Working toward “perfection” in the UMC
The Duke Divinity School professor integrates teaching with broader service to the church, perhaps most notably in his efforts to bring theological training to rural Methodist pastors in Latin America.
When Edgardo Colón-Emeric left Puerto Rico to study engineering at Cornell, he was a lukewarm Catholic without the faintest interest in ordination.
After conversations with evangelical friends, Colón-Emeric, still Roman Catholic, re-dedicated his life to Christ. A few years later, his love for his wife-to-be drew him to membership in her United Methodist Church.
And then came the greatest shock of all: Discussing vocation with her one night, Colón-Emeric realized that he – the introverted and mathematical engineer – was called to be a pastor.
Embracing uncertainty, Colón-Emeric enrolled at Duke Divinity School. Though church placements during that time strengthened his resolve, no training could have prepared him fully for being called, immediately after seminary, to plant a Spanish-speaking UMC congregation among Durham’s immigrant community.
“One of my first ministerial acts,” he recalls, “was presiding over a vigil for a man murdered in his own home.” The community in which he found himself living and working faced rampant drug use, grinding poverty, fears of deportation and violence.
This ministry was formative for his future intellectual work.
A congregation with few high school graduates offered little incentive for intellectual posturing; Colón-Emeric quickly learned to speak plainly and clearly, or not at all. And after years of self-confessed embarrassment of Methodist theology, those years molded him into a passionate Wesleyan.
This transformation began as he read John Wesley in contemporary Spanish translation (thinking it a great improvement on 18th century English), which opened his eyes to the pastoral wisdom of Wesley’s ministry among the urban poor, particularly his teaching about the hope of “Christian perfection.”
This came to life for Colón-Emeric when four young men asked him for help to stop using drugs. If the gospel had no power over their despair, he realized, why was he in ministry?
As the years wore on, and his friends insisted that his intellectual gifts and unique perspective could prove useful in the academy, Colón-Emeric applied and was accepted to Duke’s Graduate Program in Religion, even as he was awarded the John Wesley Fellowship.
From the beginning, however, it was clear to him that theology was just a new sphere for ministry: “I’ve been sent here by a bishop to serve the church,” he insists.
Pastoral concern pervades his research and teaching: his dissertation was an attempt to better understand a question every UMC Elder is asked at ordination: “Are you going on to perfection?”
Convinced that a renewed focus on God’s superabundant grace in transforming sinners could spur much-needed revival in United Methodism, Colón-Emeric says he has been encouraged by his friends to continue “beating the drum of perfection.”
Since finishing his graduate studies and being hired by Duke Divinity as an assistant professor, Colón-Emeric has continued to integrate teaching with broader service to the church, perhaps most notably in his efforts to bring theological training to rural Methodist pastors in Latin America.
He travels twice a year to El Salvador to teach intensive seminars to a passionate cohort of students, many of whom cross international borders to attend class.
Colón-Emeric hopes his global work might begin to foster an “exchange of gifts” between Christians in the United States and in developing countries.
To churches preeminently occupied with “first-world, highly educated, slightly secularized problems,” Latin American Christians offer the spectacle of joyful confidence in the Gospel and especially in the power of prayer to change lives and circumstances, even as American Christians can employ their intellectual and financial capital to help churches overseas find the money and time to devote themselves to theological study and reflection.
During his graduate work and even after, Colón-Emeric has been supported in study and in ministry by his involvement with the John Wesley Fellows. That support was financial, of course, but the annual stipend is less significant in the long-run than the community the fellowship fosters.
Camaraderie develops among the Fellows, born out of their years-long friendships and discussions, and each is encouraged by seeing how many great minds share the conviction that United Methodism – and the church more generally – both can and should be renewed.