A Social-Justice Christian

December 2, 2016
Isaac Martinez
HDS student and community organizer Isaac Martinez aspires to become an Episcopal priest. / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

Just three weeks into his studies at Harvard Divinity School, Isaac Martinez stood behind a wooden pulpit in Andover Chapel to preach about the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Martinez, an MDiv candidate, was quick to acknowledge that the familiar story can often become an opportunity for self-congratulation.

“It can be easy for me and maybe others of us to look at this parable and the epistle and say, ‘Yes, rich people suck. They are pierced by many pains and will end up in a hell I may or may not believe in.’ Case closed, sermon done, let’s get on with our day,” Martinez said.

But even as a self-declared “social-justice Christian,” Martinez doesn’t let himself, or his listeners, off the hook. He reminded those in attendance that Jesus’s mission statement includes both bringing good news to the poor and restoring sight to the blind. If the parable’s rich man is truly blind to Lazarus’s suffering, then the Gospel requires Martinez to help heal the rich man as well.

Martinez came to HDS to engage in just this kind of healing work. He brings with him a career in community organizing, an emerging vocation with the Episcopal Church, and a life-long love of Jesus.

In recognition of his work to apply Christian theology, ethics, and spirituality to contemporary challenges, Martinez was recently named a Susan Shallcross Swartz Scholar at HDS. He hopes to continue this work as a parish priest in the Episcopal Church.

“My objective is to gather people, desperate for inner and outer transformation, and to seek the sublime place where the communal, the prophetic, and the spiritual meet,” Martinez wrote in his application essay.

Isaac Martinez
MDiv candidate Isaac Martinez in Emerson Chapel, December 2016. / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

In some ways, Martinez’ background led naturally toward a career in ministry. He grew up worshipping in an Apostolic Assembly church built by his great uncle. Generations of his forefathers have been Pentecostal preachers.

He was also formed by years outside of the church. When Martinez came out as a gay man, he washed his hands of the homophobic theology he was raised with. He stopped going to church. And though he attended Harvard College as an undergraduate, he never once set foot on the Divinity School campus. Instead, he studied government and planned to serve society as a diplomat.

However, after Martinez graduated, a boyfriend brought him to an Episcopal church. Martinez felt a familiar spiritual tingle when he took the Eucharist. He later became involved in two local Episcopal congregations—St. James and The Crossing—and took a job at the Episcopalian-run Leadership Development Initiative (LDI), an incubator program to foster engaged Christian communities. Four years later, Martinez is a confirmed Episcopalian and a postulant to the priesthood.

Martinez remembers a turning point during Advent of 2014. He was stunned by the killing of Eric Garner, and enraged that a New York grand jury did not indict the police officer who killed him. Two weeks earlier, a Missouri grand jury had decided not to charge the police officer who killed Michael Brown. He didn’t know what to do with his pain, until he remembered that it was a Thursday and he could join his church community at The Crossing in downtown Boston.

After the service that night, dozens of congregants carried the liturgy into the streets. They marched alongside thousands of other Black Lives Matter protestors from downtown Boston and into Cambridge. They crossed bridge after bridge and shut down street after street. They were motivated by the words of a prayer Jesus taught: “Thy kingdom come.” The words repeated in Martinez’ head like a mantra.

“The fact is that we marched together that night because Jesus has no feet here on earth but ours,” Martinez said.

Martinez wants more Christians to have the transformative experience of standing publicly for justice. While at HDS, Martinez continues to work with LDI as its program director. In his role, he helps teams develop a concrete project to meet a need in their communities. He coaches them through the discernment process and helps them develop non-violent communication skills and contemplative practices to sustain them in the work.

For Martinez, this work isn’t just about right action, but also right seeing. The teams are learning to see God’s vision for justice, he says.

Such a healing of sight would have made all the difference for the rich man.

by Mandi Rice