Dear Friends of ScholarLeaders,
In this feature on Dr. Athena Gorospe, you’ll read about how a theologian in the Philippines combines Biblical scholarship with activism. Athena calls for justice for the marginalized, and she teaches others to do the same. You’ll also read about how she applies the Bible to issues in society.
ScholarLeaders supported Athena during her PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary, and she serves as co-organizer for the Women’s PeerLeader Forum.
As you read, consider:
- How does our treatment of one marginalized group impact other marginalized groups – as you’ll see in Athena’s discussion of the marginalized in the Philippines?
- What are specific situations in your context to which an unusual Biblical narrative might speak?
- What might it look like for you to be “downwardly mobile,” as Athena says?
- After reading this profile, how might you respond to Christ’s call to care for “the least of these”?
With excitement for our work together,
Evelyn Reynolds, PhD
Featuring Athena Gorospe
A Profile of Dr. Athena Gorospe
April 2019 | Evelyn Reynolds
Fifteen years ago, Athena Gorospe gave a devotional in which she called her audience – wealthy American Christians – to be downwardly mobile. That morning in Pasadena, she argued that we should recover “Jesus’s concern for the marginalized, the invisible people.”
Athena has dedicated herself to this plea – and to practicing what she preaches – especially in the Philippines.
In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan formed over the Pacific. It killed at least 6,300 people. Two months later, in January 2014, bodies were still washing ashore.
Athena went on to write about how Christians should respond to disaster and about responsible environmental stewardship. But Filipinos also face longer-term, less obvious suffering.
Approximately 10.2 million Filipinos have left their homes to work abroad. As noncitizens, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) have no legal recourse and often face humiliating prejudices. Yet they often make high salaries and adapt to their second countries’ cultures, which makes return difficult.
Athena applies familiar Biblical stories to help people understand OFWs. Talking about Moses’s flight from and return to Egypt at God’s command, she says that for migrants who return home, “There’s a… dying to certain things of a previous identity in order to be able to integrate into a new identity.” (You can read Athena’s essay on caring for OFWs here.)
Athena’s compassion for the marginalized also comes from personal experience. As an 11-year-old, she came to Christ in a Protestant church. She immediately used her own money to buy New Testaments for her classmates “because I wanted them to hear the Word of God.”
This gap pushed her toward spiritual darkness. A mentor committed suicide; relationships failed. Remembering those years, she says, “Sometimes in my Christian community, you are affirmed if you are doing well, but if you fail… you get marginalized.” Eventually, she dropped out of school.
Grieving what she perceived as her failures, Athena read the Bible. She found the promise that God “is able to keep you from falling and to present you blameless before Him with great joy. I said, ‘I don’t feel that I’m blameless…,’ but there’s this promise!”
She was serving at a Filipino-Chinese church, but she felt that she needed training, so she finished her Bachelor’s. She jokes, “Oh, I was trying to find the meaning of life, but I couldn’t…, so I went back to school.”
She started studying at ATS. During a course on Christianity and society, a professor wrote on an exam, “I hope you would go for further studies, Lady Theologian.” With that encouragement, Athena earned her MDiv at ATS.
Athena said yes to ATS’s faculty development plan – “I really want to study God’s Word, and I really want to share God’s Word,” she remembers thinking – but she had to wait for more senior faculty to earn their degrees. ATS could not support most of its faculty leaving at once.
While she waited, Athena started teaching at ATS in 1993. In 2000, with support from the ScholarLeaders LeaderStudies program, she entered Fuller Theological Seminary’s PhD program. At a ScholarLeaders board meeting, she delivered that call to downward mobility.
Indeed, Athena still sees herself as speaking for the margins from the margins. “Not that I’m against ordination,” she notes, “but I never see myself as playing a role in the hierarchy.” Instead, she wants “always to be in the margins… working with people in the grassroots.”
Athena returned to ATS in 2006. She now directs ATS’s Contextual Theology PhD program, which is “an interdisciplinary PhD. Most people would just concentrate on Bible,” she says, but ATS integrates Theology with Social Sciences. Thus, Athena trains the next generation of Christian leaders to address societal questions.
Now, the situation is so drastic that “People… kill people and then wrap them in masking tape with a cardboard [sign] saying, ‘I’m a drug user.’ And that means that you’re worth being killed,” Athena explains. As of 2017, “7,000 people have died.” Athena and her colleagues have used social media, protests, and petitions to call for justice. (According to human rights groups, the number could be far higher.)
She also criticizes Filipino attitudes toward women. With disgust, Athena says that “even the top leadership has made a lot of jokes about women.” When a Filipino congresswoman “launched an investigation on the extrajudicial killings…, she became a target.” In order to discredit her, leaders “wanted to show her sex video in Congress!”
When Athena’s male students at ATS minimized the situation as “just a joke,” Athena turned to the Bible, to Judges 19, in which a woman is raped and hacked in pieces to make a political point. After reading that passage, her students “could hardly talk,” she recalls.
In such intense situations, Athena asks students, friends, colleagues – and her international community – to consider “how Scripture can speak to the issues of today.” She says that “Christians often have a naïve understanding of what goes on in society: ‘Just because I read it this way, then it is this way,’ when actually, there are other factors going on.”
To support her call for contextual, practical theology, Athena says, “Remember Job? The teaching of his friends was all right. They were orthodox…. Yes, … in some cases, if we sin, we do suffer the consequences…. But [for Job], it was the right doctrine to the wrong context.” She concludes, “the same message applied to the wrong context becomes a false message!”
Athena does see the Church growing in the Philippines. The country is 80% Catholic, thanks to about 500 years of Spanish rule, but Protestants are increasing (a significant Muslim minority lives in the south and has been in the news for the ISIS-driven siege of Marawi).
Partly thanks to emphasis within the Lausanne Movement on “social action and evangelism,” Athena is hopeful for the Church’s impact. Regarding poverty especially, she says, “I think we have matured so much in that area…. There are… ministries to children, ministries to women in prostitution.”
Athena’s own ministry ripples from ATS. For example, she has mentored “three generations” of women – Anawa, Georgie, and Jeannette. Athena mentored Anawa in her ministry to Iraqi refugees. Anawa encouraged Georgie to enroll at ATS. Together, they guided Jeannette, a recent ATS graduate, to participate in Wycliffe.
Whether she is counseling typhoon survivors, managing academic paperwork, protesting against extrajudicial violence, tweeting about women’s rights, or analyzing the Old Testament, Athena calls us to consider how we will answer Christ’s challenge – “If you have done it to the least of these my siblings, you have done it to Me.”
If you would like to learn more about Athena’s research or ministry, please send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.