Celebrating Otto Maduro

Beloved colleague, scholar and mentor Otto Maduro passed away on May 9th of this year, at the age of 68, after 21 years on the faculty of Drew as Professor of World Christianity and Latin American Christianity. The Drew community gathered on May 3rd with extended family and renowned guests to celebrate with Otto his lifetime of accomplishment and love. On May 14, the community gathered again to mourn his passing. Among the several moving tributes delivered at the memorial service was the following by Laurel Kearns, Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion and Environmental Studies.

Remarks by Laurel Kearns

Having already had a chance to express my deep gratitude for knowing and working with Otto these 28 years, I want today to give you a broader sense of what he meant to so many.

So to prepare this, I tried to read all the near 300 comments on the tribute page, but since so many are in Spanish, and my Spanish wasn’t up to the task, perhaps I only read 150! But the volume bears witness to how important Otto was among Latina/o scholars. And I listened to Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, a favorite of Otto’s, trying to come to terms with the fact that this brilliant, gracious mentor and friend, colleague and compatriot, has left us.

Otto was known for combining his groundbreaking scholarship with his passionate commitment to justice, his warmth and generosity with his strong principles, his critical study of religion with his own prophetic faith. He loved coming to chapel services here; the music of Mark Miller, the liturgies of Tanya Bennett and our students. His students report that he described himself as “I am Christian, but more than Christian, Catholic but not only Catholic.” Otto was not one for neat categories, but rather called us all to recognize the complexity, the nuances, of any position.

On the same grounds, one could say he was human, but somehow, he did it better than most of us, certainly more intensely. Some comments called him authentic, whole, profoundly humane, although he would be quick to point out that he was not a saint. He was gregarious, he loved being with people We would talk about how interacting with people energized him, how he would go to Venezuela and see his friends from morning to night. And he loved it. He maintained friendships, relationships, remembered all their/our birthdays.

He was known among us for being willing to change his mind, for listening intently and taking into consideration other viewpoints. No one could ever entirely predict Otto’s position on something, for example, but there were four things we knew for sure.

First, that he loved coming to faculty meeting, or parties, to be with, and learn from, his colleagues, so his presence was never adversarial. He loved Drew, and yet was critical. All of our remembrances of him are of the warm, welcoming, supportive, engaged colleague, always ready with a hug, an inquiry as to how you and everyone in your family was, but who was also quite willing to challenge us to think more deeply, to critique, to call out, to name what was “bullshit” as his students reminded us, to unmask relations of power. He loved teaching here, and clearly loved the students. One always clearly felt what he expressed in an interview for his AAR presidency when describing why, despite many offers, he stayed at Drew: “I realized I was in the middle of the most gratifying academic, scholarly, and intellectual experience of my life, among a wonderful array of colleagues from which I learned more than I could teach my students — and with whom a solid, supportive, and enriching community of friendly colleague camaraderie was rapidly taking root.”

Otto, Mateo and me, May 3, 2013(1)And we loved him back, as colleague after colleague, student upon student, commented on his warmth and engagement, caring and concern, from the day they set foot on campus. One of the comments concerned his virtues of careful listening, generous and humane attention to the other, and powerful personal spirit; a student commented that he taught her the importance of choosing words of caring, not judgment.

The second aspect we could count on was that he that he would give voice to the larger context of all our work, a prophetic call reminding us of our responsibility as scholars and people of faith to think, understand and act, that politics, relations of power, privilege and injustice are always present in what we chose to study, and how we chose to act based on what we know, or have chosen to forget, indeed present in what we acknowledge as religion, theology, orthodoxy.

In his remarks for the 2003 Paul Douglass lecture for the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, a lecture that received a standing ovation, Otto challenged his colleagues:

May our research and reflections on “religion” contribute to, rather than hinder, the counter-imperial struggles of people everywhere to have their lives, and those of their children, neighbors, friends, and other loved ones recognized as sacred, worthy of tender care and respect, rather than consistently threatened, busted, bombed, or trampled by the this-worldly powers and principalities.”

His scholarship, indeed, life work, was always marked by, as one colleague stated, “a passionate concern for those at the margins and just anger towards all that demeans and dehumanizes”; and concern for racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, women, LGBTQI, the economically and politically oppressed.

Finally, we could count on his keen intellect. His work on bringing Pierre Bourdieu and Karl Marx, into the studies and understandings of religions have been crucial. So many of the comments from scholars speak of how his work in liberation theology, Marxism and Religion, sociology of religion, Pentecostal studies– his book Religion and Social Conflicts or Mapas para la fiesta changed the course of their work, indeed, convinced them there was room in the Academy for them. His work and presence certainly made room for Latino/a studies, and for Hispanic scholars and ministers. But as the quote above reminds us, he was decidedly not of the ivory tower, his scholarship, his faith, his activism challenges all of us, in his words, “to resist the master narratives of religion”, indeed, the master narratives of the elite, of empire, with the deep ethical, political, epistemological, religious “responsibility for not trampling further the lives of those whose labor renders possible a decent living for the few, while the many hardly get enough to entertain other than fragile certainties and tenuous hopes for their morrow.”

And finally, we knew he loved life, and everyone knew how much he loved Nancy and Mateo, and his family. With exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!

Continuing the Legacy of Otto Maduro

There are many ways to continue celebrating the life and legacy of Otto Maduro:

otto at celebration*Read more about the Legacy of Otto Maduro.

*Visit the Online Tribute Page to read the many comments people have offered in honor of Otto, or to add your own voice.

*Read further Personal Reflections from the academic community.

*Visit the University Facebook Page to see more photos of the May 3rd celebration.

*Most importantly, Make a Contribution to the Fund for Hispanic Latina/o Scholars and Ministry (Fondo Para Academicos y Ministerios Hispanos Latinas/os).

Even before Otto’s death, scholars in the global community were asking about a fund to carry on the work of Otto and Ada María Isasi-Díaz. As a leader in Hispanic/Latin@ theological education, Drew has an important role to play in that legacy. Please give generously to the Fund for Hispanic Latina/o Scholars and Ministry (Fondo Para Academicos y Ministerios Hispanos Latinas/os).