The Rev. Juan-Daniel Espitia, MDiv '96, oversees thriving Hispanic ministries at his church — a tutoring program, citizenship classes, and at one point, immigration focus groups that drew national attention.
But he refuses to stop there.
The 62-year-old Mexican American minister believes that even the most successful congregational programs fall short in the face of the current border crisis.
What’s needed, Espitia says, is a true “theology of the border.”
“The border situation, with its clash of perspectives and values, with its violence and instability, is an opportunity and a challenge for Christians in both countries to develop a response and show who we are as a people,” says Espitia, the pastor for outreach and care at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church near San Diego.
Espitia says faith communities in both the United States and Mexico are stuck in limited, local perspectives even as the crisis cries out for a binational response.
“There has to be a space where Christian leaders from both countries can work together, deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly on both sides,” he says. “And then from that approach we can work toward solutions.”
Espitia has emerged as a powerful voice on immigration within the Presbyterian Church (USA). In a reflection written for the PC (USA) website, he called for comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration policies and invoked the Bible’s “direct commandments to look after the welfare of the foreign, the marginal, the voiceless, and vulnerable in the land, moreover to love them.”
He has been working for nearly three decades to fulfill those commandments through his own brand of border ministry. At the Solana Beach church, for example, a tutoring initiative serves hundreds of schoolchildren and a citizenship program provides an array of supports and legal services for immigrant adults. In 2011, Espitia and a ministerial colleague began bringing together people from disparate backgrounds to listen to immigrant stories and share their perspectives. These immigration focus groups were widely praised and sparked a deeper involvement in immigration issues by the church. Two years later, President Barack Obama invited the congregation’s senior pastor to the White House.
Espitia’s bold ideas reflect a lifetime in ministry and social justice activism, beginning with his growing up in a family that was deeply religious and intimately attuned to the complex dynamics of the border.
His father, Silviano Espitia, worked as a farm laborer in the United States for months at a time under a guest worker program. During one of those stints, Silviano, who had grown up Catholic, was converted to evangelical Christianity by young missionaries visiting the workers’ quarters.
Silviano came back to Mexico City, rolled up his sleeves, and began establishing ministries wherever he saw the need, including in local jails.
“He once brought home four inmates who had given their lives to Christ and they lived with us for months,” says Espitia, the tenth of his parents’ 11 children. “Everyone in my family was involved in some kind of ministry, and I grew up with all of that.”
By the time Espitia arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1990s, he had decades of experience in ministry, including seven years aboard a ship that did mission work in some of the poorest areas in the world. He came to Seminary seeking the theological background and leadership training that would complement his life experience and prepare him for new ministerial roles.
One of the highlights included a course and independent study with Mark Lewis Taylor, the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, whose work has a strong social justice focus. Espitia did research on the Zapatista movement, traveling to Chiapas, Mexico, where he recorded and filmed interviews with members of the group struggling for democracy and land reform.
Espitia also learned much from James E. Loder, Jr., the renowned professor of Christian education. But Loder’s lesson turned out to be intensely personal. Shortly after Espitia arrived at Seminary, his wife filed for divorce. “That first year was the hardest, most difficult, painful and lonesome year of my life,” he says. He met several times with Loder, an ordained minister who mentored generations of students.
Espitia speaks of the encounters as if they happened yesterday. “It was one of the most healing and powerful experiences I have ever felt,” he says. “Dr. Loder only said a few words, but he prayed for me, held my hand, allowed me to express a lot of pain and confusion. He demonstrated to me the power of empathic listening.”
Espitia says his Seminary training has helped him bring spiritual depth, an understanding of complex issues, and compassion to the immigration debate.
He understands, for example, that many even in his own church may not share his views. One of hallmarks of the immigration focus groups he helped organize was promoting understanding between people of diverse backgrounds and politics.
“I meet people who sincerely want to be compassionate, but they also fear what would happen if laws are not obeyed,” he says. “It’s up to all of us to get accurate information, regardless of political affiliation, and then in a very personal way, before God, decide what is the right thing to do.”
Espitia says he will continue working toward a binational faith movement to address the border crisis. The annual Posada Without Borders that takes place at the Tijuana border crossing every December provides a powerful example of what a broader movement might look like. Faith communities from both countries gather on opposite sides of a fence, holding impromptu worship services in the open air, singing hymns, and acknowledging one another through the fence.
“The immigration issue is a challenge because it's forcing us to analyze our ways of thinking, our fears, our preconceptions,” Espitia says. “But it has the potential to transform our relationship with God, with each other, and ourselves.”