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Work as worship: An interview with Hector Cortez

By: Tetiena Harley
Published: August 13, 2014

Hector Cortez, Deputy General Secretary

Photo: AFSC

Tetiena Harley, the Friends Relations summer intern, sat down with Hector Cortez, the Deputy General Secretary, to discuss his journey to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and how he plans to further AFSC’s mission to be a diverse and inclusive organization.  Their conversation illuminates both the spiritual and practical dimensions of Hector’s work, work that has taken off since he started with the organization nearly one year ago.  I had the privilege of attending the “Undoing Racism” workshop as part of this new initiative, and could feel the movement for real healing and change within the organization, change that is destined to affect every aspect of AFSC’s work to create a world free from prejudice and injustice. –Madeline

Tetiena Harley (TH): I want to know more about your background.

Hector Cortez (HC): Most of my career was with the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. I started as a pastor/minister in the Midwest and then I moved to become an area minister, which is a regional director, in the Boston area, the Cape and the two islands. My responsibilities were to provide leadership to about 111 multicultural churches. I provided leadership development and conflict resolution. I did a lot of consultation around how the individual churches can get involved more in their communities.

When I became a leader in our national office, here in Valley Forge, Pa., (that’s why I’m in Pennsylvania) I worked as the National Director for the Hispanic, Haitian and Portuguese Ministries across the U.S. Later I became an Associate Executive Director for Community Ministries—that’s working with community programs, refugee resettlement, disaster relief…those kinds of things.

TH: Why did you decide to work with AFSC?

HC: Before coming to AFSC, I was working with Big Brother/ Big Sisters of America. They decided to move their offices to Dallas—and I wasn’t going to be going to Dallas. So this position became available, and I had worked with AFSC before when I was in Chicago, so the posting really attracted me. I applied for the position and I was invited to join.

TH: Can you explain more about what you did in Chicago with AFSC?

HC: At that time I was a part-time minister and I was doing my masters work at divinity school. As a pastor of a small Salvadorian and Guatemalan church, many were coming and leaving the civil war in El Salvador, and coming to the United States undocumented. So we decided to become a sanctuary church.

A sanctuary church means you declare to the government that you are a sanctuary by the Old Testament mandate. So the Salvadorian refugees lived in the basement of the church and the government couldn’t come in and take them away and deport them. That was our religious stand.

Michael McConnell was the regional director of AFSC in Chicago and wrote a booklet that talked about the sanctuary movement. That’s how I got connected with AFSC.

TH: How is AFSC different from the other organizations you have worked with?

HC: It’s different from Big Brother/Big Sisters because it is a faith-based organization. When I was working with the American Baptist Church we also worked with AFSC, Mennonites and others. The difference with AFSC and Quakerism is that most religious organizations or institutions that work on helping the community don’t bring faith into the institution. With AFSC everything is done in worship, so work is worship, and that attracts me. I think it helps us ground the work we do.

I think I’m growing to appreciate Quakerism. I’m learning how important it is to be in a consultative process rather than make harsh decisions through voting. It is much more important in a group decision, which I think is very critical. I’m learning a lot about my own faith as I experience more and more Quakerism.

TH: Can you talk more about that?Hector Cortez, standing, with former AFSC staff Dick Erstad, left, and Midwest Executive Committee member Boikai Twe, right.

HC: Quakers struggle with how to live with their faith in the world, just like how I struggle with my faith in the world. Quakers don’t try to be better by saying “We’re perfect.” In Quakerism you begin with humility and you say, “How can I live my faith better?” And you come searching and you come expecting to grow and expecting better of yourself.

TH: What are some action steps you plan to take to make AFSC a more diverse and inclusive organization?

HC: Good question! I have gotten the commitment from Shan Cretin, the General Secretary. She is 100 percent committed to this area of change. The leadership team is also committed to this area of change, as well as the board of directors. So I think we have been able to kind of come to terms in saying, “Yes, this is the focus.” We don’t want to just change people, we want to change the way we behave as an organization, as AFSC.

We are also doing workshops across the country on Undoing Racism. So we are holding white people accountable for their behavior and people of color accountable for their behavior because both of them contribute to the mess and both of them have the opportunity solve the issues.

By having honest conversations, we can say, “Here’s how it looks, here’s how it affects us and here are the real issues. It’s not that you’re racist or I’m racist—maybe you are but I’m going to hold you accountable for your racism. If we hold each other accountable, maybe we can move this thing to a different place.”

TH: So how does the diversity and inclusivity work go with AFSC’s mission?

HC: AFSC for the first time put an inclusion element into the strategic plan. By formalizing it, by putting it in the strategic plan, somebody has to be held accountable. Somebody has to say “What difference did we make in the four years of the plan?” I think that’s a good first step and it helps me drive change.

What I do and what the staff and the leadership team and board are trying to do is to really hone in, “If we are here what does it look like now and how will we be in four years? What is the difference?” We’re trying to plan what it might look in four years and work our way backwards and ask, “How do we make it different? And how will we change it?”

TH: Where is AFSC on that baseline?

HC: Right now, in a spectrum of five levels, AFSC is at the beginning stages of becoming an anti-racist organization. We are at a point where we are asking the right questions and we are making the right commitments but we haven’t developed the skill sets, the policies, and the practices that demonstrate that we are inclusive of the variety of input from the constituents. We know that we have a problem and we know we need to change and we’re getting a little better at it. So that’s where we’re at right now. As we continue to do the workshops, hopefully we will go to the next level.

TH: It sounds like you guys are really making headway with this diversity and inclusivity plan.

Hector Cortez with AFSC staff Linda Lewis and the Clerk of the Board of Directors, Phil LordHC: We have been trying. Whenever you institute any change, it doesn’t matter what the subject is, people get nervous. And the reason people get nervous is, number one, they’re uncomfortable with change. Number two is they feel like they may lose something. Number three, they’re not sure what the change is, so they’re going to hold back. And then some say “I don’t care what reason you have, you are going to drag me kicking and screaming, I’m just not going to go because I don’t want to change.” All of those are a part of any change initiative that you may have. So you have to manage all of that as you do your change process.

The one thing that is very important is, regardless of how people react, if leaders believe that this is critical and pivotal—and because of the Quaker values, it is, we say it is—then we have to do it. We have to plow through because we know that we are doing the right thing. Everyone has to change and adapt.

This thing is moving forward because it is too important. The reason it is important is because it’s not just about us internally; people who are outside of AFSC look at us and say “Wow Quakers! They have a testimony of equality, that’s great!” When they start to look inside and see that we are not living up to that, our reputation is shot! It’s shot with communities of color, it’s shot with funders, and it’s shot with volunteers.

TH: Why do you think it took AFSC so long to come up with an action plan?

HC: I think it’s kind of like me in a way. When I was younger I thought differently than I do now. When I look back I say, “I needed to go through these first steps in order to get this.” Then all of a sudden I got it.

I think AFSC has come to a point where it is the right timing. We’re mature enough and we’re ready to take this on. If we had done it sooner, it might’ve created some stress in the system. We weren’t ready. And what we are ready for is to take it to the next level.

TH: Thank you. I really enjoyed this. I really am, like you said, hopeful of what’s going to happen with AFSC in the future.

HC: The reason I am especially hopeful is because of people like you. Because you represent, your generation, represents a generation that is globally minded. You don’t have the same stuff, the same thoughts that enslave us to old ways of thinking. My generation is the boomer generation and your generation, millennials, you have a way of seeing the world and you don’t like fitting into the old categories and boxes of black and white. You don’t. You see the world as wide open. It’s people like you and your generation that are going to bring in that perspective. So I’m especially hopeful.

About the Author

Tetiena Harley

Tetiena Harley is the Friends Relation intern at AFSC. She is a double major in Religious Studies and Philosophy at Elizabethtown College. She grew up in Philadelphia where she developed a passion for knowing all different types of people, cultures and religions. Though never coming in contact with Quakers until this year, she has developed an appreciation for the Quaker values and mission and hopefully plans to work with them again in the future.