Nat'l LaFe Conference Talk
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Nat'l LaFe Conference Talk
Good morning. My name is Ryan White, which I find ironic because I have never felt white.
I was born and raised in northern California in the northern suburbs of San Francisco. I
went to school at Sonoma State University, only 15 minutes away from my hometown, and I
now serve on staff there with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship working with
upperclassmen and minority students. I married young, marrying my wife Brianna after
five years of dating, but only a month after graduation. Ethnically, I am Nicaraguan,
Persian, and Sicilian. My mother’s family is from Grenada, Nicaragua and my biological
father grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In college, I took my stepfather’s last name (he was
the man who raised me), which is how I ended up with the last name of White. That should
be a good start. I will share more of my own ethnic identity journey as we look at Moses’.
God has placed you in our familia, so that you can bless the crowd. This is our track’s
theme for the week. Tonight we are exploring the first part of that statement: “God has
placed you in our familia.”
I know that you are here at LaFe National Conference because in some sense you identify
with being Latino or Hispanic or Chicano or something. But at the same time, maybe you
are like me and are still in process, still wrestling with your ethnic identity and coming to
grips with your heritage. Maybe you don’t consider yourself a “true” Latino for a variety of
reasons. Maybe it’s because you don’t speak Spanish or you didn’t immigrate to this
country or you didn’t grow up in a barrio and you feel that somehow that disqualifies you
and makes you less than a “true” Latino. You may even be worried that at sometime during
this week we are going to administer some test to determine if you are really Latino and
that you will be exposed as a fake. But don’t worry! There’s no test.
But tonight we do want to wade into some deep waters and wrestle with some hard
questions, questions like: Does it matter that I am Latino? Do I agree that God had some
purpose behind making be born Latino? Sure, my experiences may be different from my
dominant-culture friends, but my experiences are also different from many of my Latino
brothers and sisters. Is my experience even important? Why even have this conversation?
To help us to come to grips with our ethnic identities, we will look at the life of Moses as it
is depicted in the first couple chapters of Exodus. Moses is one of the giants of the Old
Testament, a liberator who led his people, the Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt and to the
Promised Land. He was a man that God spoke to face to face and who gave Israel the Ten
Commandments and the Torah, its law and sacred text. But like us, Moses wrestled with
his heritage. There were years that he did not even consider himself a Hebrew and when
he finally identified with his people the results initially were disastrous. I think his ethnic
journey can be very helpful in informing our own. So let me pray and we’ll dive into the life
In Exodus 1, we are introduced to Moses’ familia.
1 Now these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; they came each
one with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin;
Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the persons who came from the loins of Jacob were
seventy in number, but Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Joseph died, and all his brothers and all
that generation. 7 But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied,
and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them. 8 Now a new king
arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the
sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. 10 “Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else
they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us,
and fight against us and depart from the land.” 11 So they appointed taskmasters over them
to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and
Raamses. 12 But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they
spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. 13 The Egyptians compelled the
sons of Israel to labor rigorously; 14 and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in
mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously
imposed on them.
Moses’ ethnic identity journey begins before he is even born because Moses (like all of us)
finds a large part of his individual identity in the communal identity of his family – in his
case, the family of a man named Israel. And as a Latino, I can relate to this familia. Three
prominent forces mark their family history: patriarchs, immigration, and oppression.
It seems that in Moses’ family there are some prominent figures who exercise substantial
influence across the generations. Everyone in the family grows up in the shadow and
legacy of these larger-than-life figures. For Moses’ family, it was their ancestor Abraham,
his son Isaac, his grandson Jacob (later called Israel), and even his great-grandson Levi. I
intimately understand what it means to grow up within a family legacy. My whole life I was
told, “You’re a Guerrero” and was reminded of the accomplished and dominant figures in
my Nicaraguan family, the doctors, lawyers, dentists, priests, and of course my great-uncle
Lorenzo Guerrero-Gutierrez who was the president of Nicaragua from 1966-1967. In part,
my individual identity like Moses’ is connected the legacy of the patriarchs who have gone
Secondly, Moses’ family identity was shaped by a history of immigration. His ancestor
Abraham had left his family and homeland in Ur and set out in faith to the land promised by
God as his inheritance. Furthermore, Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson was trafficked
from that Promised Land into neighboring Egypt as a slave. After gaining freedom and
prominence in Egypt, Joseph brought his entire family over (chain migration) to escape
famine and drought. Thus deep in the family psyche was this notion that they were
immigrants. Again I see profound parallels with my own experience as an American Latino.
No person outside of Jesus has shaped my individual identity more than my abuelita Amada
who immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua in 1947. The reality of immigration
and the notion that we are recent arrivals and outsiders in this culture has deeply shaped
my family’s communal identity. I am certain the same was true for Moses.
Finally, Moses’ family identity is colored by the reality of oppression. The Hebrews were
second–class citizens in Egypt, consigned to lives of hard work and menial labor and
subjected to racist, dehumanizing, and even genocidal laws. The passage goes on to tell of
how the Egyptian pharaoh demanded newborn Israelite boys be killed in order to limit the
expanding Hebrew population. Oppression, racism, and entrenched privilege were some
hard realities that tinged Moses’ communal identity as a Hebrew. The same is true of many
American Latinos. My grandmother came from the Conservative aristocracy in Nicaragua.
She has master’s degrees in both accounting and French, but in the United States this
intelligent and educated woman spent her entire life in the US working as either a
seamstress or in a hotel kitchen. Systems of oppression and working-class poverty are
realities that have colored my family’s communal identity. This is the heritage that Moses
was born with, the foundations upon which he would build his ethnic identity.
But Moses did not have a typical Hebrew childhood. Due to his parents’ sacrifice and
defiance of unjust laws, Moses grew up with privilege. Let’s read starting in Exodus 2:
2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. 2 The woman
conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three
months. 3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it
over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it and set it among the reeds by the bank
of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to find out what would happen to him.
The rest of the story is that Moses’ little basket floats away and was picked up by the
daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh. She had pity on baby Moses and raised him as her own,
as a prince of Egypt. You guys saw that movie, right? So though Moses was born into a
poor, minority family, he grew up as if one of the most privileged Egyptians. Talk about
identity confusion; ethnically you are a part of an oppressed immigrant community, but
you are experiencing privilege your larger family of origin could only dream of. Moses
lived this way for forty years and Scripture gives no indication that Moses even identified
as a Hebrew during this time. I imagine he felt quite distant from his people.
I have experienced this sense of distance. I too grew up with privilege. When my mother
remarried early in my childhood, she married a janitor. But though we were in a
predominantly Latino industry, unlike most janitors my parents owned their own company
which gave them economic and social mobility. This enabled them to provide my sister and
I with a quality, private elementary education, which prepared us for success in the public
high school and university systems. Thus as an adult my education, my fluency in English,
and my light skin gave me an advantage over other Latinos in my community and that
created a sense of distant for me. I didn’t feel white, but I didn’t feel Latino either. It also
didn’t help that when my mom married a gringo we stopped speaking Spanish at home and
I lost my ability to communicate in Spanish.
Moses’ dissonance with his own ethnic identity eventually hit a crisis point at age 40.
2:11 Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his
brethren and looked on their hard labors; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of
It seems from the text that at this season in his life, Moses has been making regular visits to
the barrio. He did not feel at home in the palaces of Egypt. There was something different
about him; the Egyptian court was not his family. He began to self-identify as a Hebrew.
On top of this new sense of ethnic identity, Moses experienced a yearning for justice, a
desire to see things made right. For Moses, the two went hand-in-hand. He could not seek
to identify with his people without being concerned with their plight. They were a
subjugated and dominated people and Moses wanted to see them restored to live free,
flourishing lives. The author of Hebrews contextualized Moses’ sentiment in this way:
“By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,
choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing
pleasures of sin.”
With a burning sense of identity and a fiery passion for justice, Moses felt that he had a
unique opportunity to use his privilege to advocate and act on behalf of his people. Maybe
it was no accident that Moses had been preserved as a child. Maybe God had blessed Moses
with social, political, and economic power so that he could be a blessing to his people.
I felt something similar during my last years of college. At that time I was working as a
buyer at Whole Foods Market. After only a year or two working there, I was promoted to
the third highest position in my department surpassing men and women who had worked
there for years. Most of these individuals who were now under me were immigrants from
Mexico and Central America. Some were in their twenties like me, but most were older and
had some leadership experience. Some had even commanded troops in the Central
American wars. Yet here I was, a young, light-skinned man who though competent was
quickly elevated to a position of authority. It left me with lingering questions of whether
some sort of injustice had been committed. I felt compelled to use my position to advocate
on behalf of my Latino brethren in that department. When I talked with them, I could not
help but think of my grandmother who had been passed over for so many years, never able
to demonstrate or utilize her gifts and talents. I, like Moses, wanted to be my people’s voice
and their advocate in the halls of power.
But as we continue with Moses’ story we see that in his zeal to identify and advocate for his
people, he overcompensated.
2:12 So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck
down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
In a rage, Moses had killed a man and covered it up. His newly embraced ethnic identity
and his passion for justice quickly devolved into self-righteous, revolutionary violence.
[PAUSE] In the midst of his insecurity, he severely overcompensated.
Sadly to say, as I look at my own journey I can think of times that I too tried too hard to
declare my ethnic identity, with negative results. I remember while at Whole Foods being
absolutely consumed with rage whenever I saw some pimply-faced white kid walk in
wearing a Che Guevara shirt. Though at the time, I knew little of my people’s history, I did
know that Che had trained Carlos Fonseca and the Sandinistas who took over Nicaragua
and sent part of my family into exile. I knew many Cubans who referred to Che as the
“butcher of Cabaña”. Revile or revere him, Che was a Central American icon and no white,
hippy, skater kid had the right to claim such a controversial Latino figure as his own. I was
insecure and in my insecurity I was overcompensating with anger. I noticed I was also very
insecure about not speaking Spanish. I desperately wanted the Latinos at the grocery store
to see me as a Latino, as part of the familia, so I used the little Spanish I could remember
from my childhood as much as I could, which were mostly curse words, so I came off as a
Christian with a very dirty mouth.
Maybe Moses too had lingering fears that his own people would not accept him. Maybe
that is why he did something so dramatic. He had to prove he was vested in the
community, but his fears turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
13 He went out the next day, and behold, two Hebrews were fighting with each other; and he
said to the offender, “Why are you striking your companion?” 14 But he said, “ Who made you
a prince or a judge over us? Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then
Moses was afraid and said, “Surely the matter has become known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard
of this matter, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the presence of Pharaoh and settled
in the land of Midian, and he sat down by a well.
Ouch! Moses’ own people reject him. They don’t want some benefactor with fiery bravado.
Moses is crushed. Moreover, his other life as a prince of Egypt is quickly evaporating. He is
now a fugitive who is forced to flee. His whole world is collapsing. So he flees to Midian to
start over. He meets a woman named Zipporah whom he will eventually marry. But when
she brings him home to meet her father, she introduces him as an Egyptian, the very ethnic
identity he is desperately trying to get away from. At this point, Moses just gives up and
slips into a season of deep disillusionment. When his first son is born, he names him
Gershom, which literally means “a stranger there.” I think the statement Moses is making is
this: I don’t fit anywhere. I was a stranger and an outsider while in pharaoh’s palace. I was
a stranger and an outsider with my own people, and now I am a stranger and an outsider in
Midian. Moses doesn’t know who he is or what his mission is. He was born Hebrew and
has a burning desire to see his people free and flourishing, but he just does know what to
do anymore. He is disillusioned and defeated.
The good news is that the story does not end here. Moses forgot that he was not the only
actor in his story. He had failed to take into account the God who knew him intimately, who
had created him, who had preserved him as a child, and who had made a covenant with his
people. God had seen and God was on the move.
One day forty years after he had fled from Egypt, Moses saw a burning bush, a bush that
was on fire but was not being consumed. It was more than out of the ordinary; it was
unnatural and it hinted at another power at work. Sometimes God in his grace puts
burning bushes in our lives or in our hearts to alert us to the possibility that God is doing
something we could not have predicted. Burning bushes present us with a choice – we can
choose to ignore them or we can choose to turn aside to take a closer look. What would
you do if you saw a burning bush?
Despite his forty years in exile in Midian and his disillusionment and defeat, Moses chose to
turn aside to look and that simple act of hope set him up for an encounter with God.
3:4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the
bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then He said “Do not come near
here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy
ground.” 6 He said also, “ I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
In the midst of all of Moses’ identity confusion, God calls Moses by name. He wants Moses
to know that he is known. He is not a stranger or an outsider to God. God does not only call
him by name, but he speaks into Moses’ very identity. When God identifies himself as “the
God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” he is also affirming Moses’ ethnic
identity as a Hebrew. God says, “I am the God of your familia. I do not mistake you for a
Midianite or an Egyptian, you are one of my people, you are a Hebrew.” How amazing
would that be for Moses to hear! But there is more.
7 The LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have
given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. 8 “So I
have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from
that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of
the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the
Jebusite. 9 “Now, behold, the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen
the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 “Therefore, come now, and I
will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”
The Lord affirms Moses’ yearning for justice, his desire to see his people free and
flourishing. He also affirms Moses’ desire to be a blessing to his people. In fact, he calls
Moses to go back to Pharaoh’s palace and liberate his people. God’s calling on Moses’ life
had everything to do with who Moses really was, his true identity as a Hebrew who grown
up in privilege, displaced from his people. God is calling Moses to be who he was, but he
also calling him to become something he is not yet – a leader who would bring his people
out of bondage.
11 But Moses said to God, “ Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the
sons of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 And He said, “Certainly I will be with you.”
4:10 Then Moses said to the LORD, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently
nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow
of tongue.” 11 The LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute
or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? 12 “Now then go, and I, even I, will be with
your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.” 13 But he said, “Please, Lord, now send the
message by whomever You will.”
Moses’ insecurity is coming to the surface. He questions his qualifications and legitimacy
for this calling. Who am I to go to Egypt and free this people? God, don’t you remember? I
tried this once before. I failed. In anger, I killed a man and anyhow your people rejected
me. God responds, “I will be with you. You will have my name and my power at your
Moses is not convinced. Who am I to speak for this people? I cannot speak well. Now I
tend not to believe Moses here. Later in the Bible, it says that Moses was educated in all of
the wisdom of Egypt and was mighty in word and deed. I think he could speak just fine. I
think he is afraid to speak for his people. He didn’t grow up in the barrio, in slavery. Maybe
there was a language barrier. Whatever it was, privilege, language, or a lack of experience,
he did not think he was the man for the job. Send someone else, he told God.
God repeats his assurance. I will be with you. I will teach you what to say. He even makes
an allowance to send Aaron, Moses’ brother who grew up in the barrio, to help him. But he
is still sending Moses. I will be with you. I know who you are. I placed you in this familia.
Now go be a blessing. I am with you.
I think Moses’ ethnic identity journey holds a lot of lessons for us. First, it emphasizes that
who we are is important. Our ethnic identity, the familia that we are a part of is significant.
God did not make a mistake when he caused Moses to be born a Hebrew. It did not happen
randomly or by chance. His true identity with all its twists and complexities was intimately
linked with God’s calling on his life, in how he was called to participate in God’s mission of
liberation and restoration. The same is true for us. It is no accident that you and I were
born Latino or even part Latino. God placed you in this familia.
Second, not only did God place you in this family, but also you belong here. God knows
your experience. He knows that it has been different from your other Latino brothers and
sisters. Be secure in this identity. Maybe you don’t look Latino, maybe you don’t speak
Spanish, maybe you grew up with every advantage. God knows. That doesn’t mean you
don’t belong here. Don’t fall into the temptation to overcompensate and prove yourself. In
James, it says that the “anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Let’s not
fall into the trap of anger or like me the trap of pretending you are something you are not,
but at the same time don’t shy away from something you are. This is especially difficult for
us who are biracial or mestizo.
Finally, I think Moses’ story invites us to stop and pay attention. Is there any burning bush
in your life that you are missing or ignoring? I would argue that all of us having burning
bushes in our lives, places that flicker with grace and give hints that God is moving in
unpredicted ways. Pay attention to that which burns within your own heart, to what gives
life and what unexpectantly drains that life. Stop and consider. Maybe this conference this
is week is a burning bush for you - an invitation to encounter God, to let him speak into
your identity and calling. I invite you turn aside and look closer. Take off your shoes and
encounter the God who made you and called you. What if Moses had been too busy or too
disillusioned or too hopeless to stop and take a second look? Today we would be saying
“Moses? Moses who? Never heard that guy.” He would not have been the great liberator of
his people, he would not have been the Moses for his people. Furthermore, Moses wouldn’t
have been whole. He would be a crushed, disillusioned, old man who did not know who he
was or God’s heart for him and for his people. Consider your life, your own ethnic identity
journey, is there a burning bush God is inviting you to draw near to and take a second look?