One sign of the maturity of Latin American evangelicalism is Ruth Padilla DeBorst's familiar name. The eldest daughter of eminent theologian and missiologist René Padilla is a theologian and church leader in her own right. For many years, Padilla DeBorst worked with the growing Christian student movements of Latin America under the umbrella of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES); now she is president of the Latin American Theological Fellowship (whose Spanish initials are FTL), director of IFES's Spanish-speaking publishing house Ediciones Certeza Unida, and team leader of Christian Reformed World Mission's work in El Salvador. Educated at Wheaton College's graduate school and pursuing a doctoral degree at Boston University School of Theology, Padilla DeBorst brings her cross-cultural intelligence to this year's big question:
What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world? She spoke with the Christian Vision Project's editorial director, Andy Crouch, at her eight-member family's cheerfully crowded apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Your life has unfolded through a series of moves across cultures.
I was born in Colombia to an Ecuadorian father and an American mother, but I grew up in Argentina. When I was in high school and university, Argentina was ruled by a military dictatorship and U.S. intervention in Latin America was pervasive. There was great anger among my fellow students about how American power was being used in Latin America.
But I had to wrestle with the issue because the United States wasn't simply another country—it was part of my roots, my mother's family. So before I could even begin to understand what God was doing in the world, I had to allow God to do his work inside me, reconciling the different strands of my identity.
As I worked with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Latin America, I began to recognize as brothers and sisters those in other parts of the southern cone of Latin America, then in the rest of Latin America, and ultimately in the broader picture of the international fellowship. All of that was God at work in me, planting in me his heart for the world.
Working with university students in Latin America, especially when I moved to Ecuador, also made me much more aware of the anger and frustration that goes along with poverty. We would have very bright students who had no opportunity to work in their fields [of study] and to support their families. Ecuador also has a large indigenous population, which I hadn't really encountered in Buenos Aires. My ancestors in Ecuador were among the Spanish founders of the city of Quito. My family name was engraved on the cathedral. Yet we also have indigenous blood. You look at my dad, especially, and you know there is Inca there. What should I do with all this? And how do we respect these people who have been oppressed for so long? All these became not just political questions, but intensely personal, Christian questions for me.
When Christianity came into Latin America, many of the indigenous groups simply changed the names of their gods: They gave them Christian saints' names. But they really continued worshiping their original gods. Churches were built on top of temples. Seventy-five years ago, John Mackay wrote a wonderful book, The Other Spanish Christ, which asks whether Latin America could discover the Christ who was incarnate, who walked the streets and died and rose from the dead and is powerful today. This Christ was not widely portrayed in the first evangelization of Latin America. Christ was either a helpless baby, toward whom we feel affection and compassion, or a corpse, a dead body with no power or ethical demands. This is what happens when religion is too closely linked with power: The problem is not just that religion underwrites oppression, but that the gospel itself is lost. If Christ is just a baby or a dead body, I can keep on living and not allow Christ's lordship to shed light on all dimensions of my life.