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Professor Jennifer Guerra Aldana Shares Journey to Teaching and Vision for Hope

Photo credit to Daniel Fuller.

Professor Jennifer Guerra Aldana has led and ministered in more ways than one throughout her career. From youth ministry to bilingual ministry, she has embraced the call God has placed on her life to help make the church a place of hope and community. 

Guerra Aldana is continuing this ministerial call in yet another new way this semester, stepping into the full-time position of theology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. In reflecting on this transition from ministry to teaching, she was reminded of the beginning of her time as an undergrad student at PLNU. Working in the theology department on campus has turned into a full circle moment.  

“My freshman, new-student orientation, my parents, we were driving around onto campus and we turned onto Smee,” Guerra Aldana said. “And at that point, I had seen so much of the exclusionary practices that can happen in church that I was really uninterested in taking anything in theology here. I was really set on social work, but my parents I think continued to remind me of the love I did have for scripture and sacrament and the church. As we were driving, just like outside of where I sit every day, my dad looked up and said, ‘Mija, you don’t quite see it yet, but one day you’re going to work right there.’ And [in] all my angst and sass, I was like, ‘Ugh, as if.’ Rolling my eyes. Never.”

What seemed impossible and unlikely is, in fact, now a reality for Guerra Aldana. She sat down with The Point to share some of her story.

TP: When did you first realize a call to ministry? I learned you grew up as the daughter of church planters. How did that experience influence your journey toward ministry? 

JGA: In a lot of ways it gave me a background to understand both the beauty of the church and also the really hard parts of doing ministry together. My parents were pastors, my grandparents were pastors, my uncle is a pastor, so pastoring has just felt like what the family did. And that was both a gift because I saw a lot of models of what faithful ministry looked like and it was also a burden because I wasn’t quite like my mom, wasn’t quite like my dad. Both my parents are ordained. 

And [at] very different points in their ministry, the way that people responded to women in ministry was, particularly, it was just mean. I have memories of being in high school and sitting in the congregation watching my mom go up to preach and having men openly walk out when she would go up in the pulpit. 

I was really aware that even within a space where my parents were leading, there was so much opposition to my mother’s ministry, even within the church. It left a sour taste in my mouth about how I would be received and granted, if my mom was not received with such hospitality, what would happen to someone who was a little more outspoken, a little less timid and was bilingual? 

All of those fears based on experiences that I saw: The outright rejection of not just women voices, Latina immigrant voices, left me wanting a different kind of reality. And then something really significant happened when I was in high school. I recognized my love for scripture and my love for sacraments. 

I have a vivid memory of being at a baptism service, in which I actually knew nobody. It was kind of this combined service between the English-speaking congregation and the Spanish-speaking congregation my parents led. At this joint service, there were all sorts of different people getting baptized, and I didn’t know any of them personally but I was a ball of mess in the back of the sanctuary, weeping over this decision and this joy. I was like, there’s something here that’s drawing me that is beautiful beyond the layers of segregation and exclusion I also know the church to impart. That stayed with me. 

I was always the person asking a lot of questions about scripture. I was particularly interested in places where scripture left me with gaps. And I was like ‘What is the gap about?’ I’m grateful to have grown up in a Latina-immigrant church where there was a lot more of the familism. While it wasn’t that my doubts were celebrated, they also weren’t shamed.

I’m grateful that my parents were always really encouraging of me to ask questions. I felt really emboldened in my own family to do that kind of work. I always found myself in places of leadership. I always assumed it was because I was a pastor’s daughter, and I’m sure there’s some of that. But I think I also just really cared about how we organized. 

I cared about how we treated people. I cared about how we made decisions. I carried all those things with me but because the institutional church still felt like an inhospitable place for someone like me, I actually went into social work. 

I studied social work at Point Loma. By studying social work, the sociology department here and professors like Colleen Cook and Dr. Modesto became this really sweet space for me to come into what I now call my ministry calling. But I didn’t quite, I couldn’t quite envision it because I had never seen someone like me lead in the way that I was designed to lead. 

My advisor was Patricia Leslie. Between Kevin Modesto, Patricia Leslie and Colleen Cook, they provided this really sweet, liminal space for me to ask big questions, to accompany [me] in a lot of the ways I was needing accompaniment, and to never turn me away from the church but rather reimagine what ministry could look like for me. After graduating with my social work degree, I became a youth pastor. I quickly went to seminary after that. 

TP: How would you say your experience studying social work has informed your ministry and the ways in which you navigate the gaps? 

JGA: I’ve been formally theologically trained, and I believe in theological education. I am excited for the ways that I hope we can integrate a lot of what we learn in the social work field into theological, educational, formational spaces. 

There was not a time in which I was not using the skills, the frameworks of understanding. Social work taught me how to best love people, best understand systems and then be able to respond like, “What are the gaps in our system and what are the gaps we can identify?” 

I believe the church is apt to be at the front line of filling in the gaps that society leaves wide open, and social work taught me to know how to appropriately name the gaps, to not spiritually bypass things that are really difficult and to learn to see people, which I think is a theological belief of the imago Dei. 

Within the social work conduct code, you take every individual story seriously. The first rule of the social work code of ethics is to do no harm. I have taken that quite seriously. 

In all the pastoral work I have done, in all of the theological imagination that I hope to have, I keep that code from social work, do no harm and take the individual story seriously, because that’s where I think we can find the divine and where healing can actually happen. 

There isn’t a day I do not use my social work degree. And if anything, I hope we can continue to merge those disciplines for the benefit of the local church.

TP: When did you decide you wanted to be a college professor? How did you decide you want to transition into this position specifically?

JGA: It’s interesting to think about “choice” here. I have a hard time talking about choices because everything feels like a communal discernment space. Coming from a collectivist culture, I have never made a choice on my own. 

Not because I don’t have the capacity to do it or not because I’m not my own person, or not because I have a codependent relationship with my parents, but because there’s always a “we.” There’s never just an “I.” And so, teaching was always affirmed in me. 

I had a really deep joy in explaining things that felt really complex and finding metaphors, or symbols or stories to capture the mystery of God, the mystery of scripture or the mystery of humanity. There was always that in me. My mother is an educator by training as well. I just grew up in a household where people thought about, “How do we actually bring people into what we’re hoping that they know?” 

So, I actually didn’t envision, ever, myself as a professor. There was a position that opened up at Point Loma and my father sent me the job application and said, “Mija, I think you should go for it.” 

And here’s the thing about my father, he is one of my biggest cheerleaders. In fact, my freshman, new-student orientation, my parents, we were driving around onto campus and we turned onto Smee. And at that point, I had seen so much of the exclusionary practices that can happen in church that I was really uninterested in taking anything in theology here. 

I was really set on social work, but my parents I think continued to remind me of the love I did have for scripture and sacrament and the church. As we were driving, just like outside of where I sit every day, my dad looked up and said, “Mija, you don’t quite see it yet, but one day you’re going to work right there.” And [in] all my angst and sass, I was like, “Ugh, as if.” Rolling my eyes. Never.

Ten years later, when he sends me a job application to teach here, I’m like, “Dad, I know this is what you’ve wanted and thank you so much for being such a champion for me. But no. Thank you.” 

And what ended up happening is different people in my life sent me the same job description. One of my own practices of discernment is when you hear a lot of different voices starting to form a choir, just start to pay attention. Just pause and pay attention. I think a little choir formed for me to apply [for] this position. 

I applied, but I actually pulled out of the process once because I was a local church pastor and I loved being a pastor. I loved being at the local church. I loved being a researcher and a pastor. I loved what I was doing. I thought, “Why would I walk away from something that I find such delight and joy in?” 

My overwhelming invitation was to let the process be the discernment. I continued to step into the interview process and went through it all. 

My own confirmation happened at the very last interview for the position. I was sitting with all of the School of Theology faculty at the time and they asked me the question: what do you bring to Point Loma? 

Immediately, the answer that came up was me. I have never been the recipient of a Latina, immigrant theologian’s instruction. I know these theologians because they are my grandmother, my mother, the women in my church. But in all of the formal education I ever received from Nazarene institutions to other theological education spaces, I have never learned from someone who looks like me. 

I hope that no one in Point Loma graduates not understanding the theological formation and leadership that Latina, immigrant, bilingual women can bring to the church and the academy. 

I didn’t know I wanted to be a college professor until my community formed a choir and said, “I think you should actually consider it.” It wasn’t until I was in the interview room that I went, “I feel this affirmation of my presence being here, being timely, being needed and also being joyful.” That was a full-circle moment for me at Point Loma. 

TP: What are your favorite courses you’ve been teaching? What has been a highlight moment for you this semester?

JGA: There’s a new course in our department called Imagining Ministry, and it’s a course designed for those who feel that inclination toward ministry and [do] not quite know what the details of that will look like. 

The course is designed to invite students to see the spectrum of what ministry can look like and actually foster theological imagination. Instead of, “what will I do with my life,” it’s asking the question “what is God inviting me to do with my life?” 

To see the diversity of ways that ministry could look, it could be ordained ministry and it could be so much more. That’s been one of my favorite courses because I, myself, don’t have a very conventional story of ministry. 

I studied social work, did youth ministry, community organizing, lead pastor, bilingual ministries and then college professor. If you look at my resume, one of the ways to interpret it would be this girl changed her mind every five years. 

And yet what I know to be true is every shift in vocation was communal[ly] discerned, and it was so affirmed by the spirit. I was invited into a different season. That class is my favorite because we get to dispel a lot of the myths we have around vocation, about what calling is and what ministry can look like. 

There’s no one size fits all and it doesn’t have to look like what it’s always looked like. In fact, we need a new imagination to actually disciple [to] everyone around us in ways that are effective. For us to continue to be effective, we have to then always keep an imagination for what new pathways God’s inviting us to join him in. 

TP: In your sermon on Wednesday, you spoke on hope or esperanza, amid the current crises of our world. In what ways have you seen hope embodied in the classroom or church settings this semester?

JGA: In the classroom, because I bring my whole self, I bring conversations about race, ethnicity, gender, our borderland region, language, church, experiences that are not always filled with inclusion and joy. 

And some of the most hopeful moments in the classroom are when students are able to kind of let their guards down and be honest about the places where it hurts to be human, where it hurts to show up to church, where it hurts to encounter scripture. Where does it hurt to be you today? 

To see them collectively minister to one another in that space, I’ve seen students extend grace and kindness and understanding and empathy in ways I hope to model as well.

 My students live into the hope I want all church leaders to be like. They are kind. They are thoughtful. They are smart. They are dedicated. They are loving. 

I see hope in the ways students are willing to be not just performing their faith but be honest about their faith and the ways they lean into each other for community. The conversations we get to have are quite hopeful. 

TP: What are you looking forward to next semester?

JGA: I am mostly excited. Being at Point Loma really helped me engage a part of myself that I had hidden for so long because of the anti-immigrant sentiment I encountered in and outside of the church and in and outside of the academy. 

God has done something quite significant in my life in the last eight years to find deep joy in my migrant story and to take our migrant story seriously. We live in a borderland. Point Loma is located in a border town and part of my own desire is for us to engage the land, the story and people who have been here, who have continued to be here and the ways those stories have been erased. 

So, next semester I’m really excited to take two of my courses. We’re going to combine them for a joint-border pilgrimage in partnership with the Ministry with Mexico. I hope to take as many students to an open wound in our land, which is the border, and explore what it is that God is inviting us into to live into peacemaking in a border town while doing it in our educational spaces. You’ll find me at the border quite a bit in the coming semesters. I hope to take as many courses that involve us actually visiting our neighbors in Tijuana and beyond. 

I originally emigrated from Guatemala, so my own border is many many more miles away, but it is a way of standing in solidarity and also reclaiming the beauty of being a migrant and seeing our stories of migration and movement in light of the God who also migrated to meet us here on earth in advent.

TP: What are some ways you hope to see growth or change in PLNU’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry? 

JGA: I think this is coming from my own upbringing. I love the Latina, immigrant church and there is such a vibrancy to the Latina church in San Diego and beyond the United States. We’re the largest growing minority in the United States. 

There’s so much that we bring. There’s so much that we have to offer. I would hope for our school to continue to expand the ways that we serve and partner with the Latina church in Southern California. 

I would love to see us engage in more bilingual education models or bilingualism trainings because there’s such richness there. If there’s an area of growth, I would long for Point Loma to be known to be a place where the Latina church can be served and where bilingual imaginations can be fostered.