Kat Armas Talks ‘Abuelita Faith’ and Women Birthing a Theology of Resistance and Survival

Kat Armas Abuelita
(Photo: Permission of Kat Armas)

Kat Armas is a Cuban American writer and speaker with a Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Armas’s work has been published by Sojourners, Missio Alliance, and Christianity Today, among others. She recently authored Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength.

In Abuelita Faith, “Armas shows us how voices on the margins — those often dismissed, isolated, and oppressed because of their gender, socioeconomic status, or lack of education — have more to teach us about following God than we realize.”

Faithfully Magazine speaks with Armas about themes in Abuelita Faith in the following Q&A. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and the work you do?

I’m Cuban American. I’m from Miami. I was raised Roman Catholic and then I sort of switched over to or, you know, was introduced to White Evangelicalism. As you can read in my book, I sort of dissect my experiences in contrast to my upbringing. I have an MAT and an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary, and that’s really where all of this sort of began, this work. It was my wrestling with “formal” theology and also with my upbringing, which felt very informal, but was still just as deeply formative for me. And that’s currently where I speak from and my background, you know, my social location.

It’s very clear from your book that your upbringing has impacted your spiritual and theological formation. Can you talk about your experience as a second-generation Cuban American and how your identity has shaped who you are as a Christian? Can you also talk about why and how other Christians of color can be shaped by their identity and background?

Being Cuban American I think is the primary aspect of my identity from which I understand the world and also from which I understand faith. And that was actually something that came about as I was, like I said, wrestling through seminary, so much of what I was learning from, or, you know, so much of how I was introduced to theology, spoke about my culture, or Latinx culture, or really any non-White culture, as a sort of “contextual theology,” right? It was like a lecture in a classroom or it was just something on the side that we spoke about.

I speak about this in my book, but I was in a Women in Church History class, and I had learned about all these incredible women throughout history, but most of them were European women, because that was just sort of a focus when it comes to church history. So for my final paper, I was like, “Well, what about Cuban women? What have they done? What happened in Cuba when it comes to religion?” And of course, I had been introduced to that here and there, but I wanted to really look at it from a church history perspective. And that’s when I realized, wow, there’s so much here. I was obviously studying mujerista theology, which is liberation theology from a Latinx women’s perspective, and I’m realizing like, wait, this should be something that we all learn about, that we all glean from, not just a lecture in a classroom, right? And that goes for all cultural groups and all of us who are from non-White or non dominant culture. Our stories deserve a place just like the rest of the stories that we hear.

And so, for me, just really digging deep into the history of my people, it wasn’t pretty. I was really excited at first to see how Christianity intersected with Cuba. But of course, you know, the history of colonization and all those things. I went in there very naively, and I obviously knew that history of colonization, but I think it really felt very personal for me, particularly as a woman, and particularly as a Cuban woman.

For other folks with varying cultural backgrounds, I think it’s very important to get deep into the nuances of your people. I know that in many ways, whether it’s Asian American people groups, or whether it’s Latinx people groups, we sort of get lumped into these monolithic categories. But there’s something unique about Cuban people, right? There’s something unique about your particular group of people, and I think just getting more nuanced, there’s just so much there. Even in progressive spaces, we want to talk about the “Latino vote,” or the “Black vote,” and that does nothing for us because there’s so many nuances within that. And so, I would say, just get as nuanced as you can, because there’s so many details that we miss when we look at our people as a monolith.

Can you tell us what you mean by the idea of abuelita theology? How did you first begin thinking in terms of abuelita theology?

...there's not one abuelita theology, but there are several abuelita theologies, because I believe it's very personal. It's birthed through the women, our ancestors who have gone before us, and that's going to look very different for every person. Click to Tweet

I like to say that there’s not one abuelita theology, but there are several abuelita theologies, because I believe it’s very personal. It’s birthed through the women, our ancestors who have gone before us, and that’s going to look very different for every person. Sometimes people may not know their biological grandmother, or people like that in their families. And so, who are your spiritual grandmothers? Whose shoulders do you stand on? And of course, it’s particularly focused on women and women of color.

So, one big thing for me when it comes to abuelita theology is just this idea of survival. When I investigate the stories in Scripture, I want to look at so many of these women in the Bible, and so many women throughout history, and so many of our grandmothers and our ancestors – they were just trying to survive, right? We look at the story of Ruth and Naomi, and that story is so romanticized, but in many ways, they were just trying to secure their future. Naomi was like, “Hey, Ruth, go over there, do this, because you need to remarry because we need to eat tomorrow.” I’m just sort of investigating this idea of survival, and looking at survival as a holy endeavor. Survival in and of itself is sacred. And we see that because God blesses so much of these stories that for us may be kind of scandalous, right? The story of Tamar, who dresses up as a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law. And we kind of say that story in passing, but if you really look at it, Tamar is in the genealogy of Jesus. She’s called righteous for what she did. It’s just this idea that survival is sacred and survival is holy.

So that’s what I would say part of what I understand abuelita theology to be. It’s a theology of survival, strength, resistance, persistence, like my book title says, because so many of these women just persist and they resist. They do what’s best for themselves, their communities, and in response to their God, which I think is just so beautiful. And it’s not just biblical women, but it’s the story of my grandmother. And it’s the story of so many of our grandmothers, particularly those of us who are people of color with grandparents who immigrated or have had to undergo and live through so many different life circumstances. So yeah, that’s a little bit of what abuelita theology is.

Abuelita Faith Book by Kat ArmasWhat inspired you to write this book? Are there specific authors or figures that encouraged you as you wrote the book?

Mujerista theology was very inspirational for me. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the mother of all mujerista theology, was a Cuban theologian who was very influential for me. [I mentioned the story of Ruth and Naomi] and I remember reading it through the lens of mujerista theology, and I’m thinking about my grandmother. I’m reading the story of Ruth and Naomi, and I’m thinking, “This is my grandmother’s story.” She just had to figure it out, and her husband died, and there were so many similarities.

Then I’m reading through church history and there’s so many women, so many things that women did, you know, throughout history, like I mentioned earlier, the Cuban women during the revolution. They were instrumental behind the scenes against the right wing dictator before Castro, they were instrumental in getting him out of there. And many of them were housewives, and many of them were Christians, and they used church as a place to organize and start these movements. And the same is true for the Civil Rights Movement. I’m reading the story of Jo Ann Robinson and how essentially, it was her who started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is sort of the catalyst, the big movement of the Civil Rights Movement.

These women are “poor” and “uneducated,” but they're theologians, and they're theologizing. And they're resisting, and they're persisting. Click to Tweet

But these are not the stories that we often hear. We hear, of course, MLK, Jr. – and as we should! – but we don’t hear as much about the Jo Ann Robinsons, and we don’t hear as much about the underground Cuban women who did so much for the movement before the revolution, and we don’t hear so much about the Rizpahs in Scripture, who protested at her son’s grave, at her son’s unjust murder, which brought rain and got the attention of the king. We love the stories of the David and Goliath, but not so much the stories of the Rizpahs. And so that was something very important for me to highlight in this book, and something that I’ve thought, man, there’s a lot here. And it starts with just our “informal,” “uneducated,” “poor” in many ways, grandmothers. And again, “grandmothers” is a very broad term including spiritual grandmothers. These women are “poor” and “uneducated,” but they’re theologians, and they’re theologizing. And they’re resisting, and they’re persisting. I think of the Canaanite mother who goes up to Jesus and she says the most theologically explosive statement that no one else had understood: “You are the Son of God.” No one else had said anything like that. How is this woman who is triply marginalized, who no one would consider a theologian, theologizing this way, right?

An integral part of abuelita theology is recognizing the damaging impacts of colonialism and seeking to decolonize one’s theology. Can you explain why this is so important, to recognize the impact of colonialism, and can you provide contemporary examples where it’s still going on today in terms of theology and spiritual formation?

To answer the last part of your question, I think that kind of goes back to this idea of “What’s ‘dominant culture?’” “What’s ‘normalized?’” “What’s ‘contextual?’” and “What’s on the side?” That is a byproduct of colonialism, that anything that is not Western European is not dominant and is just an extra little thing that you can learn on the side. A huge part of my book is explaining what I mean by “decolonizing. our faith” and also just “colonialism” in general.

I want to start by saying that Western ways of being are not necessarily bad or wrong; they just have been for so long the way, the world order of how we are to understand or know things. I talk a lot about knowledge in the beginning of my book, and what is knowledge and who gets to say what knowledge is. And so I look at colonialism from that aspect, through this idea of knowledge. Who is “wise?” What is “wisdom?” Are our grandmothers and those who are not Western educated, not knowledgeable? Or what do they know? Are they able to articulate their own thoughts about God?

I think that what colonialism has done is ripped so many of our “poor,” “uneducated” ancestors and grandmothers and all of those people from agency, because their knowledge is not “Western” and it's not formulated by “Western ideals.” Click to Tweet

I think that what colonialism has done is ripped so many of our “poor,” “uneducated” ancestors and grandmothers and all of those people from agency, because their knowledge is not “Western” and it’s not formulated by “Western ideals.” So that’s why I like to look at theology from non-Western ways of looking at theology. I argue that theology is sewing and theology is dancing, because for so long, that was a form of connecting with the divine that was a spiritual thing. And we see this in the Bible, right? I mean, that’s why I bring up Tabitha’s story or Miriam and how she led her people in dance as a form of worship, and all these ways that are not “Western” ways of knowing about God or “spiritualizing,” or whatever you want to call it. So that’s the angle that I take when it comes to colonization and the effects of colonization, and in how we view people on the margins.

What happens to our theology when we do not learn from women on the margins? How do you see signs of this today?

We’re missing the bulk of it. So many of the stories in the Bible are stories of marginalized people. When we nowadays refuse to learn from women on the margins, women of color, there’s a whole aspect of God that we are missing. As I argue in my book, women carry the sacred wisdom within their bodies. Women bring life and give forth to life, and there’s just so many things that we can glean from women who are surviving: ingenuity, creativity, and so many beautiful and hard things. They tell us so much and give us such a full picture of who God is. I like to say that the image of God is not just individual but collective. When all people are not just represented but are speaking into who God is, or articulating or theologizing, that’s when we get a full picture of the image of God. We each individually represent God, but I think also collectively as our own people groups, genders, and all those things.

We get a fuller picture of who God is and know God more intimately and know different aspects of God and how theology is embodied, how we do theology with our hands… all these things we wouldn’t learn if we’re not learning from people, particularly women on the margins.

How can Christians, especially in the U.S., begin to practically center women of color, women on the margins in their theological and spiritual formation?

I would say learn from your grandmothers. Learn from your ancestors. Get to know who your ancestors are, like, what group of people do you come from? In what ways did they connect with the divine? Of course, as Christians, many people are afraid of “Oh, but it wasn’t Christian,” but if we believe that God is in everything, and we believe all those things about God, then there’s stuff that we can learn from all people. It might not be exactly our Christian belief, but we can still learn from people. We can still learn from the ways that people connected spiritually.

Part of my ancestry are the Taino people from Cuba, the indigenous people there. As I was doing research on the Taino people, there were so many beautiful lessons to learn and so many beautiful things to glean from. One sort of just funny thing – when I was little, my grandma and I used to always find little lizard eggs, and we loved these lizard eggs, and that was such a spiritual moment for us. We would take care of them and make sure that predators wouldn’t come and it was such a bonding moment for me and my grandmother. We got to connect with creation and we got to connect and talk about God through creation. Then I come to find out that lizards are sacred for the Taino people! And it was just a nice little connection to know that God cares about all the creatures of the earth.

So, I think it’s just, what can we learn from our ancestors? And what can we learn from our grandmothers? And what can we learn from all peoples of the earth? You know, if we believe that God really is who God says God is, and there is so much to learn from plants and from animals and from those who may not look like us or even just have knowledge in the way that we have knowledge or understand the world and the way that we understand the world.

Can you also touch on the importance of friendship in terms of being able to recognize your own background and as you aim to center women of color?

Bryan Stevenson talks about proximity and how we need to be proximate to people, proximate to pain in order to get to understand other people’s struggles. I think particularly of those of us with varying levels of privilege. Even as a Cuban woman, I’m educated and I carry varying levels of privilege. And so, how am I proximate? And yeah, friendship is a way to be proximate. So much of our theology is, as I mentioned, informal, but it happens around the table. It happens over a cup of coffee. It happens while you’re mopping the floor and talking about the struggles of life. And those are all things centered on friendship and centered on belongingness to one another. And so, even going back to what I was just saying, I think it’s understanding that we have a sacred belongingness to all humans and all creatures of the earth and all created things and really leaning into that sacred belongingness as friends and in being proximate.


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Written by Timothy I. Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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