Today, we welcome Pastor Laura Ayala. She is the Coordinator of Global Missions for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the Atlanta area of Georgia. She was born in Puerto Rico into a Catholic family, but she was able to come to the United States to go to school in the 8th and 9th grades. She then moved back to Puerto Rice until college. For college, she attended the University of New Jersey. After graduation, she went back to Puerto Rico and started working for a non-profit that was started by her home church. After many years of back and forth between the US and Puerto Rico, she earned her master’s degree, and is now working on getting her PhD from Drew University. She has been married to her husband for almost 15 years and they are raising their nephew together.

As was mentioned, she grew up Catholic, but her older brother was actually a Baptist pastor. This was her first exposure to protestant Christianity. Pastor Ayala received her first call to ministry at age 19. She reflects on this time, “I was very concerned because I was in probably, like, my third year of college…almost ready to finish my degree…because I was like, ‘what am I going to do? Should I go to seminary? Should I study something else?’ I was completely sure God called me to ministry, but I was not sure God wanted me to be a pastor.” She adds, “I was like, no…NO…I was sure God was calling me to ministry, but I was completely sure that it wasn’t to be a pastor or to be a missionary.” She felt that being a pastor was not for her because “There was this image of female pastors here that had a particular hair-do, and a particular way of dressing…and I didn’t see myself like that.” I should add here that Pastor Ayala has a very natural look. She is beautiful, but it’s not because of the usual “frills” of femininity. She has beauty that radiates from within, and her eyes sparkle naturally, without a lot of extra makeup and accessories.

The time she spent with the non-profit back in Puerto Rico is what she calls, “the time with the real world.” She worked with people experiencing homelessness, unemployment, and people trying to recover from various addictions. “Honestly, I was heartbroken…I was extremely troubled,” she says. There was some dissonance between what she was experiencing at Drew, and what the clients she was working with were experiencing. She adds, “they [the people at the non-profit] don’t have time to think about ‘who is God’ when they’re hungry and they don’t have a house…so THAT in itself created trouble in my heart and mind.” At that point, she decided to stop pursuing the PhD. Through this work, she was continually drawn to being a pastor, even though she was reluctant. “Two or three years into the work, my heart started changing…I felt different…when I was preaching,” she says. She remembers talking to a seasoned female pastor at that time, who told her, “We all knew, but you were the only one who did not accept it!” So, she has been in the Atlanta area for over 5 years leading this ministry, and she is right where she needs to be!

I asked her about how her job gives her life: what makes her go to bed at night thankful that she’s doing what she’s doing? She says, “I love when I’m able to put together a person’s need with a resource…when I’m able to make that connection. And that is something that can be used in any setting.” This has also been a gift to her at home. Several months ago, her husband’s sister lost her battle with cancer, so her son/their nephew moved in with Pastor Ayala and her husband. It’s been a hard adjustment for everyone, but being able to help him make new connections in a new home has been rewarding. She has spent her entire life caring for others, including a brother with Downs Syndrome, and aging parents, and these experiences have greatly influenced her work as a pastor.

When asked about challenges she faces as a Hispanic woman in ministry, she revisited the idea of perception from the congregation/outside observers. She discussed how a man can wear a lot of the same types of things and no one really notices, but a woman is judged so much more based on what she wears. And, for the most part, men do not have thoughts about doing their laundry or cooking and cleaning. Women feel that burden, and are held to a much higher standard than men, all around. She told me about a professor who once gave her a B on a paper, and told her to redo it. Pastor Ayala was confused and asked why. The professor said, “As a Hispanic woman in ministry, you can’t just be good… must be excellent.” These ideas have stuck with her, even though she knows a lot of this is socially ingrained and wrong. But being a female leader has its gifts, too. “It’s a different way of communicating and a different level of leadership. You are more open to collaborative efforts. You’re able to understand where everybody is at and are able to help them to grow…in God’s purpose for their lives…Sometimes I know it, but I don’t say it….I have to feel it.”

She has many heroes who have influenced her and/or have been a support system for her. Her parents, Victor and Laura, were huge mentors for her. Her home church community, First Baptist Church of Caguas. Also, Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz from Drew University. And Rev. Dr. Roberto Dieppa-Báez, who is the former Executive Minister of Baptist Churches of Puerto Rico.

We are grateful to Pastor Laura Ayala for her voice and for the connections she makes in people’s lives!

A Benediction for Those in the Back-And-Forth of Discovery

Here, there, and everywhere is where you find yourself
Tossed to and fro…on thorny and weedy trails, but a very clear overall vision
Where do my paths connect?
Can I have a machete please?
I should have worn better clothes

Oh, these trails might be treacherous,
But there is a light that shines bright right at your feet
Stop, look and listen, my girl
That light is inside of you
And it will shine true to lead you to beauty you can’t imagine

Follow the light
Follow your path
Follow the beauty that shines from the inside out
And follow the connections you’re making in the journey

-Written by Katie Mitchell

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