Q&A with Leon Rodrigues, vice president for inclusion and belonging and interim dean of students
Leon Rodrigues loves the magic of an Italian espresso machine.
“When electricity, water, and steam come together in a technology that’s both old and dependable— there’s nothing more fulfilling than watching this thing work and come to life,” said Rodrigues, Luther Seminary’s vice president for inclusion and belonging.
Rodrigues, who also serves as Luther’s interim dean of students, no longer runs his hobby-turned-business of repairing vintage coffee makers, but he’s still immersed in the work of bringing complex parts into balance. Following teaching and leadership roles at the University of Minnesota, Bethel University, and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, he took a sabbatical from higher education to become president and CEO of an international missions nonprofit. But when former colleagues recommended he apply for the role at Luther, he felt “an absolute calling” to theological education.
Since May 2019, Rodrigues has led the institution’s strategic vision for accountability, belonging, inclusion, diversity, and equity (ABIDE). He recently sat down with us to talk about the opportunities and challenges of this moment, and where he draws inspiration for this critical work.
Q: How would you describe Luther’s ABIDE framework and where this work is headed?
A: When it comes to diversity, you’ve got to look at the whole. You’ve got to look at all the systems, and you’ve got to build relationships with everybody. Diversity cuts across so many issues—not only around human difference but also in how people interact with each other. Successful diversity also means attaining institutional cohesion.
As you know, the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd exposed deep inequalities in our society. This period also brought to light how institutions may be complicit in racial injustice. Responding to these and other inequities during the pandemic gave us the opportunity to write the ABIDE framework—to express what we believe, and how it is that we will act in line with our welcome statement. This framework allows us to implement and measure the success of our practices. We took the acronym commonly used in the broader diversity arena—diversity, equity, and inclusion— and looked at it from a biblical perspective, adding accountability to each other and our community. We also focused on the importance of belonging for all in our community. It came together in the word ABIDE, which I think is a deeply theological, biblical concept that reminds us of God abiding with us and us abiding with each other.
Several departments and action groups, including our ABIDE committee, are investing time in exploring things like restorative justice programs and initiatives that will make the seminary a place where belonging is a key characteristic. We have to build our community by recognizing how diverse we are. If there are students, staff, or faculty who feel marginalized, we want to acknowledge and respond to that.
Q: One phrase that stands out from the ABIDE framework is that “to abide with one another is to commit to be in relationship.” What does this mean for Luther and for the church?
A: Obviously, working remotely and only seeing each other through electronic means has shown us that people want to connect and be in community with each other. The challenge is to engage with one other, to learn each other’s stories, and to acknowledge how unequal situations cause a fracture in our relationships. These include old habits of thinking about “who is my community?” and challenging ourselves to have different views, or at least to interrogate some of our previously held views. There has not always been that struggle to intentionally include each other, to actually become invested in relationship, to have a community compact of how we would live and work together, and to sharpen our view of the issues that create disparities in our society.
How does the church develop a closer awareness of somebody else’s reality and how that fractures our society? We do the work of raising awareness on campus, but there should also be more work to challenge structures that perpetuate a particular way of life, and that make things normative which should not be the norm—those things that make us feel like we’re either powerless or that “it’s not my fault.” Those are deep questions for a Christian community.
“The whole world is changing, and nobody knows what it’s going to look like. But biblically, we have a vision of what a Christian community should look like. If we can respond to that, I think that’s going to be helpful to us.”
Q: After more than two years living through a pandemic, this moment presents both challenges and possibilities. What possibilities do you see?
A: People have always asked me, “What would it take to be a multicultural and inclusive society?” And I have always said I don’t have the answer to that, because I have one answer—I have my answer. How do we come together as a community to shape what it should look like? I’m looking for how we all invest in that and how it becomes a “we” rather than an “I.”
And that is challenging. It’s really hard. But I would say, at this moment, we can think about the structural changes we want to make. Naming things in our community, because when you name something, you’re compelled to respond to it; otherwise, it becomes a contradiction. It could even mean redeploying or re-skilling people to get at those things. I often talk in my classes about “Sankofa,” which is a word that comes from the Akan tribe in Ghana and means “to go back to deal with what we had overlooked.” This is a Sankofa moment, where we are confronted with issues that have been overlooked in the past. What is it that happened and how has it affected us? And how can this moment look different? The whole world is changing, and nobody knows what it’s going to look like. But biblically, we have a vision of what a Christian community should look like. If we can respond to that, I think that’s going to be helpful to us.
Q: Where do you find inspiration?
A: A lot of it is in my own personal history. I grew up in apartheid South Africa. I learned from important theologians in my life, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, Charles Villa-Vicencio, Caesar Molebatsi, and David Bosch. I’m fortunate that I had the experience of participating in the movement for change in South Africa and eventually seeing the fall of apartheid.
But I also know how much endurance it takes to get up, brush yourself off, and keep going when efforts fail or you suffer disappointments. I was a long distance runner, and I also used to climb mountains. I know what it means to hook up and hang on the side of a mountain, eat a protein bar, and figure out, where am I going to find the next handhold?
I also get a lot of inspiration from reading and listening to formidable American thinkers and writers, people like Lisa Sharon Harper, James Cone, and Otis Moss III. I think the African American community knows what it is to struggle in this country and still produce beauty—things like jazz, art, and faithfulness amidst a generations-long struggle. That kind of tenacity is what I’m looking for and what I hope to instill in others. When I share that hope with others and see their excitement, I get excited