Sacred Spaces and Altars of Hope

Distinguished Alumnus Address by David A. Vargas, July 23, 2019

Introduction by Garry G. Sparks

Return to Distinguished Alumna/us Award

The son of a pastor within the Iglesia Cristiana (Discípulos de Cristo) de Puerto Rico, David Vargas’s leadership in congregational ministry began in 1966; he was ordained in 1970. He pastored three Discípulos congregations before he, Margie, and their young son moved to Chicago in 1971 for him to pursue further graduate studies. Even during his time at the Divinity School, he served as interim pastor of First Hispanic Lutheran Church, Chicago.

Within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of the US and Canada, he has served the general expression in DHM and Obra Hispana, and, most visibly, the Division of Overseas Ministries (DOM) and, by extension, Global Ministries with the United Church of Christ. Beginning in 1983, he served DOM as the Area Executive to Latin America and the Caribbean, as Vice President and then as President until his retirement in 2011. In recent decades and until the last few years, David Vargas, along with Dennis Landon, has been the face of DDH on the denomination’s general stage.

In his mission to make the Disciples a more global church, he translated the Latin American liberationist concept acompañamiento not just into a praxis of interpersonal solidarity, but as a structural vocation of “critical presence.”

He majored in history at the University of Puerto Rico and earned his MDiv at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, where he also received an honorary doctorate in 2003. Almost like an academic dean, Mr. Vargas’s tenure at DOM emphasized a very pedagogical approach to the global mission field but predicated on mutual relationships of trust, in the vein of Paulo Freire, with missionaries more as students than teachers. His commitment to popular education has ranged from the funding of scholarship programs for indigenous youth to earn university degrees in medicine, law, and education but to also providing refuge in the US to Latin American and especially native intellectuals violently targeted for what they teach.

When time came for a sabbatical, which he could have taken anywhere in the world given his global relationships, he went to a Disciples congregation in Hammond, Indiana, Hope Christian Church. Like the Disciples and UCC missionaries that he shepherded through the Americas for 28 years, he went to listen and learn from the congregation much more than to teach or lead.

The Distinguished Alumnus Award commended David A. Vargas “…for voicing and exemplifying the call to acompañamiento through partnership, solidarity, and critical presence; for service to the global church through Overseas Ministries, especially in the work of presiding and ad-ministering, going before and with others in mission and witness; for sustaining and being a living bridge between Disciples in Puerto Rico and in the US and Canada.” It also cited his “distinguished service to the Disciples Divinity House as alumnus, trustee, and passionate advocate for theological education and its necessary role in shaping critical pastoral knowledge and engagement.”

My dear Disciples Divinity House family, it is an honor for me to share with Clark Gilpin the 2019 Distinguished Alumnus Award. Clark has been a great inspiration for me; a brilliant scholar and a great friend. Many years ago, he was also a patient and tolerant neighbor, when we both lived in the same apartments building in 61st Street. Also, with Nancy’s help, he was an excellent baby sitter for our son, Dabdy, who will be 50 years old in three weeks.

Believe it or not, in 1971, the year I arrived at DDH and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, I was a young, slender, good looking short guy with curly black hair – in good health and with a lot of energy. In 1969, I had completed my MDiv degree at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, and a year later I was ordained by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Puerto Rico. Having accomplished those two milestones, I was convinced by that time that I was ready for the next chapter in my ministerial journey.

When I moved to Chicago, I was accompanied by my lovely wife, Margie, and our twenty-two month- old son, Dabdy; but also, I was accompanied by a dream and a very detailed blueprint of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

It was an amazing moment in my life, a moment when I looked into a future that seemed to have no limitations. Besides my love for the Church and its ministry, very early in my life I also became passionate about the arts and, especially, about architecture. And that’s the reason why, after completing my basic seminary training, my big dream was to explore ways to establish a relationship (a connection) between my theological knowledge and my passion for architecture and the arts.

When in my second year of seminary I read for the first time some of Mircea Eliade’s writings, I became so fascinated with his understanding of how important “sacred spaces” have been throughout the history of humanity, that I said to myself, “Ok! This is it! Chicago is the right place to work on my dream and to accomplish my goal,” without really knowing how cloudy and cold Chicago was most of the time, and not even knowing what was the Disciples Divinity House.

For me, to go to Chicago meant an opportunity for in-depth research on the history and nature of “sacred spaces” throughout the world, but also it meant the possibility of visiting one day and experiencing firsthand the greatest houses of worship we see very often only in magazines and calendars, the famous (and ancient) cathedrals of Europe, and the magnificent temples of other cultures and religions.

Very soon after I entered the Divinity School, I found myself on the way to reach that goal, thanks to the knowledge and influence of great teachers and mentors, such as Martin Marty, Robert Grant, Charles Long, Dean Blakemore of DDH, Mircea Eliade, of course, and many other great scholars.

At that time, I certainly could not think on a better place to be than where I was.

One day, however, around 1973-74, my life began to change drastically. At a time when it seemed that everything was moving smoothly and in the right direction, I felt a deep vacuum in my life. Suddenly, I decided to leave the Divinity School and DDH, and put on hold indefinitely my academic plans and expectations. To be honest, that has been one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life, especially because I was convinced that such decision would mean that my possibilities to reach the great dream and goals that brought me to Chicago were over.

But that was not what happened, thanks to God!

Instead, when I least expected it, the rest of my church (that is, the church of which DDH is part of) came to my rescue. And thanks to the prophetic vision and ministry of our church, a few years later I found myself not only resuming but also expanding the research project I started in the Divinity School, by discovering and being a witness to other very different “sacred spaces” in our world which had not been listed in the official text books of the academia. I began to discover, for instance, places in our own nation where poor and undocumented sisters and brothers worshiped and felt the presence of God (my God, your God) with tremendous faith and strength, not necessarily in impressive buildings, Gothic temples or cathedrals, but rather in dilapidated storefront rooms turned into holy houses for the Divine – places without pipe organs, without colorful stained glass, and even without a heating system or an air conditioner.

Thanks to my church’s prophetic vision and ministry, during the past four decades I have been forced out of my comfort zone to meet areas of the world devastated by war, hurricanes, tsunamis, economic misery, racial discrimination and political repression. And there, in the midst of tragedy, in refugee camps, in detention centers, and even in garbage dumps and other dangerous and neglected corners of our planet, I have discovered altars of hope, true “sacred spaces,” where the presence of the resurrected Christ is evident, both within Christian communities, as well as among Muslims, Jewish, Buddhists, and people of other faiths.

Today, I have to thank God for the intellectual insight, the spiritual freedom and the openness that the Divinity School and the Disciples Divinity House brought to my life as a Puerto Rican young minister who was trying to discern academically what it really meant throughout history to worship and feel God’s sacred presence in our physical world. But also, I am grateful today for the opportunity I have had to witness to Jesus the Christ in those other extra-curricular and less sophisticated “sacred spaces” I have experienced in God’s creation.

Almost half a century after I abruptly left the Divinity School, I now realize that discovering and experiencing those other “sacred spaces” that we don’t find registered in text books of religious art and architecture was precisely what I needed to complete the project I left unfinished the day I decided to conclude my academic work at that prestigious and beloved educational institution. Therefore, it is with that understanding and profound personal conviction, that I accept today with deep gratitude the gracious decision of the Alumni/ae Council of the Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago.

Thank you. Gracias.