Marlena Graves is a Puerto Rican Christian who has written for several publications including Christianity Today‘s CT Women (formerly Her.meneutics) and Our Daily Bread. A graduate of Northeastern Seminary (M.Div.) and a current doctoral candidate at Bowling Green State University, Graves is also the author of several titles, including Who’s My Neighbor? Loving Our Neighbors as God Loves Us, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness, and most recently, The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself.
Faithfully Magazine spoke with Graves by phone about her background, her relationship with Evangelicalism in the United States, and the importance of connecting justice with spiritual formation. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Tell us a bit about your background – who you are, the work you do, and how all those things connect.
I grew up very poor. I was born in Puerto Rico, but I lived there only for a couple of years when I was little, and then we moved to California for a little bit and then to Pennsylvania where my dad was from – Northwest Pennsylvania, which is the northern tip of Appalachia. He met my mom when he was in Puerto Rico. We were the only Hispanic people in the population in the area, so I think I was the only Latina in the school.
It was a very poor area, but my dad grew up on a farm there when he was young and he wanted to go back. My school district at the time was the biggest geographical school district in Pennsylvania, meaning that you had to travel the farthest to school. And so, I was on the bus for a long time to get to school back then – I’m thinking about late elementary, junior high. We didn’t have cell phones and we still had to dial long distance. I lived on the edge of the school district almost in another one. So all my friends were long distance from me, so I really couldn’t afford to talk to them on the phone.
So I was very isolated. I don’t know if it has to do a little bit with my personality or just how God made me, but I would just go outside into God’s creation – to nature – a lot. My abuela and abuelito, my grandma and grandpa, used to live with us a little bit like Hispanic families do. They would switch between different family members to spend time with them and sometimes they actually lived in our house. Sometimes they lived across the street. So my mom and my abuela would watch the Spanish soap operas and have the TV on all day, I think because they were lonely and they just liked to have something in the background. And I could not stand it; it was like nails on a chalkboard.