Tito Madrazo: In a polarized world, we need vulnerable and authentic leaders

Julia Perez, (right) at a news conference held by Durham, North Carolina, city leaders to update the community about her husband, Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who was arrested and deported to Mexico in November. Photos by Justin Cook

After witnessing the arrest of his friend and student Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a pastor learns that he can’t be all things to all people but must instead honestly share his grief and fear for his undocumented friends.

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV).

Paul’s words have been indispensable in my practice of ministry and leadership. As the pastor of two different congregations over the last 16 years, I have ministered to people who represent a wide spectrum of diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and political opinion. I have always done my best to relate to all of these remarkably different people -- meeting them where they are in hopes that God might use me to help them go where Christ is leading them.

Beyond my own congregation, I also teach classes at Duke Divinity School and direct Duke’s Hispanic-Latino/a Preaching Initiative (HLPI), a Lilly Endowment-funded program providing ministerial training to current and aspiring preachers from Spanish-speaking congregations.

Typically, I move between these worlds seamlessly. As an immigrant who grew up in a bilingual household, I’ve been code switching from an early age. My communication with family members slips back and forth between Spanish and English without conscious effort, and I make similar cultural adjustments as well, identifying common ground with most conversation partners fairly easily. Even during these past few years, when social and political tensions have been on the rise, my “all things to all people” approach has still felt tenable.

Until Black Friday.

The day after Thanksgiving, one of my dear friends and students, Samuel Oliver-Bruno, was arrested. In many ways, Samuel’s story is not unique. For more than two decades, he was one of approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who worked hard, provided for his family and contributed to his community. I first came to know him when he sensed a call to ministry and joined one of our preaching initiative cohorts.

Only three months into our classes together, Samuel informed us that he was about to be deported. The compassionate and courageous people of CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, stepped in with an offer of sanctuary, inviting Samuel to live in the church basement as he continued to appeal his case to stay in the country and take care of his wife, Julia, who has lupus.

To support Samuel and permit him to continue his ministerial training, we relocated all of HLPI’s classes to CityWell. For an entire year, we studied and prayed and preached together in that context of sanctuary.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, his son Daniel and Cleve May, pastor of CityWell Church, pray together in Mexico. After Oliver-Bruno was deported, May and others went to Mexico to check on his well-being and bring him his clothes, his treasured Bible, and insulin and other medical supples for his diabetes.

The day after Thanksgiving, Samuel was asked to report to a local immigration office for fingerprinting as part of a new petition his attorney was filing. When he arrived, he was tackled by ICE officers in plainclothes and hustled into a waiting van. In an act of solidarity and civil disobedience, two dozen members and friends of the CityWell congregation blocked the vehicle’s getaway and brought national media exposure to Samuel’s case.

While so many were wrapping up their shopping or enjoying their holiday weekend, I spent that evening in the lobby of the Wake County Detention Center protesting Samuel’s arrest. The next evening, I participated in a prayer vigil at CityWell, crying and singing, reading Scripture and praying in both Spanish and English. On Monday, I returned to the detention center, where a crowd took communion and called for Samuel’s release so that he could remain with his family.

In between these events, I went home, hugged my wife and played with my children. I returned to my church, where preparations for the Advent season continued as normal. But I couldn’t stop advocating for Samuel. I would drop off my kids at school and then call my congressional representative’s office. I put off grading a batch of assignments so I could post another update on social media, asking friends and strangers alike to help Samuel’s family.

Many of my friends were outraged by the treatment Samuel had received, but others saw my posts as an invitation to state their strongly held convictions that all undocumented immigrants should be deported. Still others, conflicted but more open, sought me out for private conversation. We talked and texted about the difficult reality faced by many of my immigrant friends, trying to find ways to reconcile our opinions.

Over the course of a week, I felt my commitment to being “all things to all people” eroding. Whenever a new person asked me about Samuel, I braced myself, unsure which direction our conversation might head and whether I would be able to respond with grace. This wasn’t just an abstract philosophical discussion for me -- my connection to Samuel was too close, and the stakes for his family too high, for me to approach it with any kind of detached pragmatism.

As hope for Samuel’s release gradually diminished and the reality of deportation set in, I found myself not wanting to gently navigate the immigration debate anymore. Angry at the injustice my friend had suffered, I wanted to passionately denounce Samuel’s treatment as bad policy and bad theology. I wanted to thunder against the casual cruelty of indifference. I wanted to write off anyone who saw things differently than I did. I wanted to wrap myself in anger to prevent others from hurting me and to keep them from seeing the true depth of my pain.

And then I thought of Julia.

During the prayer vigil at CityWell, Samuel’s wife stepped forward to address the overflowing crowd. She wanted to be so many things in that moment -- strong for her son, grateful for those in attendance, hopeful for what God might do. But when she opened her mouth to speak, all that came out was a cry of anguish. She nearly collapsed, her body wracked with sobs. In that moment, she communicated far more than all the evening’s other speakers and preachers combined.

In Julia, I recognized that sometimes there is a higher calling than being “all things to all people.” Sometimes we must simply be our own authentic and vulnerable selves. Vulnerability may feel especially foolish and reckless in a time of deep division. It feels safer either to try to identify with everyone or to choose one ideological camp and use our anger to buffer ourselves from those on the other side.

But as a leader, I need to be more like Julia. I can no longer conceal my pain behind prudence, and I don’t want to hide it behind anger either. I need to be brave enough to let all the people around me know how much I hurt for Samuel. I need to let them know how much I have cried and grieved for my friend and his family. I need to be open about how anxious I am for my other undocumented friends and students who are living with so much uncertainty right now.

I need to admit that I’m not strong enough to be all things to all people when I’m grieving this deeply. But maybe I can be something more important. In a world so polarized that we can neither reason nor scold people out of their ideological trenches, we may only be able to lead effectively through the sharing of our authentic pain and tears.