Finding Faith in the Wilderness

Sacred Survival and an Embodied Faith that Leads to Flourishing

Kat Armas

Kat Armas is a Cuban American writer and podcaster from Miami, FL. She holds a dual MDiv and MAT from Fuller Theological Seminary where she was awarded the Frederick Buechner Award for Excellence in Writing, and is currently pursuing a ThM at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Her first book, Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us About Wisdom, Persistence and Strength, sits at the intersection of women, decolonialism, the Bible, and Cuban identity. She also explores these topics and more on her podcast, The Protagonistas, which centers the voices of Black, Indigenous, and other women of color in theological spaces.

Kat is currently living in Nashville with her spouse and new baby while working on her second book, Sacred Belonging: A 40-day Devotional on the Liberating Heart of Scripture.


Hello, Created For. I’m Kat Armas, author of Abuelita Faith and the forthcoming Sacred Belonging, and I’m so happy to be with you today, especially to talk to you about being rooted in our cultural and spiritual heritage—although, I’ll be honest, coming to a place of rootedness and who I am has not been an easy journey. I think this is true of a lot of us who bear colonial wounds and whose histories carry a lot of trauma. I think rootedness is also hard for those of us who’ve experienced exile. You see, exile is a complicated way of life. I know this because my story is shaped by both a physical and a spiritual exile, like many of our stories probably are. In one way or another, our journeys are marked by periods that define our leaving one place, one way of being, one way of knowing, and traveling to another. Sometimes we experience exile from the religion or ideology of our upbringing; some of us are exiled from our countries of origin or cultures. 

Now, my own family’s exile began in the 60s, when my abuelo—or my grandfather—arrived to the States on a small lancha—or a small boat—after a week-long journey in the Atlantic escaping political unrest in his country. My family believes it is the stress and trauma of this reality that killed him only a few years later. After his death, abuela—my grandmother—was left widowed, taking care of her mother, her children, her grandchildren, and raising me in her—our—Roman Catholic immigrant community.

 Now, abeula had a beautiful and vibrant spiritual life, dedicating her life to her faith and to the church. But one thing I realized is that abeula was just as dedicated to her survival as she was to her faith in the church, and while the dominant culture might not see those as one and the same, my study of the Bible and my look into history and my leaning into what I like to call an “abeulita” or a “grandmother faith” has proved otherwise. I’ve learned that we don’t need to overspiritualize survival to make it holy; survival is a sacred endeavor in and of itself. As I got older and began to pursue my own spirituality in spaces very different than that I was raised, and also when I began to pursue formal theological education, I begin to believe that the spirituality that formed me as a kid wasn’t “legitimate” because it was formed in this survival in the everyday lived experiences of those within my community trying to make sense of exile. 

And I soon began to distrust the sacred moments I had with abuela and my community, because it didn’t fit the mold of what it was “supposed” to look like. But you see, what I found is that this rootedness in survival does not at all take away from a rootedness in God. In fact, it is in that very survival that God is most intimately acquainted with God’s people, where God’s heart is beating most fiercely, where theology in la cotidiano—in the everyday—takes place.

Now, in order to embrace this sort of faith, this grandmother faith, the faith of our ancestors, we have to understand why it’s been overlooked in the first place. Many of our abuelas or ancestors have been othered because of the language they speak, their accent, the color of their skin, their cultural customs, their lack of Western education, their socioeconomic status, and/or their gender. But it is precisely because of these things that our ancestors spiritual and physical carry a wisdom within themselves far beyond the dominant culture’s ability to understand. In fact, I argue that it is our abuelitas whom we must look to as a source of wisdom and knowledge. Now, the Bible talks a lot about wisdom, right? It says to find it, get it, keep it, love it. But what exactly is wisdom? What is knowledge? Who is wise? And most importantly, who gets to say, right? You see, the dominant culture has long made the rules about what is knowledge and what is not, who is wise and who is not, positioning itself as the possessor and thus teacher of knowledge, silencing anyone outside of its balance. But there’s this postcolonial thinker I love who argues that justice in our world is not possible without cognitive justice, without the ability to recognize the different ways of knowing and being by which people across the globe live and make meaning of their existence.

And friends, I love this because I believe in order to root ourselves culturally and spiritually, we must recover the diversity of ways of being and knowing in the world, the myriad of ways. Our ancestors possessed a wisdom that is embodied—one birthed from survival. You see, this faith—this raw, this real, this grassroots faith isn’t intellectual. It’s not something you read in a book; it’s a faith intimately connected to the body and the land and the community. And it’s this embodied faith of our ancestors, our foremothers, our abuelitas spiritual and biological, in Scripture, history, in our own lives that I’m seeking to reclaim as a way for us to experience wholeness. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer—she’s a botanist and member of the citizen Potawatomi nation—explains that, in indigenous ways of knowing, to know a thing doesn’t mean to know it just in our minds, but to know it intuitively. To really know something, you must know it emotionally and spiritually. In fact in Hebrew, the word for wisdom is “Chokmah”, and it implies applied knowledge. The kind of wisdom a skilled artisan who excels at their craft possesses, an embodied wisdom that creates and sustains—this is the wisdom that is referred to in the Bible, friends, and it is by this standard of knowing that our ancestors spiritual and biological are educated beyond measure, offering their gifts to us in ways the institutions cannot. It’s a wisdom that comes from the ins and outs of struggle and survival, and it births of faith that can be messy, complicated, muddled in grief, yet still hopeful for the future—the kind of faith that trusts in a God of justice and takes action on that behalf. 

And one of my favorite examples is found in Exodus 14 after the parting of the Red Sea. Now in the story, you might know enslaved Israelites had just escaped Egypt, Egyptian army is after them, they get to the Red Sea, Moses stretches his hand, God parts it, Israelites pass through, the Egyptians try, and the water flows back killing all of them, and it is a true epic, right? But more fascinating than this miracle to me is what happens right after that. See, the prophet Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s sister, takes a timbrel in her hand and leads the entire nation of Israel in song and dance as a response to God sparing their lives.

Now, I love this for so many reasons. For one, this isn’t the only place we read of folks dancing before God; in fact, this was a legitimate form of worship, not just for Israel, but across peoples throughout history. In fact, the Asaro tribe of Papua New Guinea has a beautiful saying that says that knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle. And friends, it is Miriam who leads and serves her community by allowing their knowing to become a full-bodied expression of joy and liberation and celebration before God. This is the embodied wisdom of our ancestors, the kind that leads to community flourishing. But here’s the wisdom that I find to be profound: Miriam did this while they were still in the wilderness, while still in unsure, unfamiliar terrain, while still in exile. You see, Miriam didn’t have to have all of the answers to hold sacred, embodied, and intimate space for her community and her God through her timbrels and her song. 

When we talk about the wilderness, we often use it as a spiritual metaphor of hardship or distance from God, but if you notice, God calls all of the major characters in scripture to the wilderness on purpose—not to suffer, but to be transformed. It is in the wilderness in exile that Moses and Hagar meet God, where Isaiah and Job and Abraham and Ezekiel and Jesus and Paul encounter pivotal moments with God; it is where Rizpah changes the course of history, where Miriam finds a miracle worth celebrating. Friends, what if there’s more to exile and more to the wilderness than we thought? 

 And here’s where Mariam’s wisdom goes deeper: she didn’t just lead her community in song and dance while in exile, but friends, she was prepared to do so by literally carrying instruments with her, anticipating that God would perform a miracle or that there would be something to celebrate. See, this is the wisdom birthed in survival, a wisdom that anticipates the goodness of God even in exile for the sake of ourselves and our community. So friends, I invite you to think of all the ways you can root yourself in this kind of faith, a faith rooted in our bodies and in our ancestors, a faith that leads to collective flourishing. Thank you.

Want To Dig A Little Deeper?

Check out Ep. 30 of the podcast: Reclaiming the Sacred Spaces of Our Lives with Kat Armas

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