When Edgardo Colón-Emeric first met John Wesley at Duke Divinity School, the two didn’t hit it off.
A native of Puerto Rico who first came to the U.S. mainland in 1986, Colón-Emeric found the father of Methodism off-putting, an 18th-century Englishman who didn’t translate well beyond his time and place.
“He just wasn’t somebody I could connect with,” says Colón-Emeric. “Not in the same way I could connect with, say, Don Quixote.”
But a few years later, while pastoring Cristo Vive UMC, a Hispanic ministry in Durham, N.C., Colón-Emeric worked part time as an indexer for Obras de Wesley, a major project by the Wesley Heritage Foundation to translate Wesley’s entire works into Spanish. Suddenly, he got it.
“Now I wasn’t reading Wesley in 18th century English, but 20th century Spanish,” he says. “I could connect in a way I never could before. It was a real turning point, and I began to consider myself Wesleyan.”
So Wesleyan, in fact, that Colón-Emeric has spent the past five years immersed in Wesley’s writings, working toward a Ph.D. from Duke in systematic theology. His dissertation, to be completed this summer, compares Wesley’s and Aquinas’s views on the doctrine of perfection.
“I was looking for commonalities, trying to bring the two traditions together,” says Colón-Emeric.
That ability to be in conversation with and to find common ground across different traditions is one of many gifts Colón-Emeric will bring to his new position as director of the Hispanic Studies Program and assistant research professor of theology and Hispanic studies. Scholar, pastor, former Catholic-turned Methodist, Colón-Emeric has studied, experienced and lived Hispanic ministry from a variety of perspectives.
After receiving his M.Div. from Duke in 1997, Colón-Emeric served as the first pastor of Durham’s Cristo Vive UMC. For a young, newly minted pastor, it was a trial by fire, a constant but rewarding struggle. Like any church planter, Colón-Emeric worked long hours trying to get a few people to attend services. He scrounged up hymnals and books, translating the works into Spanish when necessary.
“Basically, I had to learn a lot very quickly,” he says. “It’s a struggle to be in Hispanic ministry in the United Methodist Church and yet people remain because of tradition and hope.”
Since returning to Duke in 2002 to begin work on his Ph.D., Colón-Emeric has kept a hand in the local church, serving as an unpaid pastor of Hispanic ministry and outreach at Reconciliation UMC, a multi-cultural congregation in Durham. There, he drives the church van, presides at Eucharist, leads Bible study, and provides simultaneous translation during Sunday worship.
If his interest in Aquinas and Wesley is any indication, it’s all but certain that Colón-Emeric will do well in his new position. They believe perfection is possible with God’s grace, and after years of research, so does Colón-Emeric.
He traces his interest in the subject of Christian perfection back to questions asked of all United Methodist elders during ordination: “Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it?”
“I answered ‘Yes,’ but I wondered, ‘What did I just say yes to?’” says Colón-Emeric. “Both Aquinas and Wesley speak to the significance of holiness and sanctity. With God’s grace, it is something we are all called to. Sanctity is not the exception we admire at a distance. Mediocrity is not the norm. Sanctity is.”