, indigenous, and marginalized peoples. Visiting Adonai Baptist Church in Salvador had a deep impact on me. Speaking with Pastor Israel, it was clear that this small church on the margins was putting liberation theology into practice no matter the consequences. Pastor Israel and Pastor Paolo embody a kind of inclusive orthodoxy that I think places like PTS should model. The Christian faith can still have Jesus at the center while making room for inclusion and diversity.

This trip has taught me that there are churches and collectives outside the mainstream church that are pushing for progressive imaginations. To be evangelical in Brazil is to refuse to have neo-Pentecostals or conservatives have the last word. They don’t get the power to define all of Christianity. The churches we visited left me with the renewed hope that the Church will be renewed not by power, but by the liberating work of the spirit.

Angel Nalubega, MDiv candidate

Priya Sridhar visiting Brazil

Our visit to the Paulo Freire Institute is one I will continue to return to, particularly in my future seminary studies and vocational aspirations. I often feel unfulfilled by pedagogical models which do not move beyond critical thinking, since the place my convictions and actions come alive is through a [Freiren] critical consciousness of the communities around me. Critical consciousness challenges us to consider the narratives we see or have inherited through multiple perspectives. The structure of our Brazil course itself was an expression of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, through embodied experiences of the contradictions and oppressive elements within Christianity in Brazil and the ways these religious narratives have manipulated social media and politics. I left this trip feeling energized by this new consciousness to consistently interrogate whether my theology is being realized in tolerant and inclusive service to others. Critical consciousness demands that while we are here in the process of education, we push beyond the comforts of our classrooms to observe and minister to our broader multicultural and multifaith contexts.

Priya Sridhar, MDiv candidate

Brazilian wood carvings

I believe to be Christian in a pluralistic society is deeper than simply tolerance. It is a recognition that the desire to belong is a powerful force, one that can work towards a create-ive humanity where church becomes both catalyst and vessel for building relationships that are full of authentic individual and collective expression. And yet the desire to belong also has the tragic power to also exclude, to hate, and to marginalize, as we saw repeatedly, and confront in our own ministries. At the heart of religious tolerance, in conjunction with a fullness of humanity, is an openness to see the possibility of sacredness outside of one’s tradition, a sanctity that exists in life not solely because of our own individual religions but often, despite them. As baskets of bread were being brought up the aisle at an Afro Brazilian mass in Salvador, the liturgy as a whole radiated beauty and life. For me, witnessing the women bringing up the bread (and then breaking it to be shared) held deep sacredness and was an invitation into both community and communion.

Nina Laubach , MDiv candidate

Audrey Thorne in Brazil

January 8th, January 15th, and January 17th set a longing in my spirit I didn’t know was there. On these days we worshipped. Two baptist churches and a catholic mass. I don’t know the last time I worshipped like this. I’m presbyterian. We don’t dance or even lift our hands very often. Worship has rarely been a site of joy or an experience of exuberance for me. My tradition tends to be wary of exuberance. We value decency and orderliness. But I left each of these services telling my classmates that I had never had so much fun in worship. I told a few of them I was ready to become a baptist, and then that I would convert to catholicism if this is what mass was like.

It’s not really that I want to be either of these things, but I saw in these services what my spirit lacks and what my tradition seems unable to provide: an experience of worship that is overwhelming joy. An experience of worship in which my body is engaged, alive, and important. An experience of worship where musicality and movement are embedded in the liturgy. This is of course the gift of the afro-Brazilian spirit of these services. And this is not my heritage to claim for my mostly white, American worshipping community. But I’m left wondering if worship can be a site of joy in my community? Can we survive if it isn’t? Can our movements of resistance, liberation, and justice sustain without the presence of this invigorating Spirit?

Audrey Thorne, MDiv candidate

Brazil Cathedral interior

At every religious space we visited, and every service we attended, I felt my perspectives and relationships with Christianity shifting. I have begun to feel more inspired by the creativity and flexibility churches can embody in any denomination, and how I can be a part of that shift in the states. It was an honor to witness the work being done against religious intolerance and toward interfaith reconciliation. This was exemplified in a Blessed Tuesday evening service we attended at Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos. This Catholic Church is primarily influenced by Afro-Brazilian culture. The sanctuary is covered in Afro-Brazilian iconography, and the service utilizes Candomblé and regional Bahia music. In attendance at this service were Candomblé religious leaders, Baptist leaders, Franciscan monks, etc. We danced together and watched women dance down the aisle carrying endless baskets of bread. After communion, the bread was blessed and dispersed amongst the crowds. I was struck by how this action served as an ecumenical, interfaith compliment to a closed-table communion.

This interplay between tradition and radical inclusivity was thematic to our time in Brazil. Tradition was widened to concern the lives and dignity of the impoverished. It was widened towards the acceptance and inclusion of women and Queer people. It was widened toward the veneration and raising up of those formerly enslaved Afro-Brazilians, and widened to include the rich culture of Brazil in a rejection of colonial Catholicism. This trip was life-changing as I continue to work in traditions that need to be stretched in the name of Jesus, and as I study traditions that exist in these subversive spaces as well.

Kelsey Martin, MDiv candidate

Brazilian Marketplace

Earlier this month, I had the blessing to go to Brazil for the J-term travel course, and it is an understatement to say that the things I experienced as a Woman of Color changed me. And out of all the lessons we learned, I realized that all the theologizing and all the book reading in the world is futile if we put the books away; nothing in us changes. In Brazil, we had a woman speaker who said, “academia is important, but the moment it stops me from being able to speak to the least of these, it becomes useless.” After our Brazil trip, there is no doubt that if our hermenéutics are still serving to silence women, then theologizing means nothing.. If our churches only invite but do not have welcoming structures for Black and Brown people, then theologizing means nothing. If our churches and we are still silent about the world’s injustices, then theologizing means nothing. But most importantly, if we push away those who Christ would have held closest, then theologizing certainly means nothing.

Amanda Calderon, MDiv ’23