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Standing at the Crossroads: Rev. Dr. David Vásquez-Levy Shares His Story and Vision for the Future

The community of Pacific School of Religion joyfully welcomed David Vásquez-Levy to campus at the beginning of January to commence his service as President. Following a period of visioning and planning, prayerful discernment, and a comprehensive national search process conducted by a representative task force, Vásquez-Levy’s candidacy emerged as an ideal fit for PSR’s new direction. “PSR has adopted a bold new vision to prepare spiritually rooted and theologically formed leaders for social transformation,” said Julien Phillips, PSR Board Chair and co-founder of the non-profit education organization Partners in School Innovation. “David’s experience at the intersections of the church, the academy, and the broader world of social changemaking equips him uniquely well to lead PSR.” 

Vásquez-Levy is the first Lutheran and the first Latino to lead the seminary; at age 45, he is one of the youngest to do so. The new president’s most recent position was as part of a co-equal team of campus pastors at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he led a dynamic ministry on campus as well as the school’s many connections with congregations and communities. He describes himself as an activist, a changemaker, and a citizen of the world. His story begins in Central America and extends to Canada and Germany prior to his ordained ministry in the American Midwest.

Born in Guatemala City in 1969, Vásquez-Levy’s surname follows common practice in Spanish-speaking cultures of using two last names—the first from his Christian father, the second from his Jewish mother. Ana Mireya Levy de Vásquez’ family migrated to Central America from Alsace-Lorraine in a displacement of Jews that occurred around the time of the First World War. Vásquez-Levy’s grandmother was sent from Guatemala to the United States for school as a child, graduating from Galileo High School in San Francisco. Vásquez-Levy’s mother followed in her mother’s footsteps and went to school in San Francisco as well, living near Fisherman’s Wharf where the cable cars turn around.

“I remember hearing stories from my mom about growing up there,” he says. “When I first came to Pacific School of Religion for an interview, I made a point of calling my mom from Fisherman’s Wharf.”

“My dad’s side of the family,” Vásquez-Levy says, “was the product of mestizaje in Guatemala, which is sometimes called ‘the encounter of cultures,’ but which has a more complex history of dominance of one culture over the other. I am the product of that mix of cultures–a Guatemalan hybrid!”

Vásquez-Levy grew up during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war, which began in 1960. “My parents tried to protect us from what was going on around us, so I didn’t start to make sense of it all until later in life. Even so, I grew up with some awareness about the connections between inequalities and violence that have displaced people in the region over decades.”

His mother was the more active parent in terms of her faith, and Vásquez-Levy, the sixth of the family’s eight children, was raised in the Jewish tradition. He attended a Jewish school and synagogue, and was preparing for his bar mitzvah in 1976 when a massive earthquake struck the country, killing thousands, and destroying nearly one-third of Guatemala City. Vásquez- Levy’s school and the Jewish Community Center were so damaged that they were forced to close.

“After this, we drifted away from the religious community,” he recalls. “We continued to observe holidays—both Christian and Jewish—because my mom loved holidays.”

A few years later, Vásquez-Levy reconnected with the religious tradition on his father’s side of the family, which had long been involved in the development of the Lutheran church in Guatemala. His father’s cousin, Hector Vásquez, was a Lutheran pastor whose church became involved in the international relief effort in more remote areas after the earthquake, and he invited Vásquez-Levy on these visits.

“We would walk sometimes three hours up a mountain to get to these remote communities,” he remembers. “Church was just a floor and a roof, sometimes with walls, sometimes not. You had church when people showed up with their chairs; when someone brought in a table, we had an altar. There was worship and Bible studies, which incorporated all aspects of life: we celebrated life; we talked politics; we talked about the community’s needs; we talked about everything. And then we had a meal.”

This introduction gave me the sense that church was not just something you did on Sundays, but was the core of the community. That’s really where and when I began to develop a sense of call to ministry. It was to that kind of transformational community, and to the kind of leadership I saw there, that I felt called.”

By the time he graduated from high school, Vásquez-Levy knew he wanted to be a pastor, but there were no Lutheran seminaries in Guatemala. While he considered going to Mexico, like his father’s cousin, or Argentina, Vásquez-Levy instead chose to join three of his brothers in the U.S.

In the summer of 1986, speaking no English and with very little resources, he arrived in Florida, where his brothers had settled. He soon joined his father’s cousin, Hector Vásquez, in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the latter had moved to serve as a mission developer. After a year in community college, Vásquez-Levy moved on to Texas Lutheran University, and graduated summa cum laude in 1991 with a degree in computer science, and extensive coursework in religion and liberation theology.

For seminary, Vásquez-Levy chose the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, a school connected to a university and in a large urban area. It was there in Hebrew class that he met Karla Suomala, who soon became his wife. A third-generation Finnish-American from Minneapolis, Suomala had come to LSTC after working in the corporate world.

The early years of their marriage saw them traveling extensively, first to a community outside Toronto where Vásquez-Levy completed an internship working in refugee resettlement with Sudanese and Central American immigrants, many from El Salvador who had been forced to leave because of their political activism.

The couple then moved to Germany, where Vásquez-Levy completed coursework for his MDiv at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. They returned to the States when Suomala enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, the oldest institution of higher Jewish education in North America. Vásquez-Levy spent a year finishing his Lutheran pastoral candidacy while also working as a systems analyst, writing code for a medical insurance company. He then accepted a call at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Batesville, Indiana, just outside Cincinnati.

St. Mark’s was a church in transition, in a growing community where new arrivals were testing an older congregation. During Vásquez-Levy’s five years there, the congregation grew considerably, and he was able to help develop major outreach programs and to help it become a more inclusive community.

In 2001, Suomala was offered a position in the religion department at Luther College, and within a few months there was also an opening in campus ministry for which Vásquez-Levy applied and was hired.

Along with his duties as a campus pastor, coordinating worship and interfaith activities, his 13 years at Luther also included serving as mentor for many student groups such as Global Concerns, Interfaith Student Association, Luther College Feminists and PRIDE (the college’s LGBTQ group) as well as to groups connected to larger organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Amnesty International. He taught courses and led international study and service trips in Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. His office also helped connect on-campus learning with external partners to bring environmental practices and sustainability students to local congregations to do energy assessments, and engage in theological reflection about environmental sustainability.

Vásquez-Levy believes that his work at Luther and the surrounding communities has helped prepare him for the presidency of PSR. “In my work over the past 13 years, I’ve been able to serve at the crossroads of the church, the academy, and the society,” he says. “The focus of our office at Luther was to do on-campus ministry but always with a connection to the outside—to the church and society.”

Part of his outreach to the world from the church and academy took place in Postville, Iowa, a diverse community about 25 miles from Decorah. Beginning just after he arrived in 2001, Vásquez-Levy took students to Postville to learn about the culture and the traditions of the multi-ethnic community, which included many immigrants from Guatemala working at the largest employer in town, a Kosher meat-packing plant. Along with colleagues, he also helped the immigrants deal with immigration, labor, and civil rights issues. And when artists or scholars of Latino descent visited Luther College, Vásquez-Levy created programs that reached out to the Postville community.

“This was an opportunity for a lot of the children of immigrants to see professional people, in a variety of areas, who looked like them.”

These connections and commitments were deeply tested on May 12, 2008. “We had just finished chapel when I saw someone had been trying to reach me,” Vásquez-Levy says. “I called back, heard what was going on, and told my colleagues, ‘Something’s happening in Postville. I’ve got to go.’ I often say: ‘It was three months before I came back to my desk!’”

What had happened was the largest, single-site immigration raid to that date in U.S. history. It came with helicopters, buses and police vans, barricades, snipers on roof-tops, and more than a thousand government agents, not only from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) but from several other agencies. Nearly 400 undocumented workers were arrested. Within four days, some 300 were convicted on various charges, and most were imprisoned for five months before being deported. Following a concerted effort by the community in response, the raid received extensive news coverage and was sharply criticized for the excessive use of force, the devastating impact in the community and region, and for the extent and legality of the charges themselves. “Within six months the meat-packing plant had filed for bankruptcy, many businesses had closed, and the city itself was in a serious economic crisis. The raid in Postville became a microcosm for the way our broken immigration system devastates immigrant communities, undermines everyone’s economic well-being, and fails to reflect our values,” Vásquez-Levy says.

Vásquez-Levy did not hesitate to rush to the aid of those impacted by the raid, co-leading the Postville Relief Effort with Sister Mary McCaulley, the Pastoral Administrator at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in town, and many others. “This was a small town that didn’t have a system of social agencies that could respond to such a crisis,” he says. “We had to create everything.” Working with Luther College and drawing on its immigrant history, faith commitments, and educational mission, Vásquez-Levy was able to marshal resources to help Postville and its residents.

“But the biggest element in the response was the courage and faith of those directly affected,” says Vásquez-Levy. “For close to three years after the raid, while the long term response was active, somebody always brought lunch for all the volunteers. This was a gift from the people directly affected; from immigrants who had no income, nothing,” he says. “I’m still emotional about this…because the partnerships between volunteers and those affected really embodied what it means to be a community of faith that is motivated by its values and can influence and change hearts, minds, and society.”

In the course of the response, Vásquez-Levy was asked by those affected by the raid to help lead a Bible study. “Reading the Bible with those who cannot afford the luxury of pretending to be permanent is a powerfully enlightening experience,” he says.

He recalls Juventino, a Postville participant in a study on the book of Exodus, exclaiming, “¡Moises fue el primer mojado! [Moses was the first wetback!]”.

“Juventino was surprised to see in the Moses story a reflection of his own experience of crossing a river that divided his poverty and oppression from the luxury, freedom, and wealth that he believed to be on the other side,” Vásquez-Levy says. “Referring to his crossing of the Rio Grande, Juventino went on to say, ‘Like Moses, I crossed that river against the law.’”

Much of the work started by the Postville Relief Effort is still going on today, almost seven years after the raid, including legal and advocacy work, micro-lending initiatives, and an archive at Luther to collect the history of the community before and after the raid

And for Vásquez-Levy, migration narratives became a greater focus of his work. After Postville, he travelled extensively around the country engaging in conversation, Bible studies, and presentations with both recent and long-term immigrant communities, religious and political leaders, and many others. Out of this work, he has created a number of resources that explore migration stories in the Bible and in peoples’ lives, including Out of the Waters: Resisting the Power of Fear, a six-part Bible study on the book of Exodus. “The U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented level of mestizaje,” he says. “I believe that PSR recognizes that our various faith traditions must be present at the crossroads of these new encounters across race, ethnicity, gender, political, and national identity.”

His story, his journey, and his family now move to Berkeley. It was his deep understanding of Pacific School of Religion’s mission that helped bring his résumé to the Presidential Search Committee’s attention. Vásquez- Levy’s preparation and ministry experience embody PSR’s renewed vision of connecting spiritual formation and deep theological reflection with transformative leadership in church and society. “When you first look at his curriculum vitae, his background, he did not seem at first like a candidate for the presidency of PSR,” says Boyung Lee, Associate Professor of Practical Theology, Education and Spiritual Formation and a faculty member on the search committee that chose the new president.

“But David’s letter of application—in which he called himself a ‘non-traditional candidate’—was amazing. He had studied us inside and out! I was so impressed by how well he knows the institution and our values. And when we had the opportunity to meet David, we were all blown away by his depth, his vision for theological education and for what the church should be; his lived experience, and also the sense of integrity that he brings. I have nothing but excitement about his coming.”

The seminary had been without a long-term leader since Bill McKinney’s 14-year presidency ended in 2010. Generous members of the extended community have stepped up to lead the school for short terms, including Riess Potterveld, Stephen Sterner, and Bernard Schlager.

Combined with the challenges facing all educational institutions, and particularly seminaries, these years of transition brought their struggles. Angela Brown, who earned her M.Div. degree last spring, was part of the first presidential search committee, and now serves on PSR’s board of trustees, remembers the uncertainty during her three years on campus. “Because of the impermanence at the top,” she says, “many important decisions had to be put off. And, in my second year here [2012], there were rumors that the M.Div. program would shut down, which was upsetting to those of us in the program and affected enrollment the following year.”

Academic Dean Bernard Schlager says the institution knew that thoughtful steps were necessary. “Given the changing nature of theological education and the precarious situation of many seminaries today,” he says, “the board of trustees realized that PSR needed to articulate better its distinctive contributions to communities of faith and to the world at large.”

To that end, the board chartered the Commission on Strategic Direction, and later the Action Planning Team, charging them with refining a vision for PSR’s future that would best serve its mission in a way that is sustainable over the long term.

The articulated expansion of PSR’s mission falls under three pillars: “The first pillar is that PSR remains committed to training leaders for traditional and emerging faith communities with a revitalized M.Div. program and other degrees,” says Schlager, who served as Interim President this past fall. “The second is not only to continue but to increase and intensify the work that we do in training leaders for non-profit, social justice, change-making organizations. PSR has long

been in the forefront of issues relating to social justice, and we’re going to be a seminary on the move, expanding that part of our work. The third pillar of the burgeoning new vision is to expand the reach of PSR well beyond Holy Hill.”

In support of such a future, PSR’s Center for Spiritual and Social Transformation was inaugurated at the Earl Lectures in 2013. The seminary has also added two new degree programs—a certificate of spiritual and social change, and a master of arts in social transformation—and began a number of programs including the Changemaker Fellows

Pleased to return to his position as Academic Dean, Schlager said, “David brings a sense of vitality to the institution. [He] can help tell the story of Pacific School of Religion and how we are living into our new vision. His own life story and his extensive ministry as a changemaker in the church, the academy, and in non-profit organizations embodies PSR’s renewed mission and focus.”

Trustee Angela Brown feels that his warmth and openness make him a great fit for PSR. “I was impressed with how open David was to receive my thoughts, to hear a student’s perspective,” she says. “I believe he is the type of person who looks around the table to see who is missing and then asks, ‘Why are they missing? What can we do to bring them to the table?’”

“I am excited to join a gifted and committed community as together we live into PSR’s compelling new vision: to prepare spiritually rooted, theologically formed leaders for social transformation,” Vásquez-Levy says. “Drawing on its history, location, partners, and commitments, PSR offers a rich academic program well suited for the complex issues of our time, a depth of spirit that prepares resilient leaders, and an approach to engaged theological education that takes seriously God’s call for justice for all within and beyond the church.”

“Everything that we are to do is not only important for the well-being and stewardship of this place, this institution, but also for the sake of the world and the church. What is our particular part in contributing to what God is doing in the world? I want us to discern that together, I want to support that vision, and I want to join with others in moving in that direction.”

For more information on the Postville Raid, view Abused: The Postville Raid, a documentary about these events featuring Vásquez- Levy.