Honoring Dr. Manuel Ortiz
April 05, 2009
CRT: Manny, I wonder if you could start by outlining something of your own life history?
MO: I come from a Roman Catholic family, as would be expected of most Latinos in the 1950s and 1960s. I struggled with having a better grasp on the subject of a personal relationship with God. I had a number of things that were working for me, such as a bar and restaurant in New York City, but found nothing but emptiness in all of these endeavours. My father had come to know the Lord as his Saviour and was very passionate about the eternal state of his family and wanted to see his children and wife come to know Christ. To cut a long story short, after various attempts, he wrote a letter asking a pastor to visit me and that began a process of my being awakened by God’s Spirit. Soone after that I saw my wife, Blanca, come to know Christ as well.
CRT: Would you describe the kinds of ministry in which you are involved?
MO: I have a three-fold ministry with numerous implications. One is certainly my work at Westminster Theological Seminary as Coordinator of the Practical Theology Department and Director of the Urban Mission Programme. This is divided into teaching, administration, and the advising of students. The last is a wonderful way of intruding into their lives and helping them to see something greater than themselves in matters of service. I see my work at the seminary as being a means to kingdom transformation in the lives of both the students and the institution.
CRT: You mention social justice, something which I know is very close to your own heart. Could you elaborate on exactly how you address issues of social justice in the practical ministry of your church?
MO: Much of this is reflected in the role of advocacy which my church plays in the local community. This has taken a number of forms. In terms of education, we are involved in helping with the kind of literacy and communication issues raised by the fact that the community around the church is bilingual. We are also involved in prison visiting and providing legal help and representation for those who are in trouble with the law or in prison. It is strange and somewhat sad to have to report that, in this context, most of the help we receive as a church comes from those lawyers who are Jews and socialists, rather than those who are professing Christians.
CRT: You also mention the development of varied models of churches for promoting church growth in urban environments.
MO: Yes. I think that the church is at a point in time when she needs to think carefully about her nature and location. At a simple level, there is the issue of whether we should have a church building or opt for a house-church approach. At a deeper level, I am convinced that it is important that church location reflects the need to identify with those who are suffering and marginalised. In my own church, our location in urban Philadelphia has placed the church in a position to reach out to areas of the community unreached by the classic suburban model of evangelicalism. We have a church which is recognised as a centre which helps to build the community. We have also established important contacts with Muslims which will help with the bringing of the gospel to unreached sections of American society.
CRT: Who/what have been the major influences on your thinking?
MO: At the very outset of my Christian experience God provided an African American pastor, Rev. Detolian Davis, who opened my eyes to the reality of injustices within both the Christian community and society at large. Another pastor from the African American community, Rev. Clarence Hilliard, enhanced my understanding of the gospel and its power in society towards justice and righteousness. Dr Harvie Conn, my late colleague at Westminster, in his writings and my intimate relationship with him over the years, profoundly reshaped my thinking and development of the Word of God. I was privileged to be with Harvie in Chicago shortly after his return to the United States from Korea. During that time we had some serious discussions about Reformed theology and missions. His well-rounded education and his probing of numerous disciplines was very challenging and stimulating. Harvie was able to move from mission history into the social sciences working with numerous passages of Scripture and showing how they all fit together. He had a great ability to retain information and could, in his gentle way, share material that he had read without drawing attention to himself. In some ways it was a precursor to his valuable volume, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). He was very demanding and, in some ways, a perfectionist who expected hard work and excellence from his colleagues. Harvie was a true missiologist but was interdisciplinary and able to teach in numerous other areas. Another person in the line of Harvie Conn is Dr Orlando Costas who, as a missiologist, provided inspiration and critical thinking in matters of theological reflection and world analysis. His book, Christ Outside the Gate (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982), was invaluable to me.
CRT: What do you see as the major opportunities or dangers facing evangelicalism at this time?
MO: This is an exhaustive request. I would venture to say that individualism and privatism have become obvious not only in the world but also in the church. This will eventually bring about both overt and subtle lawlessness which will culminate in a serious nominalism giving way to a generation that will become great sceptics and enemies of authority concerning the Word and the church of Christ.
CRT: I take it from this answer that you regard consumerism as a major problem for the church in the West?
MO: Absolutely. Consumerism feeds individualism. It focuses attention on `I’-centred needs, and drives a kind of mentality which is lethal to church commitment and growth. Church and gospel become simply two more items in the commercial marketplace. People `shop around’ to find the preacher who suits their needs or style, rather than using gospel criteria for choosing a church. In other words, preachers, church, gospel – all become just more commodities which the consumer can buy or leave on the shelf as they choose.
CRT: Is this one reason why the major growth in the church today is taking place in the southern hemisphere, and there in the poorer sectors, such as Africa and South America?
MO: Yes, without a doubt. The people there are, humanly speaking, weak and powerless. They know what it means to be totally dependent upon others for their very survival. What the gospel gives them is power and strength – not power in any crude, worldly sense, but power in the true, biblical sense. They have access to God, to God’s power in the cross of Christ. There, the gospel is true liberation theology, empowering individuals in their weakness, and manifesting itself in concern for the poor, for the disenfranchised and the marginalised – the very people to whom Christ himself went with words of mercy and forgiveness. The church in these areas has modelled this divine strength through its weakness. That is, humanly speaking, one of the reasons for its amazing effectiveness.
CRT: One of my own hobby-horses is the failure of traditional evangelical Protestantism to develop Luther’s insights into the theology of the cross, the idea that God’s strength is always revealed through weakness and that this should be a model for the church and for Christian witness today. I take it you would agree with my take on this?
MO: Very much so. This is a central part of the biblical message but one that does not sit well even at a theoretical, let alone practical, level in the modern western church. Weakness is not a very marketable commodity, which has implications for our attitude toward the cross of Christ. We find this note, the emphasis on cross and weakness, being struck in some modern authors, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but it is rare in evangelical literature. John Stott’s discussion of suffering as a function of our fidelity to the gospel of the cross is an exception, an important exception to this general neglect in evangelical circles. We certainly neglect something very valuable when we fail to pick up on such insights into the cross.
CRT: Given the significance of the issues you raise and yet the comparative lack of evangelical reflection in many of these areas, which non-evangelical authors do you think evangelical students should be reading?
MO: The list could be massive but here are some of the most significant volumes with which anyone interested in urban ministry and in issues relating to poverty, justice and oppression etc. should come to grips:
Cone, James, For My People (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984).
CRT: How has your own thinking changed/developed over the years?
MO: I think I have developed a greater understanding of how the evangelical faith, particularly in its Reformed manifestation, can be extremely powerful in a society that has so many needs. When you speak of the Reformed faith, you are speaking about the whole gospel for the whole person and the whole world. It is enough to say Reformed without having to make any other descriptive notations about its ministry. I am also greatly saddened by the fact that often our understanding of our faith has not led us to become bolder in our concern for the world, knowing this great gospel that God has given to us. I am also deeply displeased with the church’s fortress mentality and neglect of those who do not conform to our stereotypes of what Christians should be like while yet claiming to be evangelical and reformed.
CRT: Many thanks, Manny, on behalf of our readers for a fascinating and stimulating interview.