A Modern-day Latino Saint - Gordon Conwell

A Modern-day Latino Saint

Dr. Alvin Padilla

Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15 every year as a time to recognize and celebrate the many contributions, diverse cultures, and extensive histories of the Latino community. The dates honor the independence of most Latin American republics. As Hispanics, we endeavor to share our culture, our heritage, our struggles, and our victories—seeking to create a greater sense of community in our North American society.

As a child in Puerto Rico, I remember gathering around a long wooden table littered with candles representing each member of our family who had left this life. My father and mother would tell us stories about those they remembered, pointing to a candle here and there. Today I want to share the memories of someone I consider a modern saint who is an heroic example of Christian witness and who I am sure, my parents would have welcomed to our family table: the baseball player Roberto Clemente.

I am sure that many of you have heard of Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award. This award is bestowed annually, not simply for athletic achievement but also to a player who best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy, and positive contributions on and off the field. The award is named after a Black Puerto Rican who, in the late 1950s, began to play in the Major Leagues. While Roberto endured with grace, great courage, and determination the insults and degradations imposed upon him due to his minority status, he firmly fought for racial justice in his capacity as a baseball player in the 1960s. He refused to sit on the back of the team bus and stay in second-class hotels set up for the Black and Latino players on the team.  At the same time, he was an outstanding hitter and one of the best defenders the game has ever seen. He won batting championships as the best hitter and the Gold Glove as the best defender—winning the Gold Glove award 12 years in a row. All the time, he led the way for the hundreds of Latino players that have followed him in the fight for justice.

He was raised by a Baptist mother and Catholic father and matured as a Christian with a strong respect for both traditions while adopting the latter. As a result, he was quite involved in charitable organizations in Puerto Rico and throughout Latin America. In December 1972, when a devastating earthquake hit Nicaragua, Clemente accepted the honorary chairmanship of an earthquake relief committee in Puerto Rico and used local media to appeal for help. He worked day and night, even soliciting donations door to door. In the capital city of Managua, the earthquake caused deaths in the thousands, with over 20,000 injuries and over 300,000 left homeless.

The relief team raised $150,000 and shipped nearly 26 tons of food, clothing, and medicine. Then came reports that the corrupt regime of General Anastasio Somoza was intercepting the deliveries for his personal gain.

Wanting to make sure the food and medicine reached the people who needed it the most, on New Year’s Eve 1972, he helped load an aging DC-7, then boarded for the flight. The plane took off and crashed. Roberto’s body was never recovered.  “When your time comes, it comes; if you are going to die, you will die,” his wife Vera remembered him saying as he prepared to depart. “Babies are dying. They need these supplies.”

Clemente’s mother recalled his favorite Christian hymn as a boy,[1] which he continued to sing up to his death:

Solo Dios hace el hombre feliz. Solo Dios hace el hombre feliz … Todo se acaba. Solo Dios hace el hombre feliz .”

“Only God makes a man happy. Only God makes a man happy … Life is fleeting. Only God makes a man happy.”

Roberto Clemente is a  modern-day saint worthy to celebrate and remember this month. He is an exemplary Hispanic Christian whose vision for helping the poor and disenfranchised emulated Jesus’ mission as identified at the initiation of his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

[1] As noted in “The Christian Dreams of Roberto Clemente,” William Doino Jr., First Things magazine, Feb 4, 2013.

Dr. Alvin Padilla is Dean of the Latino and Global Ministries program (LGM) and professor of new testament.