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.
“I learned to love Scripture because I would see abuela reading it. She was a devout Roman Catholic and she would read her Bible every day.”
Part of being poor meant my dad needed gas go to work, so we would go cut and split wood to sell to other people and also to get gas money for my dad to go to work. I was long distance from my friends; I didn’t get to see them a lot. I spent a lot of time outside – part of it chopping wood for gas money for my parents. And then, I did not like watching TV. So what I did when I was done with all my chores, especially from the age of 10 to 14, I would read Scripture for two to four hours a day.
I learned to love Scripture because I would see abuela reading it. She was a devout Roman Catholic and she would read her Bible every day. When she lived across the street from my parents at one time – her and abuelito in a trailer – I would see her reading Scripture trying to sound out the words in Spanish. She had only a third grade education because her mom died in childbirth when she was eight and she had to go help the family – I think there was 10 or 11 of them in Puerto Rico – to work and earn money. She had to drop out of school, but she ended up being an entrepreneur having her own little food truck with abuelito and their own little grocery store.
So I saw how much she loved Scripture, and I think she cultivated a love for Scripture in me because I loved her so much. I thought, if this is important to her, it’s important to me. And at the time, I did not know that Scripture was forming my imagination — my whole life is framed in the way I think about the world through the lens of Scripture and the narratives and stories. I thought to myself, If God could do the things that He did for the people in Scripture, why not me? Why not me?
I remember having two distinct dreams when I was 10 years old. I used to listen to Christian radio and I’d hear people talking about the Antichrist and all that, the end times. And I remember having a dream where some of the people that went to my church that lived around me out in the country were looking up at the sky at something that was like the form of the Antichrist, and I remember yelling to everyone, “That’s not Jesus! That’s not Jesus! He’s lying to you!” And then I had another dream where I was walking down this grassy path, this field close to my house with Jesus. And I wanted him to pick me up because I wanted to be nurtured, and he didn’t pick me up. He wouldn’t pick me up, and I was a little bit disappointed. But he said, “No, I will walk with you and I’ll keep walking with you.”
Now, I don’t know about dreams and this and that. I know a lot of people in the Middle East talk about dreams. But those two were formative for my life. Because I still feel even right now, I’ll say, “That’s not true, that’s not right” to people and “This is not what the Bible says, this is not the way of Jesus” in many ways in my life and people still don’t believe me!
I went to a Christian college because I wanted to be mentored and discipled by Christians, because I didn’t really have that growing up besides abuela. I was really the first committed Christian in my family besides abuelita. I went to this Christian school, and we had to take those spiritual gifts tests, and the outcome of my test was pastor, teacher, prophet. And when I raised my hand – because the professor asked people to raise their hands when he mentioned “pastor” – and people were looking at me weird and there was a lot of other guys and I said, “Well, what am I supposed to do with my gift?” And he’s like, “Well, teach children’s Sunday school.” And I was like, “Are you kidding?” I didn’t say that to him, but I was like, I don’t have the gift to teach little kids. I tried in high school for my church. It’s really hard for me, and people that teach kids are saints. I don’t want to do children a disservice by being their teacher. So that’s what I was told: teach children Sunday school. But it wasn’t clearly my gift.
In my anguish, I couldn’t foresee how God would use everything that I just told you in my life. But I always wanted to go to seminary, and after a couple of years of going back and forth with my husband about it while he was in graduate school to get his Master’s degree and Ph.D., my husband’s just like, “Go to seminary, Marlena! You’ve always wanted to go to seminary.” But I said to him, “I can’t see the outcome. What am I going to do with a seminary degree?” I couldn’t see the outcome, but the Lord used everything that I just mentioned.
In seminary, I was a TA [teaching assistant or teacher’s aide] and I was well received by my professors and other students in seminary. One of my practicums was to have a radio show at a radio station in Rochester, New York, where I went to seminary, Northeastern Seminary. That was the time before online streaming. It was about 2006 before everything went online. So I did a live radio show. It was so well received by people in Rochester that they would ask me for my transcripts. A lady called me and told me that she changed her work schedule on Wednesday night so that she could listen to me. I had diverse people listening to me like, you know, Jamaicans, Puerto Rican, White, Koreans, professors at the University of Rochester, people at the local schools, pastors, and elderly people, and they would call in.
I’ll wrap up my background with this. We moved from Rochester so that my husband could get a tenure track position at a Christian college. When I contacted the radio stations there and said, “Hey, I have this show, it’s doing really well and the people at the radio station and the manager say a lot of people are listening based on the number of phone calls we get, here’s a sample. Can I do something on your station?” I was just stonewalled and turned down and told that my show was too edgy. That’s when I started writing.
You’ve written for lots of different publications including Christianity Today and Our Daily Bread. What made you turn toward writing, specifically, a Christian writing?
I felt like I had always wanted to teach about the way of Christ and the way of following Jesus. My [radio] show was about formation and what it means to follow Christ right now and what would that look like.
So, I started a blog in 2008, and that was a time when blogging was just taking off. I started writing at that time because I could no longer do a radio show. Then I was like, “I think I’m ready to take my writing public.” So I had this idea about how to have public conversation about controversial issues, and I sent a pitch to Christianity Today about it. And they said, “You know, we’re just starting this blog called Her.meneutics. Would you be interested in writing for them? We think it would fit really well here.” Katelyn Beaty helped start that and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who is now at The Washington Post. They were the editors that I talked to – they’re my friends now – but I was among the first writers asked to write for them.
So that’s how I started writing, and I was contracted to submit one to two articles a month for Christianity Today. Around that time, too, I started writing my first book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. People had turned me down before that. One editor, Rodney Clapp – he was phenomenal with me – he said, “Your writing is so good. It’s like the best of,” and he named some authors and I was blown away by what he said about it. He’s like, “You need to do this, this, and this.” He told me to submit articles: “You just need to get your writing out there.” But, I was turned down for my first book.
But then, a few years later after I started writing for Christianity Today, my same exact proposal was accepted. I did not change anything. The only thing that changed is that I was writing for a national publication. So that’s how my writing career started. Lots of rejections, but they didn’t stop me because I believed in the message that I have to communicate, so I’m just going to keep rolling with it. Then, you know, I got the contract for my book. Then other people started actually asking me to write instead of me always doing the submissions. So that’s how my writing took off.
I try to open doors for other people myself now because I know what it was like before Twitter. Before, I had to do all this research about writing on my own. There weren’t online writers groups. I had to kind of learn as I went, and I remember how hard it was and how alone I felt. So, I try to open doors for other people now.
You mentioned this a bit with your background. You describe yourself as a Puerto Rican Christian woman who’s influenced by various streams of the Christian faith, and you self-identify as someone who kind of dwells on the “borderlands” of Evangelicalism. Can you expand on that a little bit more?
It’s only in the last 10 years that I’ve realized how growing up poor – obviously not all Puerto Ricans are poor – but growing up poor as a Puerto Rican going to a very conservative Evangelical school… I didn’t realize how much my upbringing, my abuelita, all that that brings. One’s identity affects how they see the world. But I think one of the main ways that it has affected me and “Evangelicalism,” because I really don’t always know what that word means, it depends who you’re talking to… But I say the “borderlands” because I think Scripture transcends our political labels. I heard Richard Hays out of Duke [Divinity School] say that one time, and I agree with that. It transcends our political labels, and Scripture knows nothing of the way we divide up our politics or denominational/non-denominational sects. Scripture transcends these things. So I’m Evangelical in that I’m Christocentric. Jesus is central. We can’t understand reality, the way of the kingdom, apart from Jesus. We’re saved in and through Christ. And when I was young, I did all sorts of evangelism because I wanted people to know Christ. I’ve always been about telling people about Jesus.