Amy Molina-Moore grew up going to church. As the daughter of an interdenominational pastor, the New Jersey–raised Latina admits having a love-hate relationship with the institution.
"I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit myself to this institution because I felt it was deeply flawed, and I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do. But I had a strong sense that I was a coward and the reason why I was so angry is because I loved the church and the potential of the church."
Five years ago, Molina-Moore decided to pursue ordination. “You’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem,” she says.
Several months ago, Molina-Moore was ordained to the
priesthood at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral and is now a priest at
Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Wilmington, Delaware. With her new post, the 31-year-old joins a special rank of Christian
Latinas who hold high positions within their respective institutions — a road not
without unique obstacles.
Historically, women’s leadership in Christianity has not been an easy road. According to Karen King, a professor of New Testament studies and the history of ancient Christianity at Harvard University in the Divinity School, every sect of ancient Christianity that advocated the legitimacy of women's leadership was eventually declared heretical. Evidence of women's early leadership roles were either erased or suppressed.
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, who in 2004 became the first Latina elected to the episcopacy of The United Methodist Church, the road to leadership hasn’t been easy.
“Racism and sexism have been major obstacles in my journey as a clergy woman, racism being even greater than sexism as I serve in a primarily White denomination in its U.S. context,” the 62-year-old writes in an email. “I have also been greatly challenged by persons who profess Christian faith but who know little about Christian faith and never study the Bible yet are the first to challenge what I teach and preach.”
"As a woman of color in leadership in the church and in the world, I would hope that having personally known discrimination and prejudice, that I am sensitive to the ways that the church and the world can be discriminatory and prejudicial and am always doing my best to bring a witness for justice and inclusion for all God’s people wherever I am serving."
Being a bishop of the church, Carcaño says, places a great deal of power in her hands.
According to Molina-Moore, there’s still a very male-dominated ethos in a lot of the churches of Latinos.
"I think Latinas have so much to offer, especially in terms of their connection to the divine and intuitiveness that people would really benefit from having that wisdom. I also think it would be very impactful for Latinas to feel empowered, to recognize those gifts as being extraordinary and valuable and feel that they’re empowered to use those gifts and to share them with everybody — male and female and everything in between."
For decades, Latinas in the U.S. have fought for space in Christian leadership. There’s the Reverend Leoncia Rosado Rousseau, who became the first Latina Pentecostal pastor in New York City after arriving from her native Puerto Rico in 1935. And Dominican-born Miguelina Howell, who earlier this year marked history after being the first Latina elected a cathedral dean in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. In the 1970s, there was Las Hermanas, a national organization established to fight the patriarchy and Eurocentrism of the U.S. Catholic Church.
Lara Medina, a professor in the Dept. of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, first heard about the organization of Chicanas and Latinas in graduate school. Las Hermanas became the subject of Medina’s dissertation, which later was published as the book Las Hermanas: Chicana/Latina Religious — Political Activism in the U.S. Catholic Church.
“They first began fighting against the racism in the Catholic Church, and then took on the issue of women’s empowerment — and that’s how they would see themselves,” Medina says. “And definitely community-based. They worked with working-class Chicano communities.”
At the time, Medina says there was a lot of discrimination towards Spanish-speaking people in the Catholic Church — it was a pattern of neglect that Las Hermanas organized to turn around.
“They held conferences for women, and these conferences would address issues that were not discussed in the church such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexuality, abortion, women’s leadership, poverty amongst Latinos,” she says. “They always connected it to their faith perspectives and they would also support Latinas who have probably never attended a conference themselves.”
“Las Hermanas proved that wrong, and they’re very much leaders and they very much challenged the hierarchy,” she says.
Since the '70s, Medina says the state of Latinas in high positions within the U.S. Catholic Church has not improved much.
"Not in the leadership, because the church is still a very patriarchal organization that does not allow women to become priests, let alone bishops of archbishops. The church is still a very patriarchal, heteronormative white-dominated hierarchy . . . the irony is that the constituency, the Catholic membership, is Latino . . . in the U.S., the Latino population is what’s helping to sustain it (the church)."
Religion has always played a major part in Nicole Garcia’s life — so much so that the 56-year-old transgender Latina is now a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
My earliest recollections are being with my mother, grandmothers, and aunts and praying the rosary. I was born on December 12, the Feast of the Virgin de Guadalupe . . . I’ve always felt my entire life that I have been protected and guided by Mary.
Garcia says Latinas seeking high positions within Christianity is extremely important.
“As we’ve looked through scripture, we see so many instances where women take a prominent position. They’ve always been leaders in the church, but unfortunately through much of the history of the church, there has been a patriarchal domination and that really has to bend,” she says. “Women have been given the power to heal, the power to reach for as long as faith has endured in Christ. I think, as women, we have to step up and take our rightful place at the pulpit, or at the altar. We are disciples of Christ.”