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Alma Tinoco Ruiz’s Journey from Mathematics to Ministry Leadership

New director of Hispanic House of Studies and homiletics lecturer on the call to faith, reconciliation, and unity

Alma Tinoco Ruiz’s Journey from Mathematics to Ministry Leadership

New director of Hispanic House of Studies and homiletics lecturer on the call to faith, reconciliation, and unity
Alma Tinoco Ruiz in front of Painting

Photography by Les Todd / LKT Photography

In 2020, Alma Tinoco Ruiz was named the new director of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School and a lecturer in homiletics and evangelism. She earned her M.Div. degree from Duke Divinity in 2013 and is the first recipient of the Lilly Endowment Inc. fellowship for Hispanic-Latino/a students in the Th.D. program in homiletics. She was awarded the Denman Fellow of the Foundation for Evangelism in 2016, the Forum for Theological Exploration Doctoral Fellowship in 2019, and the Hispanic Theological Initiative/Lilly fellowship in 2020. She is a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church.

In this conversation with Heather Moffitt in the Duke Divinity Office of Communications, Tinoco Ruiz describes her journey to ministry leadership, her passion for equipping pastors, and the role that the Hispanic House of Studies can play in addressing the most urgent issues facing churches and communities.

Heather Moffitt: You earned a B.S. degree in Mexico, and then you earned a certification to teach math from North Carolina State University. How did you make the transition from math to ministry?

Alma Tinoco Ruiz preaching in Goodson Chapel

Alma Tinoco Ruiz preaching in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School.

Alma Tinoco Ruiz: From 2004 to 2009, my husband was a pastor of a Spanish-speaking United Methodist Church in Greenville, N.C. Even though he was the only one appointed by the church, I served as the “associate” pastor.  I coordinated Sunday school, youth group, and women’s group for several years. It was a lot of work for both of us, especially because we were doing ministry with an undocumented immigrant community that was, and still is, marginalized and oppressed in this country. They faced a lot of personal and social challenges, and, as their pastors, we accompanied them on their challenging journey. So, I could not imagine us both serving as pastors, and possibly placed in two different congregations at the same time. Therefore, I decided to pursue mathematics education, which is another kind of ministry for me.

When I was working on my application for a master’s degree in education, my husband wisely reminded me that God had called me into ministry too. After having a long conversation with him, I decided to take some time to pray and discern God’s will.

As part of my discernment process, I met with Duke Divinity’s admission office director. She asked me if I was planning to pursue ordination. I told her that I definitely felt I was called to ordained ministry, but that I was afraid to respond to God’s call because there was a high possibility that as a clergy couple we would be appointed to different churches, and because of the nature of our ministry, that would be very challenging for us. The admission office director looked me in the eyes and said, “Let God out of the box, Alma.” I followed her advice. I decided to apply to the M.Div. program and to pursue ordination, trusting that God was going to take care of the rest. And here I am.

Moffitt: You’ve directed the Hispanic-Latino/a Preaching Initiative at Duke Divinity School and also have years of ministry experience in North Carolina. What have you found that Hispanic ministers are hungry for?

Alma Tinoco Ruiz worships with Hispanic ministers in Goodson Chapel

Tinoco Ruiz worships with Hispanic ministers during the Hispanic Preaching Festival at Duke.

Tinoco Ruiz: I believe most pastors who serve in Hispanic/Latinx communities are hungry for people, especially those in power, to recognize and value how much Hispanic-Latinx people, regardless of their immigration status, contribute to the church and society at large in this country.

Being in ministry with the Hispanic-Latinx community, especially undocumented immigrants, in North Carolina has been a real blessing to me. I have witnessed their generosity as they share freely their God-given gifts with the church and their communities. I have witnessed their unbreakable faith as they face so many challenges in their daily living. And, most importantly, I have witnessed God’s presence among them and through them.

My theological education would not have been as enriched if I had not had the opportunity of doing ministry with Hispanic-Latinx people, and especially undocumented people, because they have taught me so much about God, Scripture, and what it means to live out our faith. They have definitely made me a better minister and scholar.

“The admission office director looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Let God out of the box, Alma.’ I followed her advice. I decided to apply to the M.Div. program
and to pursue ordination, trusting that God was going to take care of the rest.
And here I am.”

—Tinoco Ruiz

Moffitt: Your research has focused on the preaching of Saint Óscar Romero. As a UMC minister and not a Roman Catholic, what do you think other non-Catholics can learn from the lives and ministries of Catholic leaders and saints such as Romero?

Mural of Saint Oscar Romero in El Salvador

A painting of Saint Oscar Romero in El Salvador / Photo by Getty Images

Tinoco Ruiz: I was baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic Church, and I was a member of this church for 18 years. When I was 18 years old, I joined the Assemblies of God denomination and was baptized as an adult in one of their churches. When I joined this denomination, I lost my connection to the Catholic Church because I was taught that Catholic theology and doctrine is erroneous and even sinful.

When my husband and I came to the United States, we worshiped in a United Methodist church. At that time, we did not even imagine we were going to join the United Methodist Church. However, it did not take long before we fell in love with the United Methodist theology and doctrine.

For me, the United Methodist Church has been a place of reconciliation between my Catholic upbringing and my faith journey in the Assemblies of God denomination. As I look back, I realize that the Catholic, Pentecostal, and Methodist churches have equally contributed to my formation as a Christian leader. The transition from one denomination to the other was not a “new beginning” for me, but rather another significant part of my journey of faith.

Actually, I deeply treasure what I have learned and continue learning from these Christian traditions. In my experience with these three Christian traditions and in my study of other Christian traditions, I have learned that every Christian tradition has its own saints, women and men who have devoted their lives to love and serve God and their neighbors, especially the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. Therefore, we should be open to learn not only from the lives and ministry of Catholic saints but also from the lives and ministry of other women and men who through their words and deeds show us how to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

Moffitt: How do you think preachers can use the action of preaching and proclamation to address the trauma experienced in their communities?

Tinoco Ruiz: I have learned from Saint Oscar Romero’s sermons that, as preachers, we can address and respond through our sermons to the collective trauma that people in our communities have had or are experiencing. We can listen attentively to the voice of God in both Scripture and the people’s painful reality, and allow both Scripture and the people’s concrete circumstances illuminate each other.

Most people who have had or are experiencing collective trauma are hungry for sermons that unapologetically name, acknowledge, and validate their painful reality and help them encounter God in Scripture and in their concrete circumstances. By doing this, preachers, through their sermons, can facilitate communal lament, proclaim a message of hope in the midst of suffering, help members of the community reclaim their agency, and, consequently, help them build resilience.

[Editor’s Note: To read Tinoco Ruiz’s article on the preaching of Romero, “Pastoral Care and the Prophetic Word,” see the Fall 2019 issue of DIVINITY magazine.]

Moffitt: What challenges and opportunities do you see for the work of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School?

Tinoco Ruiz: Theological schools, seminaries, and denominational leaders must take into consideration that one challenge faced by clergy and other Christian leaders is that many of them are ill-equipped to effectively serve in a diversified and polarized country as the U.S. This challenge poses a wonderful opportunity for the Hispanic House of Studies (HHS) and Duke Divinity School, as well as for other theological schools and seminaries. We have the opportunity to contribute to the formation of scholars, clergy, and community leaders who can effectively respond to the needs of a diverse and polarize society and church.

Therefore, the HHS seeks to equip Hispanic-Latinx and non-Hispanic-Latinx Christian leaders to be self-aware leaders who can thrive in a diverse context. As it says on our webpage, the HHS is committed to accompanying these Christian leaders as well as congregations of all backgrounds and traditions on their journey to becoming the church Christ has called us to be—a place of unity, transformation, reconciliation, and holistic healing.

Alma Tinoco Ruiz on Leadership and Trauma

During the 2020 Convocation & Pastors’ School at Duke Divinity School on the theme of “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Alma Tinoco Ruiz spoke on the topic “Leadership and Trauma.” Watch the full webinar here.

Duke Divinity School’s mission is to engage in spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education in service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy, and the world.