Why I say, “Black Lives Matter”: Steven “Stew” Martinez

July’s very timely post is brought to us by active NazTooer Steven “Stew” Martinez, who is pastor of the San Bernardino Bilingual Church of the Nazarene located in San Bernardino, California. Recently it was rated as the 5th worst metro area to live and raise a family in the United States. His family immigrated to the United States during the Spanish Civil War as his family were traditionally ranchers from the Barcelona region. A fan and supporter of FC Barcelona he believes that Leo Messi is God’s second son and that futbol is the only sport that will be played in Heaven. For this and probably a dozen or more reasons, he will never be elected to high standing positions in the Church of the Nazarene. He is supported in ministry by his wife and two children.

For as long as I can remember I was told that being brown was a bad thing. It was never stated directly. It did not have to be. One just had to look at our names. The generation who immigrated to the United States had names like Benedicto (my grandfather), Felicità (my grandmother), Efraìn, (great uncle) and Maria (great aunt) while those who were born here were given the names of David, Dorothy, Diana, and Darrell (my father). These four then gave their children names such as Michael, Sherrie, Erin, Genny, LeeAnne, and Steven… or Stevie as I was affectionately called. I was the “güero” or white boy in the family, most Latino families have one. In many ways I was the chosen one, the one who could break the curse of “brownness” that the older generation carried with shame. My grandma was especially elated. She carried the double curse of being the offspring of a forbidden relationship where her Spanish father married a Navajo woman. Her complexion was darker, and she was shorter, a sign of her indigenous, mixed heritage. In me, she saw hope, a future where her family could become successful… to be American.

Spanish was only spoken when the older generation were arguing or when they did not want the kids to know what was going on. It was another thing that they were trying to protect us from. At that time in East L.A. no one imagined that billboards would be printed in Spanish and that being bilingual would open doors and opportunities. The rules of the game were to hide as much as you could. The worst thing was an accent you could not hide. Learning Spanish meant that one could slip up at an inopportune time. For example, my grandparents struggled to pronounce my name (even though they gave it to me) by pronouncing it “EStevie.” Eliminate the names, eliminate the accent, eliminate the language and with a bit of luck one could get a job at the Mattel factory like my cousin or become a union UPS driver in Beverly Hills like my father. Play the game correctly and you can pass as a white person with a nice tan.

That is how I lived the first half of my life, constantly reminded that brown was something to be ashamed of. The idea that I would identify myself as Hispanic or Latino was an insult to myself and my upbringing. When my parents divorced and my relationship with father deteriorated (his choice not mine), it became easy to associate brown as the problem. Stereotypes are often based on some semblance of fact. The stereotypes of Latinx culture that are displayed in media were true in my family. My uncle was a cholo gang member and heroin addict. My father was an abusive alcoholic whose life in drug trafficking led to stints in prison and an early death. Many of the women in my family got pregnant at an early age and suffered in abusive relationships. While some grow up being able to identify such issues as sin or personal responsibility, it was difficult for me to see it as anything else than the plight of being brown and the fate of those who cannot escape it. However, God desired for me to see something else.

Looking back into the history of my Christian faith a few things stand out. One of the most prominent features in it was how brown it was. I did not grow up in the Church let alone the Church of the Nazarene, however, I was first introduced to both by my third-grade teacher Mrs. Arias. Already headed down a path of what I believed was my family destiny, she reached out to me and invited me to attend the Nazarene church where I went to day-care every day. She has prayed for me and encouraged me ever since. As a matriarch in the Western Latin American District, her name holds significant weight in the Latinx Nazarene community and has opened many doors for me. In fact, the Church of the Nazarene has been the one place that seemed to encourage my “brownness.” It provided pastors who encouraged me to pursue my calling in multicultural ministries while providing opportunities to minister in Spanish with other Latinx communities. The Church even provided me the last $2,000 I needed to go to college. Perhaps the best thing the Church provided was other brown people like my college roommates Andres and Josue Aguilera who helped me to see that brown was not a disablement but a beautiful aspect of God’s creation in me.

Four years ago, I was called and tasked with starting the San Bernardino Bilingual Church of the Nazarene. Since our first service, the vision of the church has been to provide an inclusive community that serves a diverse neighborhood. Along with this primary vision is a secondary vision where Latinx families can worship together regardless of which language they are proficient in. We work together to help each culture to find their unique beauty and value as we journey in the Kingdom of God. It is my personal goal to make sure that every child sees their culture of origin as something to cherish and not be ashamed of, especially my own children. It warms my heart that my son, the güero, identifies as Latinx while my daughter embraces her brown skin and sees it as beautiful. Both are starting Spanish lessons this summer.

So, why do I say, “Black Lives Matter?” I say it because it is the truth. Black lives do matter. I say it because it needs to be said. There are black children who need to hear that their blackness is beautiful and a gift. There are black adults who need to hear that their struggles and pains inflicted on them due to their blackness is not the Will of God. I say it because we can honestly never say it enough. I can only imagine how much pain could have been averted in my family if they had heard that brown lives mattered. What if I heard it earlier that I mattered? What would have happened to me if I never heard it? I say it because it is a starting point. Justice must start somewhere. What better place than the People of God?

I understand that my experiences are not the same as others. I understand that my experience with the Church of the Nazarene is also not the norm, especially for people of color, women, and LGBTQ+, and others. I was fortunate in many ways. One could even say that I am privileged. As a person of privilege, it is my duty and responsibility to help those in need just as I was helped. This is the role of the Church. Those who know Christ are convicted by love to use this privilege to better the lives of those on the margins of society. When the Church declares that Black Lives Matter it is a declaration that the Kingdom matters for the Kingdom was created for black lives. If black lives are not fit for the Kingdom, then what chance do brown people have? What chance to does anyone have? When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah that fateful Sabbath, He declared that TODAY the scriptures were fulfilled; that the favorable year of the Lord was upon us. Who was it that needed that proclamation? The poor, the captive, the disabled, and the oppressed were given the keys to the Kingdom that day. Who needs those keys today in this time and in this place? Right now, I look in my pocket and see a key, so I am confident in my standing and place. Therefore, I say again, “Black Lives Matter!” Oh, and umm… And I’m Nazarene Too! (Thank you, Mrs. Arias!)