The Classroom Is My Parish

by Yolanda Whidbee '16

Dr. Martell-Otero

“I have a passion for the absent, who is not at the table, who is not speaking, who’s voice is not being heard, who’s body is not present . . . that has always been my passion . . . that is my call.” 

First called as a child growing up in Puerto Rico, Dr. Loida Martell-Otero had a sense of call from an early age, growing up in New York and later serving in the Church in Puerto Rico. Yet, a lingering and on-going question remained rooted in her mind focused on “Why was I called?”  As a part of a Puerto Rican ministerial dynasty, she learned early on that there was no place for her voice. Each member of her immediate family held a distinctive role in the church.  Dr. Martell-Otero’s father was a pastor, mother was a leader, grandmother was a Sunday school teacher and her brother was a leader. As a result, Dr. Martell-Otero decided that she would make her presence known and her voice heard.  At the age of nine, as a shy child Dr. Martell-Otero hesitantly walked to the pulpit of the church to participate in an altar call. While she stood there waiting to be received and accepted by the congregation, she immediately realized that no one was paying attention to her because she was Reverend Martell’s daughter.  As an adult reflecting back on the embarrassment of this moment she made a promise to herself, “ . . . I will pay attention to who is absent and who is present . . . everybody matters.”

Dr. Martell-Otero’s childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian began around age 10 in light of her first visit to a veterinarian’s office. She had always loved animals. In pursuit of this profession, she gained two very distinctive honors in the field. Dr. Martell-Otero is the first female Puerto Rican veterinarian to practice in her home country as well as the first Puerto Rican woman to be accepted to what was then Tuskegee Institute, but now is Tuskegee University, School of Veterinary Medicine. Yet, while her love for medicine increased, there was still the notion of the calling that tugged at her soul.  

In fact, Dr. Martell-Otero affectionately refers to medicine and ministry as her two loves, but there came a point in her life when she was led to choose between those two loves. In making this life changing decision, she recalled the most difficult parts, which were leaving the island of Puerto Rico and walking away from her practice. However, she says that she chose the greater of the two loves, God.

Since choosing the call to ministry, Dr. Martell-Otero has paved the way for many Latina women to become ministers and leaders in the local church and abroad. She has received numerous awards and accolades, and built an extensive curriculum vitae. Dr. Loida Martell-Otero holds a PhD in Theology from Fordham University, is an ordained American Baptist minister and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. She has served as the interim pastor at First Baptist Church of the Community in Queens, New York and was an associate pastor at the Spanish Christian Baptist Church of Soundview, in the Bronx, for 15 years. She is currently the Professor of Constructive Theology at Palmer Seminary. Her writings include Latina Evangélicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins (Cascade Books, 2013), co-authored with Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and Dr. Zaida Maldonado Pérez, which has been well received, and was recognized by the Hispanic Theological Initiative. It is the first systematic articulation of a theology from the perspective of Latina Protestants in the U.S. She has also published numerous articles including, “My GPS Does Not Work in Puerto Rico: An Evangélica Spirituality.” 

Recently, Dr. Martell-Otero received the highest and most prestigious award given to educators by the American Baptist Churches/USA, the Richard Hoiland Christian Education Award. This award is given to lay or professional leaders who have made a significant contribution to the work of Christian education in the church and community. Dr. Martell-Otero shares that this award is particularly dear to her heart because it was awarded for her work in nurturing diversity in the classroom, a reflection of her ministerial passion.  “. . . diversity is about who’s at the table, who’s not present, . . . who is not at the table . . . we use this little word diversity and make it synonymous with the census bureau . . . Black, White, Latino, Asian, when it is so much more . . . people’s perspectives matter . . . We haven’t learned how to cherish one another . . . When I think about diversity I think about the model that Jesus Christ articulated and embodied in the proclamation of the Reign of God.”