Rev. Miriam E. Figueroa-Aponte on right - Luncheon on final day of the conference. That is sister Zorina the third from the right. We discovered that we both were participants of the Venceramous Brigade back in the early 1970s.
The Voice of a Pentecostal Woman in San Juan, Puerto Rico
By Qiyamah A. Rahman
I attended a conference sponsored by the Society for Pastoral Theology, June 14-16, 2007 in San Juan, Puerto Rico titled, Doing Pastoral Theology in a Post-Colonial Context: Intercultural Models of Pastoral Care and Theology. I listened with great interest to a two hour workshop conducted by the Reverend Miriam E. Figueroa–Aponte, B.S., M.Div..
Figueroa-Aponte is the first woman admitted into the doctoral program at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico – School of Theology in 2002. She has served eight years as co-pastor with her husband at a local Church of God congregation in San Juan. Figueroa-Aponte’s dissertation title is, Towards a Reconstruction of the Theological Understanding of the Pastoral Ministry of the Puerto Rican Pentecostal Woman: A Documentary and Ethnographic Study of Four Female Pastors of the Church of God, Mission Board in Puerto Rico. Figueroa-Aponte contends that, “the theological and the denominational policy on the pastoral ministry of the Church of God-Mission Board (CG-MB) in general and, in Puerto Rico in particular, allows women to exert positions of pastoral ministry, which are limited to the second level of credentials, according to the administrative system of the CG-MB.” Furthermore, Figueroa-Aponte asserts the following: “the CG-MB has surpassed many limitations, such credential policies are influenced by prejudiced theological constructs against women in the ministry and therefore, this is not simply an administrative problem but a theological issue.” Figueroa-Aponte’s research employs document analysis to establish historical and denominational manuals data. In addition her research will include ethnographic interviews with four key Pentecostal female subjects.
Figueroa-Aponte defies the stereotypes of Pentecostal women as passive, docile and submissive. From the onset of her presentation she declared to the audience that she was a feminist. Furthermore, if any further trepidations were harbored she contends that, “sexism is a sin. . . . It is an oppressive structure (the church). They should be modeling change to society. . . But as you know the church is always behind,” she asserted. She believes that women in the Pentecostal church struggle because they are marginalized. The third level of credentials required by the church apparently does not allow women to become recognized pastors. They can serve the church at the first level and be ordained at the second level. But only males can become Bishops and licensed at the third level. Nevertheless, women can minister, baptize and bury in Puerto Rico. Initially, women were ministers in Puerto Rico and Figueroa-Aponte reminisces about her earlier childhood days when she saw women functioning in all sorts of roles. “Initially women were ministers, but now, years later they are not allowed to be ministers,” she states. Even now, it is only in Puerto Rico that women can be ministers. In the States it is not permitted. “I feel so different. When I was growing up it was not like this. Women could talk, she said. “Women are in the struggle for survival. . . We have done so much in just forty years.”
“I feel an obligation to do things for Pentecostal women. . . . But I know I have to knock on doors at a higher level. . . I joined with me and women that believe in the ministry of women ministers,” she said.
There has to be an analysis of the oppression, she says. What is my struggle as a Puerto Rican woman? “We are dealing with the cure of the soul and we are convinced that God has called us by our name. We women have responded to the call,” she declares with passion. Figueroa-Aponte’s bishop has sometimes felt the need to curtail her enthusiasm and advocacy. On more than one occasion he has told her, “Miriam, you have to take it slow.” On still another occasion Bishop asked the following question as she approached the podium, “Mariam, are you going to take your earrings off?” Marian replied, “not really” and headed to the podium. “No one ever asked me about the earrings” she tells the audience. She sometimes poses the rhetorical question to those who would challenge her commitment and authority, “Do you believe I am a servant of God?” This question usually silences any opposition.
“Sometimes I am angry. Sometimes this anger helps me. I try to be polite and sometimes I am angry.” As for what she is learning she has this to say, “I am learning. Men seem to know abut the politics, but I am learning. I keep learning.
During her research Figueroa-Aponte was exposed to womanist theology after reading Sisters in the Wilderness by Delores Williams. She stated, “I began to understand the struggle of African American women.” As pentecostal women they consider the Bible to be the word of God. “Womanist theology gave a new meaning to the story of Hagar for example. Womanists have a slave heritage culture that transmitted to the liberating message of the Bible,” she explained. “Womanist theology extracted from the Bible those things that assured Blacks awareness and understanding of Gods love for the downtrodden. Pentecostalism is rooted deeply among the poor. They took the Bible stories and began to understand that God was the provider and healer.
Figueroa-Aponte explained her strategies for changing the policies of the church. “ I began talking at General Assembly years ago. The women used to have to sit in the back. Now they’re sitting in the front row,” she stated with a mischieveous grin on her face. “I am not in competition with men. We are in a complementary relationship. We complement each other.”
While the denominational headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee does not allow female ministers, Figueroa-Aponte states matter of factly, “We convinced the (Puerto Rican) Assembly to allow women to be “counselors.” They have a council of twelve. Not surprisingly, Figuero-Aponte was elected as the first women council. A Latin American Bishop told Figueroa-Aponte, “I can’t believe we are arguing about women being a part of the council.” In the USA women are still not allowed on the council. However, Figueroa-Aponte maintains that many of the Caribbean and Latin American people are open to women being ministers.
The solutions that Figueroa-Aponte proposes are as follows: 1) women must begin to be theologians; 2) reread the Bible with suspicion; 3) reconstruction of ecclesiology and theology; 4) establish a center for the study of Puerto Rico and 5) consciousness of oppression
Figueroa-Aponte concluded the lecture with the following reminder, “to be silent is the worst sin.
Let us heed Rev. Miriam's words and not be silent in the face of oppression!