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Rev. Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks

Biography

The Reverend Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks is a queer, womanist minister and healer and serves as the Executive Director of A Just Harvest, a non-profit organization working to combat hunger in Rogers Park and greater Chicago by bringing folx together across lines of racial and socioeconomic difference. She is also pastor at San Lucas United Church of Christ and an adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Rev. Dr. Pagán-Banks collaborates with Encuentros, a project of the United Church of Christ “that seeks to increase and strengthen the welcome and inclusion of people who are LGBTQI in Latinx UCC churches as well as in historically [white] UCC churches.” 

Pagán-Banks was raised Roman-Catholic, having been born and baptized as an infant in Chicago. At age four, she was kidnapped by her father who took her away from her mother and older brothers to Cleveland, OH, where she was raised with her father, step-mother, and step-brother. In an interview about her life, Pagán-Banks said she has no childhood memories of her mother, who died in 2002. She left home at 15, running away and spending time in a group home for a year. She noted that this was a positive experience, and that these positive adult relationships affirmed her leadership. She returned going to church and knew she wanted to work with young people after the formative experience of her time at the group home, manifesting as a strong need to be connected to others. 

Pagán-Banks attended Catholic school until 9th grade, and she felt many of the constraints on expression and exploration she learned at school were reinforced in her home culture. Speaking on the Encuentros Latinx podcast on July 4, 2o2o, Pagán-Banks talked about the “connection I experienced growing up in the Catholic Church and as a Latina - so much more emphasis on what you are not supposed to do rather than the many ways you can experience God. When I think about the role of the Church, in particular in communities that have been colonized, it is hard to separate Church and culture. This is what it means to be female, a good girl, Catholic, all about what you don’t do, not how you show up as your full self.” 

The strict gender roles imposed on Pagán-Banks in her church and family led her to experience her faith in isolation. She told a story of having a recurring spiritual dream as a child that she never felt comfortable sharing with her family, even though they also went to church. In her dream, she was following Jesus through a wooded area, noting that he would often look to check that she was still with him, that she was safe. However, her family culture and Church culture reinforced that as a girl, she had no place for leadership in the Church, so she never talked about this dream or her deepening connection to Jesus. She explained, “if we see God as this high up, unapproachable male God, how do we begin to understand how we are connected to God, connected to each other? Especially as a girl child, all you are told is not to show up in ways that cause harm or bring shame.” 

This culture also forbade discussion of sexuality, even the heteronormative expectations of marriage. Pagán-Banks told a story of her first communion, how when she was standing at Church with her veil on, she innocently began humming the tune of the Wedding March. Her father overheard and smacked her, with no pause for curiosity or comment; this childish play-acting that she didn’t even fully understand was too close to being “fast.” She went on, “The idea of being able to talk about these things, … there was no opportunity to unpack any of that in my house. There was no talk of sexuality, sensuality, even about dreaming of being married and having children though there was an expectation.” As she began to consider her own sexuality, she had to do so alone, without an ability to talk with others to try to understand what was happening or unpack her own feelings. She explained, “I can’t help but connect this whole shame culture, the colonialism, the machismo, all of that, with the church and culture [that] led to unhealthy ways of beginning to know who I was in my body.” 

Pagán-Banks had another awakening as she began to understand the political context of her Puerto Rican identity. While growing up in Cleveland, she always understood herself as Puerto Rican and belonging to the island, but when she moved back to Chicago to attend seminary, that identity took on a new dimension. She said of this discovery, “it has been a real gift and also been very painful, but it also further deepened my sense of pride in being Boricua. It calls me to struggle anew with my faith and what it means to be a Christian given what I now know of, as one  professor called it, the evangelical violence [of Puerto Rican colonialism].” She notes that learning this history while in seminary was particularly challenging. Learning for the first time that the Church had caused specific and oppressive harm in Puerto Rico went against her fundamental belief that the church must tell the truth, “even about itself when it is hard.” She described learning this history, saying, “To come to seminary and learn the history of the Catholic Church and all of its violence, to know that we as a people came about through rape, through causing folks to leave their countries and be made slaves elsewhere, the pillage of a people, for me that was so painful.” She felt heart-broken to realize that throughout her Catholic school education, this truth had been hidden, saying “not telling that true story is a slap in the face to Christ. It was the Church itself that distorted the Jesus movement in such a way, the complicity of the Church around further perpetuating empire, complicity of the Church causing us to other ourselves.”

This understanding of the Church’s complicity in harm, as well as the rigid doctrine of her upbringing, made Pagán-Banks uncertain that she would lead a faith community. She wrote, 

I entered seminary unclear as to what my ministry setting would be. While I loved church, I did not see myself in full-time parish ministry because … I didn't think I could be a pastor and truly be myself. … I didn’t buy into performing respectability. I wasn’t holy enough. My edges were too sharp. I cuss! I spoke my heart and mind. I was bold and not apologetic about my passionate energy. I am queer, claim my Blackness, and love my Puerto Rican culture!

Pagán-Banks is clear that her call to ministry has always been rooted in her community and that the power of this community call is greater than the artificial constraints the institutional church places on ministry. Her community held wisdom even beyond her own understanding, as she wrote, “My call came from the community. They saw what I could not see.” Community is central to Pagán-Banks’ theology and to how she connects to following Jesus. She described the example of Jesus as being “theocentric and communocentric - Jesus centered God and Community. When I think about that, it makes so much room for the many ways that God continues to show up." She felt a call rooted in wanting to help others in her community, and felt specifically called to accompany her community, to build collective power together, to call out gifts in others, and ultimately to find liberation. Pagán-Banks graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary with a Master’s in Divinity in 1997 and completed a Doctorate in Ministry at Chicago Theological Seminary in 2016 with a dissertation entitled: "Love Overcomes Chaos: Accompanying Young Adults Seeking Life Outside of Gangs, Guns and Drugs." 

In her own liberation, Pagán-Banks has spoken about her embrace of the word “queer” in her identity. She explained, 

Fluidity matters, ambiguity matters, and self-determination matters. … At the end of the day, … I love the word queer. It leaves space enough where if I don’t want to tell you exactly what that means, I don't have to. In some ways, I don't want to limit the fullness of who I am, don’t want to get stuck in any one box. … It’s ok for you to wonder! There’s fun in wonder, there’s opportunity for dialogue in wonder.

Pagán-Banks explains her work with Encuentros as an attempt to reclaim a faith that has been cast as exclusive and used for harm. Within the UCC, a tradition known for its progressive stance on welcoming LGBTQ+ people, Pagán-Banks notes that those working for queer welcome have often been historically very white. “Most queer affirming [space] is very segregated when it is connected to church,” she noted. She describes her work as trying to help the entire church own the work of becoming more open and affirming, and to never lose sight of their interdependence. “I believe in building and presence and not waiting for others to invite us to the table,” she said. “Through relationships and in conversation, [we are] holding the system accountable that we are supposed to be in covenant with,” She expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work with Encuentros and “other spaces where brilliance shows up, where creativity shows up. It reinspires me for the work. … Even though it is a hell of a fight, in the words of Assata Shakur, it is our duty to win.”

(This biographical statement was written by Sana DelCorazon for a Queer & Trans Theologies class at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities from an interview with Pagán-Banks and the Encuentros Latinx podicase on July 4, 2020.)

Biography Date: January 2024

Tags

United Church of Christ/Congregational Church | Clergy Activist | Latinx | Racism | Chicago | Illinois

Citation

“Rev. Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/marilyn-pagan-banks.

Remembrances

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