Introducing Oscar Rozo: Our Diocesan Missioner for Latino Ministries
Growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, Oscar Rozo remembers the church being a place of solace from the violence sweeping throughout his country.
"The 1980s and 1990s were an extremely violent time in Colombia," Rozo said. "We had the drug lords growing and rising up, every day we heard more and more about the war that existed between them and the government. Every day on the news you would hear that there was another bomb, or there was a massacre. It was just an extremely anxious time of thinking, 'When it it going to be us? When are the guerillas going to come and get my parents, or my brothers, or me?' But in the midst of that anxiety, church was a space for me to have a sense of hope, it gave me a sense of light in my mind."
The oldest of 3 boys, Rozo describes his childhood as truly shaped by the example and teaching of his parents as they worked to raise their boys with Christian values, even as his family faced challenged with poverty. Raised in a devoutly Catholic family, one of Rozo's earliest memories is walking 30 minutes to church on Sunday, trying not to fall asleep during the 2 hour service. However, as he grew older, he began see his life shaped by his faith and started to think about a life of ministry.
"I think going to church and listening to this message of loving God and loving your neighbor, listening to those values and morals, it just planted this seed in my heart in many ways and helped me grow in my own life based off of Christ's sense of love in the world," Rozo said. "So I always saw church as a special place and something that I wanted to be a part of."
Though Rozo became deeply involved in his home church and considered going into ministry, he continued to wrestle with this call for a few reasons. Unsure if he was truly suited for the life of celibacy, separation, and solitude expected of the priests in Roman Catholicism, Rozo was also wrestled with the Catholic church's opposition to female priests.
"I always noticed this disfunction and imbalance of leadership," Rozo said. "It was always the men leading, and yes, there were nuns, but there was never a female priest. To me, it felt really contradictory to the idea of the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic church, she is identified as the Mother of God, so I thought, 'How is there a mother of God, and yet we don't have a female priest?'"
Wrestling with his own faith and calling, Rozo turned to music. Having studied guitar for many years, he decided to try to go to college and study classical music. However, as he began to try applying for jobs to pay for his tuition, he began to deal with the anxiety of being able to help his family, especially as he watched them struggle during a period of civil unrest. Driven by the desire to support his family members, Rozo decided to apply for a visa to the United States.
With an aunt in Madison, Wisconsin, Rozo decided to try for a visa. Though he spoke little English at the time and had merely high school records to share with the embassy, his visa application was accepted, and Rozo moved to Wisconsin in 2004. To Rozo, he took this as a sign from God that this is where he was meant to be.
"I remember going to a church before my visit to the embassy and saying to God, 'I don't know what to do except that I know I'm ready to give my life to you if it is useful," Rozo said. "If you want me to stay in Colombia please show me because I have no idea what to do next, if you want me to go, please show me the way."
On his first Sunday in the United States, Rozo's Aunt Teresa invited him to attend church with her. However, it was not at a traditional Roman Catholic church, and rather a denomination Rozo had not heard of before, called the Episcopal Church.
"I was really curious!" Rozo remembers. "So on Sunday we showed up at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison. It's a beautiful old building with stained glass windows, this beautiful altar, and so similar to my experience at the Catholic church. We went to the Spanish service because I didn't know English at the time. I remember sitting down and looking at the priest and something caught my attention--the priest had earrings! And long hair! Then the priest started talking in a high pitched voice and I thought, 'Oh my goodness this is a woman!' I remember looking at my aunt and she was just laughing at this big shock I'd had in that moment.
Photo via Michael Howe, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The priest was named Pat Size, and she would later come to be a mentor and friend to Rozo. Size was one of the first people to recognize Rozo's calling to ministry, and worked with him for many years to help him learn English, go to college, and eventually pursue his calling to ministry.
"She truly embraced me into a spiritual journey and a time of discernment," Rozo said. "However, I still hardly spoke English, and I found a bilingual program in Chicago but I didn't have the money to pay for school. Pat Size came up with the idea to record a CD of classical guitar that we could sell to create a college fund for Latino immigrants, so we probably raised about $10,000, maybe more! A small portion of that went to me, but it was also used for other students for years."
As he began to make a life for himself in Wisconsin, Rozo began to feel called back to ministry. Much of this calling was in his interactions with people, especially the kindness shown to him from others as he adjusted to life in a new country and learned a new language. As he began to form relationships with people in his diocesan community, he remembers beginning to think to himself, "priesthood makes sense."
"It was just amazing to see how many people came together to support me and love me and shape me and help me grow," Rozo said. "I think discernment actually began way before I moved to the US, probably in my teens I began to have this sense to serve. Serving to me brings a lot of joy and it's really emotional, but it's also about seeking Christ in all people and respecting the dignity of every human being. Early on I had that sense in my, and I think a lot of that was God's work through people. Since I had priests and people to put little seeds of love and joy and hope in my life, how can I not do that for other people?"
After his two years studying in Chicago, Rozo moved back to Wisconsin and pursued a 4-year degree in religions. It was during this time that he began the formal discernment process with the Diocese of Milwaukee. Every month, he would meet with a group of lay-leaders from the Anglo and Latino communities as part of his spiritual formation. It was these experiences that helped Rozo develop and shape his views for creating connections between the Anglo and Latino communities in the Episcopal Church.
"I remember thinking, 'the world is so broken, and I cannot be part of that brokenness," Rozo said. "I want to be part of something different that creates bridges and reminds us all that we are God's creatures and we are loved. So we should work together for a better future."
In 2009, Rozo was accepted as a postulate to the Holy Orders of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Only in his early twenties at the time, the bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee, Bishop Miller, suggested he go to seminary to gain a bit more experience before taking his position. Only a few months later, Rozo found himself at Virginia Theological Seminary.
"Coming from Colombia, the possibility of getting a masters is unheard of," Rozo said. "I was just so joyful, and I knew that I could not mess it up, I had to really focus. So I knew that opportunity, and I knew I had to do a lot of work. So my first year in seminary I focused on working hard, I wanted to study and pray and I wanted in many ways to just be a monk, because coming from the Roman Catholic Church that's what seminary is, it's like a monastery, it's holy and quiet. So that's what I thought, but then I came to seminary and it was the complete opposite, it's college!"
Quiet and introverted, Rozo was reluctant to participate in a party his housemates were having his second year at seminary, and rather opted to study quietly upstairs as the students mingled below. All of sudden, there was a knock on his door.
"It was like 9 o'clock and someone knocked on my door,"Rozo said. "So I welcomed her in and she introduced herself as Liz Tester. She was just the kind of person that opens up herself and opens a space for you to be who you are. I just connected with her, we talked for maybe four hours about politics and faith and philosophy, we just connected right away."
Liz Tester was from Boone, North Carolina, and had a deep family history rooted in the Diocese of WNC. Rozo distinctly remembers coming to North Carolina for the first time with Tester, and being reminded of the landscape where he grew up in the Andes of Colombia.
"At one point while we were dating Liz brought me to North Carolina, and I just fell in love," Rozo said. "It reminds me so much of Bogotá where I was born. Bogotá is placed on the top of the Andes, so there are mountains everywhere, and when I was growing up one of the things I would do during the summer was cross the mountains to visit my grandparents and all the cousins. So when I came to North Carolina, all of these memories came to my head, and I said, 'One day I'll work here, this feels like home.'"
Having accepted the position as diocesan Missioner for Latino Ministries and rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newton, NC, Rozo can finally call North Carolina home. Within the diocese, he hopes to build bridges between the Anglo and Latino communities, as well as hold space for Latino leaders in the community to feel seen and heard. Inspired by the many people who have supported and guiding him on his walk with faith, Rozo hopes to be this sort of presence for others.
"Latino ministries is about opening a space where we can be vulnerable, where we can love each other regardless of our individual journeys, learn from each other and our own experiences of God, and grow together," Rozo said. "To me church is about community regardless of language or color."