The Verb of God
I grew up in an immigrant, Roman Catholic community made up primarily of exiled Cubans who made their way to Miami, Florida, in the height of political unrest in the 1970s and 80s. My abuela (grandmother), among the exiled, found solace within the stained-glass walls of St. Dominic’s church when she first arrived. Many in this community bonded over collective loss and grief, and the mental and emotional toll it takes to learn to live in a new country where you’re not always welcomed. Miami has been cited as the “Latin American capital of the US” in recent years, but this wasn’t always the case. Those first few waves of immigrants were met with signs that read “Stop Cuban takeover!” Apartment buildings warned potential tenants: “No dogs. No children. No Cubans.”
For Abuela and her church friends, faith was a matter of survival. There was no need for curated fellowship time because community was how they got by. Abuela’s front door swung open at all hours of the day as she ran a clothes-making business from home, and cooked regularly for anyone who was hungry and wanted a warm meal and familiar company—which was nearly every night.
When Abuela wasn’t sewing clothes, cooking food, or tending to her mango and avocado trees, she was singing in the choir at church. This was the kind of faith I witnessed growing up: a faith that infiltrated every aspect of life, a faith that was embodied, that engaged the senses, the hands, the vocal cords, the dirt.
This is why John 1:1 made sense to me when I first read it in Spanish.
You see, in Spanish, John 1:1 reads: “En el principio ya existía el Verbo,” which literally translates to, “In the beginning already existed the Verb . . .”
Jesus, the Verb of God. The action of God.
Language is beautiful, but language also carries particular weight as words have power: they shape identity and culture. Growing up, my understanding of faith in Jesus was attached to the word verb.
Since the beginning of time, expressions of Christianity and readings of the Bible thereof, have taken different shapes, flowing in and through the different cultures and languages that embrace the message of Jesus.
The Bible is such a powerful tool because it is a book of words—authoritative, sacred words written in languages (Greek and Hebrew) not our own, translated and interpreted so that we may understand and apply its principles timelessly.Like many other things, however, a lot gets lost in translation.
A “Biblical” Faith?
After transitioning to Protestantism in my early twenties—more particularly, White evangelicalism—and starting seminary, I began to hear and ultimately believe that Abuela’s faith was illegitimate because it didn’t look or sound like the White culture that surrounded me in southern Louisiana.
Abuela’s faith wasn’t lofty; she wasn’t a theologian in the formal sense of the word. Like many in my community, she brought with her a “popular” Catholicism from Cuba.
Popular Catholicism is primarily practiced in the home by those who live too far from a church, or don’t have the means or resources to make it regularly. It involves altars and affinities toward the saints, whom many petition for health or any sort of thing that would ensure their survival.
The more time I spent in White theological circles, the more I believed those in power who convinced me that the Christianity Abuela practiced—the one birthed in struggle and survival that looked toward the saints who went before us for inspiration and motivation—was lacking. Essentially, Abuela needed to be converted to a “right” form of Christianity, one that looked not to the lives of the saints within Catholicism, but to those of White European theologians for spiritual insight. To them, her faith wasn’t “biblical.”
Like the English translation of John 1:1, the word biblical has been used and misused. In many ways, the Bible itself has been used to justify any and all sorts of abuses and injustices. Whether it’s the justification of slavery or the subjugation of women, people in power have taken rich narratives of Scripture, disconnected them from the context, culture, and audience it spoke from and to, and attached the word biblical to it, deeming their own understanding or interpretation of the Bible as the one, true way.
We need different cultural traditions and denominations of expressions of Christianity if we want to best understand the full image, kingdom, and Word of God displayed among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.
But since the beginning of time, expressions of Christianity and readings of the Bible have taken different shapes, flowing in and through the different cultures and languages that embrace the message of Jesus. Taking a holistic approach toward the Bible and our faith, we believe in the consistent story of God’s love for creation that begins in Israel, extends to the life of Jesus and then on to the Gentiles.
The Bible Transforms Us
I began to see the Bible differently when I turned my attention to characters like my abuela in Scripture. Story after story told of overlooked and unnamed women, struggling for their survival, who are praised for their faith by Jesus—often in contrast to those in power around them. This can be seen in stories like that of the bleeding woman in Mark 5:25-34 or the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-29, among others. In Mark 5, for example, we learn of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years who came to Jesus in a crowd and touched his clothes in hopes that this might heal her. After he felt someone touch him, Jesus asked, “Who touched my clothes?” The woman came forward terrified, to which Jesus replied, “Your faith has healed you.” This scene stands in stark contrast to the previous chapter, where Jesus rebukes the disciples for having little faith while in the boat with him during a storm (Mark 4:40).
We find a similar example in the story of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). Right after the first feeding of the five thousand, Mark says the disciples "were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves” (Mark 6:51-52). Then we find the story of a desperate woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus makes a peculiar remark about not taking the children’s food and feeding it to the dogs, to which the Syrophoenician woman responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus commends this woman’s faith and heals her daughter. Read in the context of the feeding narrative, this story tells of a woman who understood what the disciples didn’t: all are welcome at the table and there certainly is enough food to go around.
Jesus turned dominant narratives on their head when he engaged with overlooked peoples in society. In this way, our reading and interpretation of Scripture should charge us to do the same. This requires that we not just look to dominant interpretations of the Bible, but seek to learn from peoples and cultures that have been overlooked in our world. Instead of a simplistic view of life and faith that claims, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” we need to seek to have a robust and nuanced view. We need different cultural traditions and denominations of expressions of Christianity if we want to best understand the full image, kingdom, and Word of God displayed among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. We also need this diversity if we want to understand and know Jesus’ actions in the world as the Word made flesh.
The theology of my abuelita, along with my Cuban roots, helped me understand that a "biblical" faith isn’t simplistic or detached from the larger narrative of Scripture. Instead, it involves personal and systemic change. The people Jesus encountered weren’t just transformed “in their hearts.” He not only forgave sins, but healed the physically outcast, fed the hungry, and overturned power structures. Jesus called out the religious leaders while empowering and charging women and the socially marginalized as bearers and proclaimers of the Good News of his kingdom. When read through a Christian lens, the Word of God is meant to transform us into the image and likeness of this radical and inclusive Jesus.
While dominant culture may have missed it, I believe that this understanding of the Bible is what inspired Abuela’s embodied, holistic faith that she lived out with her hands: because she understood Jesus to be the verb, the action of God, one that transformed her reality and the reality of those in her community.