In the group of women gathered for TengoVoz/I Have Voice meetings, the Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon begins the liturgy with a poem, often one that she has written. The women continue the liturgy by reflecting on the poem. In her strong, lyrical voice she reads her poem entitled “I Am a Chicana,” written at the time she was trying to discern whether she should enter the ordination process.
I am a Chicana
I dance and chant my prayer.
My roots call me to a simple
but deep and compassionate
I love the prayer that comes via my culture,
bright colors, images of Nuestra Virgen de Guadalupe
and the smell of tamales and tortillas on the stove.
I am a Chicana
I believe I have much to offer.
I love to dance and chant my prayers.
These visions are not just mine they are
come, dance and chant my prayer.
Around her neck Rev. Rincon wears a gold medal with two Divine Feminine images, one on each side. “It’s the Virgen de Guadalupe and the Virgen de San Juan. The Virgen de San Juan has a shrine in Texas; she is very strong for me because my grandmother used to go there every year and pray for me that I would fulfill my call. And the Virgen de Guadalupe is so important to me because I’ve always seen her first as a feminist, but then later when I was able to articulate that I was a mujerista, I realized that she’s a mujerista I can really relate to with all her different complexities, her fusion of Aztec culture and Catholicism.”
Rev. Rincon tells how this image of Guadalupe has also been empowering for the women in TengoVoz groups. “They’re looking at the Virgen de Guadalupe in a different way, not as the submissive Virgen. Most Roman Catholics will put her up there in this little nice space, but the women of TengoVoz are seeing her as a very different strong woman of action. They use her story for their own image of themselves, and they’re like, ‘Wow! Women in the church could create change.’ And the Virgen de Guadalupe is a combination like them, because most of them are from one country and living in another.”
When she was seven years old, Virginia Marie first knew she had a call to ministry. In a Catholic school in Houston, Texas, she was praying the rosary at the communion rail. She tells this story: “I remember thinking, ‘I want to go see what the priests do back there.’ So I jumped the communion rail, and I opened the closet. And I put the vestments on. Then I came out and said something like, ‘The peace of Christ be with you.’ Of course, all the kids started laughing. The nun came in and was very upset. She had a conversation with my grandmother, and I was sent back to public school. I’ve always been drawn to the altar and the sacrament. I loved to get my cousins together and play ritual. It wasn’t always like the priest did it. We’d dance and do other things that weren’t in church, but that was church to me.”
A big influence on Virginia Marie was her grandmother. “I was mostly raised by my grandmother until I was seven years old. My grandmother was a shaman, a curandera. Now I look back and realize that there are some similarities in how she gathered and approached people and how I do. It wasn’t unusual for me to wake up in the morning and my grandmother would have all these women sitting at her table drinking coffee, talking, praying, doing healing ritual, chanting, singing. When I was a little girl, my grandmother would always say that I was special, that I had the gift of healing. And she would teach me things, like to listen. As a kid of five or six years old, I didn’t know what I was listening for, but now I know.
In the Houston schools, Virginia Marie experienced racism. In high school she decided that she wanted to be a nurse and went to the counselor who told her, “You could never be a registered nurse (RN), but you could probably be a licensed vocational nurse (LVN.” As a member of the National Honor Society with straight A’s, Virginia Marie could have gotten scholarships and easily completed the RN requirements. Although Virginia Marie can now see the racism in the counselor’s advice, at the time she accepted it. “Back then, that’s the way it was. So I went ahead and did the LVN course at Houston Community College.”
When Virginia Marie was twenty, she married Robert Nuncio. “I married at a very young age to a very young man. I stayed married to Robert for thirteen years. We have a beautiful daughter, Marissa Michelle Nuncio. The doctors think I have probably been dealing with lupus ever since my pregnancy and premature labor. I call her my ‘miracle baby,’ because it took everything I had to be able to carry the pregnancy. She’s just wonderful, wonderful—my only child. Now she’s a lawyer in Los Angeles.”
As a public health nurse in Houston, Virginia Marie’s call to ministry continued to unfold. “That’s when things started moving for me in terms of looking at healing and spirituality, especially in the maternity and well child clinics. The women would come and ask me for prayer.” Virginia Marie recounts this exchange with some of the other nurses:
“Why do you take so long with the women?” the nurses asked.
“I don’t know. They’re always asking me to do certain things, like pray.”
“But you’re a nurse. You’re not a priest or a curandera or anything.”
“I know, but I always get asked to do that.”
Continuing to explore her call, Virginia Marie went to a discovery weekend at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. “I was feeling God calling me to something, and I wasn’t sure what it was. I’d been a nurse. I’d felt a call, and I was trying to decide if this call was about ordination or a call to a different career.” At the seminary discovery weekend she met Rev. Judith Sessions, who suggested she go to St. George’s Episcopal Church to experience Rev. Judith Liro’s performing the liturgy. Virginia Marie went to St. George’s and for the first time saw a woman at the altar. “I was so moved to see a woman at the altar,” she recalls. “I was so emotional, and shed some tears.”
Virginia Marie enrolled in Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It was a whole different world. I remember not seeing myself at all in the seminary; I mean I was the only Latina on campus. I walked into a class on feminist perspectives of the Bible with Rev. Alison Cheek. It was my first day of class, and I realized that I was sitting with all these white women who had studied the Bible maybe back and forth. It was my first real critical analysis of the Bible class. I left the class and went to my apartment, and I cried my eyes out because I thought, ‘I can’t keep up with them. There is no way that I could ever do this.’” Virginia Marie went to see Rev. Cheek the next morning and had this conversation with her:
“I’m going to have to drop your class.”
“Why are you dropping my class?”
“Because I was not able to hear my voice in it. I felt like I didn’t understand what these women were talking about. They never talked about the poor. They never talked about the oppressed. They never talked about suffering. And I just don’t think I fit in that class.”
Rev. Cheek replied, “Virginia Marie, yours is the voice that we need in that class. And if you can hang in there for two or three more classes, I think you’re going to find your voice.”
As she worked toward her Master of Divinity degree at Episcopal Divinity School, Virginia Marie took some courses at the nearby Harvard Divinity School. “For me that was like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m sitting in Harvard Divinity.’ I took this great course with Harvey Cox on feminist perspectives of Christ. He used media to teach the course—poetry, art, music. I was in hog heaven! For our final project, I videotaped women of color at Episcopal Divinity School, telling me what their perspective was from the feminist viewpoint. That was an awesome experience, and I was proud of my A in the course!”
While she was in seminary, Virginia Marie also began the ordination process. “I started noticing that some of how I viewed myself in the world was difficult for church officials to understand. How could I bring my understanding of curandismo, of healing, to the Episcopal Church? Where do I fit in there? I would get upset when I heard people preach that we need to help the poor and oppressed, or those who are marginalized, to come forward to become priests, and yet they would be looking right at me and couldn’t comprehend me. What they wanted was for me to become like them. I was already to some degree angry with myself because I had assimilated so much.”
Bishop Tom Shaw asked Virginia Marie, “If you become a priest, what are you going to do for a broken world?” She replied, “Tell the truth—why people are dealing with racism, why people are suffering in Mexico, how NAFTA affected the people in Mexico, why they come to the United States, why they sacrifice themselves in the desert to come here. Look at what we’re doing to them—tell the truth. I think we forget that there is an enormous amount of suffering in this world, and we just go around with blinders on. That has to be preached from the pulpit too.”
During her struggle with the ordination process Virginia Marie found support from women at Greenfire Retreat Center. “The women there helped me so much. They would do women’s church. We had a ritual where they ordained me. And even though my later official ordinations as deacon and as priest were very important, that ordination to me was so symbolic of women ordaining each other to use our voices. It helped me to be able to start doing the work without waiting for a bishop to say, ‘Okay, now you can do it.’”
On September 18, 2005, in a ceremony performed by Bishop Chilton Knudsen at Christ Episcopal Church in Biddeford, Maine, Virginia Marie became the first woman of color to be ordained to the priesthood in the diocese of Maine. “Bishop Chilton asked me what I wanted to happen that day, and I said, ‘I want the community where I minister to feel that they’re part of this. I don’t think they’ve ever seen a Latina being ordained.’ Bishop Chilton said, ‘Okay. Then we’re going to have a bilingual service, and I will lay my hands on you and call you forth into priesthood in Spanish.’ That was a beautiful moment. A lot of Latinos came. My family came—my daughter and my brother and my sisters and my nephews.”
Shortly after her ordination, an article entitled “Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon Looks to Foster Latino Connection” came out in the Biddeford Journal Tribune. The article begins with her groundbreaking accomplishments: “She is the first woman of color to be ordained in Maine. Since 2000, Rincon has worked to empower Latina women and their families through her ministry in Portland. She uses spirituality, education and the arts to connect with Latinos and meets with them on the street or at their workplaces.”
In Portland, Maine, Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon founded TengoVoz (“I have voice”) to advocate for Latina women and children and to facilitate women’s groups. “It came to me that the women needed a place. So I organized the first gathering of women in a basement of a Unitarian Universalist church. I read some poems, and the women began to talk about their struggle. I encouraged them to create the sacred space.” Rev. Virginia Marie says that she named this organization “TengoVoz because the women need a voice; I need a voice; TengoVoz is about giving voice to the voiceless.”
The Virgen de Guadalupe became an empowering image for the women in TengoVoz. Also, at the Mission San Lucas in Portland, Rev. Rincon introduced liturgy celebrating the annual feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe. “This liturgy had never been celebrated here. We did drumming and sang to the Virgen de Guadalupe. At the service were people from Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and other places. Some had never heard the story of the Virgen de Guadalupe.”
In her vision for the future of the church Rev. Rincon includes a gathering of Latina clergywomen. “I want to get the Latina clergywomen together and just talk. I believe it’s important for the healing to begin before we do big picture work: the whole immigration thing, what’s going on politically. But we can’t share it if we’re exhausted from pushing up against the system, all the resistance that we get. I feel that if we can make this gathering of women happen, then we’ll be in positions of power in different places where we can impact change. It’s unfortunate that the Latina women priests don’t have the resources that other women clergy have because most of us are in Hispanic ministry where there isn’t a lot of funding. I think it’s going to take coming together and asking what we have to offer out of our experiences as Latina clergy. The church is not going to work any longer the way it’s being done. We’ve got to think about who’s coming if we just stand in the pulpit in a nice comfortable church. We’ve got to go wherever the people are and listen to what the people are experiencing in their lives. We’ve got to change.”
To Rev. Rincon the Divine Feminine is also vital to changing the church. “These images need to constantly be put in front of people’s faces. Not just women clergy, but divine images, like the Virgen de Guadalupe. As clergywomen we walk into a meeting, and here we sit with mostly men who are running the meeting. So I believe it’s important to put those Divine Feminine images in front of them in our liturgies and in our meetings. Men dominate the Hispanic ministry. And they’re not talking about the different shapes the Virgen de Guadalupe can take, like the Guadalupe with the big breasts and the big hips. I am a Virgen de Guadalupe admirer in every way. She is always at the forefront of immigration marches and other justice actions.”
For more of Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon’s story, see: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Changing_Church_Stories_of_Liberating_Ministers