For nearly twenty years, Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri’s daily life revolved around a high school classroom, interacting with and challenging students to be their best and to prepare for the future. This week, the Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took that classroom experience and her work with the church to Columbia Theological Seminary as the speaker at opening convocation.
Education is especially important to Cintrón-Olivieri, who earned a bachelor’s degree in education (English as a Second Language) from the University of Puerto Rico and a master’s in education (Curriculum and Teaching) from Turabo University.
In her address, she brought that educational experience into context through the book of Hebrews.
“Now that I’ve taken a ‘hiatus’ from teaching in a regular classroom, it is no wonder then that when choosing the text for today’s reflection, this particular passage from last Sunday’s lectionary caught my attention,” she said. “The 13th chapter of Hebrews, to this educator’s mind, reads like the good-bye speech to students on the last day of school or a top-ten list of things to remember as one moves to the next chapter of life.”
Cintrón-Olivieri summarized the text saying those who heard Hebrews for the first time were going through the tensions and dangers of persecution, and, in some cases, giving up on Christian faith altogether.
“This letter of encouragement, at times desperate and condemning, reflects the severity of the times and emphasizes on persevering on the faith,” she said. “The ever-popular chapters 11 and 12 go from defining what faith is, ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ to examples of those champions of the faith, patriarchs and matriarchs throughout biblical history, that ‘ran the race’ before them through promises unfulfilled, torture, mockery, flogging, imprisonment, and persecution.”
Cintrón-Olivieri said that by chapter 13, the author is encouraging the reader to stay firm and practice, using Dr. Paul Hooker’s phrase, certain “behaviors that bear witness to the presence of God in the community of faith.”
The behaviors are listed in verses 1–10:
- Continue to love each other;
- Show hospitality to strangers;
- Remember those imprisoned or tortured as if you yourself were the one imprisoned or tortured;
- Honor and be faithful in marriage;
- Be free of the love of money;
- Be content with what you have;
- Remember your leaders, the ones who spoke the word of God;
- Consider the testimony of these leaders;
- Imitate their faith;
- Continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God by not neglecting to do good and share what you have.
After re-reading the list several times, Cintrón-Olivieri says the invitation to “remember” kept coming up.
“To ‘remember’ in verse 3 is not merely to recall a memory, it is an invitation to remember someone to the point of actually feeling in our own flesh that person’s, that sibling’s pain. To remember in this sense is not passive, but active. It must move us, move desde nuestras entrañas, into action,” she said. “Much like the call of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School students in the March for Our Lives to enact gun control change; or the call of the Presbytery of Mission and a group from Austin Theological Seminary students last December in the Wall of Welcome/Interfaith Caravan of Hope event to witness and stand with our refugee siblings in McAllen, Texas; or the call of the Baltimore Ceasefire 365 initiative where local Presbyterians are involved inviting the city ‘to celebrate life and to have no violence in Ceasefire weekends’ (https://baltimoreceasefire.com/), the call is to transform our passive ‘remembering’ into ‘concrete acting.’”
In verse 7, Cintrón-Olivieri makes it clear to the students that it is not a call “to remember, consider, and imitate any self-proclaimed leader,” but a call to remember leaders who spoke the word of God and to imitate their faith.
“Is our life a worthy example to be considered and imitated? As we believe wholeheartedly in the priesthood of all believers, these existential and vocational questions pertain, really, to us all: church members, presbyters, seminary students, pastors, elders, faculty, deacons, administrators, … Co-Moderators,” she said.
Cintrón-Olivieri closed by reminding students that curriculum is important, but so is the person.
“Almost two decades of journeying with teenage students, listening to their hopes and dreams, sharing in their joys, struggles, and their deepest fears, changed me. It took me a while to understand a student would remember more the classroom environment and the space created to foment life-affirming lessons than the literature piece, object of our class,” she said. “When I realized this, teaching then became mentoring, the classroom became a community, and the lessons became life-experiences.”
This was the 192nd Convocation. In addition to new seminary students, other attendees included returning students, families, alumni, trustees, faculty, seminary staff and Presbytery of Greater Atlanta members.
Cintrón-Olivieri also took part in a campus tour and lunch, including conversation with many of the students.
“As it turned out, Tuesday was the first day of class, and it warmed my heart when I realized there were new students, their first day in seminary, taking time to converse with me,” she said. “A blessing indeed.”
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