Doris García Rivera saw just about everything during 23 years as an American Baptist missionary serving in Latin America.
And it’s a good thing, because she arrived at the helm of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America just in time to guide it through the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive social unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Those dual forces prevented the BPFNA membership from holding its annual summer conference in person this month and inspired it to examine its role in the fight against racial injustice.
“The coronavirus has closed some spaces, but it is opening new avenues for training, new avenues to do ministry and being able to share that with a whole new constituency,” said García Rivera, who began a two-year term in October as interim executive director of the organization.
While the Fellowship long has supported racial justice, García Rivera said it is considering ways to become an “anti-racism organization,” a commitment already evident in its online declaration of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
A native of Puerto Rico, García Rivera has served in a variety of capacities as a missionary, including launching two theological schools and working in fundraising, proposal development and as the former president of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. She spoke with Baptist News Global about her career and what it’s like to run a peace organization in times that are anything but.
What calling did you sense to ministry?
The call for me was to become a missionary. I followed this by working with International Ministries with American Baptist Churches for 23 years. And because there were other needs in the communities where I served, I also worked in development with a women’s group. I worked with local leaders. I worked in education and in organizing people. It was advocacy. It was a rainbow of many tasks that I did as a missionary.
Where have you served as a missionary?
I served five years in Costa Rica and 17 years in Mexico. I was in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. And I was also in Chiapas along the southern border with Guatemala.
How has the Fellowship been impacted by the pandemic so far?
It’s been good and bad. The main event for BPFNA is our summer conference where up to 400 people come together. This has been our key space, historically. And this is also the space where the older membership can meet the younger members. It’s a space that is very rich in relationship. And this year we cannot do this because of the coronavirus.
What positives have come from that situation so far?
It has opened the door for us to become involved in virtual spaces, and we are organizing several regional conferences to take place in Canada, Mexico, the United States and Puerto Rico. But now we are seeing interest from people who want to participate from countries like Colombia and Chile. So, these regional, virtual conferences are becoming more global in reach. …
We are moving as an organization from this physical space, that has been very rich, to a new space and we are looking for a new way of forming relationships and networking and trying to make this as personal as possible.
How is the movement for racial justice inspiring the organization?
The Black Lives Matter movement calls us as an organization to continue working on racism, but we also recognize that we are not there yet. …
We have been committed to working on an anti-racist agenda since before the pandemic, but the virus interrupted that work for a time. But we are taking that back up again as many members of our organization have been asking: “What are we going to do? How do we work this?”
Was there not a position previously?
BPFNA has traditionally been a training resource on anti-racism. But the situation we are now in is also calling us as an organization to look at our inner way of being, recognizing our own sinful behavior with racism and to move beyond that.
Why has the death of George Floyd led to so much pain and distress?
It’s because every human is made in the image of God. Because of that, every human being needs to be respected. And when you attack a person, you diminish the value of that person. And we believe the murder of George Floyd was shocking to people for this reason. That murder became an icon of the historical injustices and systemic racism that have been affecting black people, brown people, people of color for hundreds of years.
The Black Lives Matter effort seeks peace with justice. Is that what “Peace” means in your organization’s name?
Exactly. Peace needs to be accompanied by justice. Justice with trust. It is founded in community. We don’t live alone. We live in relationship. And if this relationship is not just, and we do not have peace for our hearts, our minds and bodies, then it is not a peace we want to work toward. We support peace with justice and trust. That’s it.
Can this moment lead to long-term change?
I think we are in a moment, historically speaking, when you realize that social movements arise when there are conditions for them. One action may trigger the movement, but that happens when there have been many different events impacting people for a long time. The murder of George Floyd was the trigger, and we have come to a place where were ready to say, “Enough.”
I think this is also a way of the Spirit calling us to do what needs to be done to come closer to the kingdom, to come closer to a society that sees every single person as worthwhile because every single one of us is made in the image of God. And that’s sacred.
There is a lot of fear, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know we need to start dialoguing and maybe the next generation will be able to bring about systemic change.
Have you seen similar periods of unrest in the nations where you served as a missionary?
I have seen some of the movements among indigenous people after activists have been murdered in Mexico and Colombia. Like George Floyd, there was a human rights activist in Mexico murdered by the government and associated mercenaries.
But this didn’t become a global thing. I think that nowadays we have that reaction because we are so interconnected that we immediately receive the videos and tweets and we react immediately, and it helps organize local responses.
What other concerns is the Fellowship focused on?
We are trying to care for the people who are providing spiritual care for others in this pandemic. We are focused on keeping peace by caring for the emotional wellbeing of those suffering and struggling at this moment.
Also, we are reaching out to partner churches to see how they are doing. And we are using our website and newsletter to share resources for coping with the coronavirus and struggling through this extraordinary moment of unrest.
How does your experience as a missionary help you in guiding the organization through times like these?
As a missionary, I learned that you do not come with a plan. You talk with the people and develop a plan with the people because God is working in the midst of those who are there.
So, we are restarting our dialogue and we are reaching out to the membership to discern what we want to do, and how we want to move. We know we want to work the anti-racist agenda.
At this point we are going back and reviewing the strategic plan by taking seriously our context and the context of the partner churches. There have been so many changes within Baptist denominations. And we have partner churches who are Presbyterian and Lutheran; how do we serve them in their context? …
And then there is just knowing everything is in the Lord’s hands.