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October 19, 2021

Robert Rueda: Students in the Rio Grande Valley are ‘an incredible gift to the United States’

Robert Rueda stands at the edge of the UTRGV campus in Edinburg, Texas. Photo by Jose Arredondo

Campus minister Robert Rueda inspires students with his message that their experience prepares them to be leaders. Then they get to work.

Robert Rueda doesn’t discover leaders. He uncovers them.

That’s how he sees his job at the Baptist Student Ministry of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV).

Most of the nearly 30,000 students at the university are from the region along the U.S.-Mexico border Texans call “the Valley,” where the school is located.

And the students reflect the community. They often struggle with poverty and food insecurity, but they also are rich with life experience from living in this multilayered, multicultural, multilingual place.

“Our goal is to produce students that interact with the world based on a position of strength,” Rueda said. “That strength comes from how God created them to be: where they were born and how their experiences can now inform their reality.”

Rueda, who was born and raised in Oaxaca, Mexico, arrived at UTRGV in 2005, when he was hired by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He took a moribund campus organization and has transformed it into a ministry that, pre-pandemic, touched about 1,200 students per week, with as many as 400 regularly involved.

It has continued to operate during the pandemic, building from the Global Blends pay-as-you-can deli it opened in September 2019.

Rueda spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about his approach to forming student leaders and his belief that they will become faithful leaders of society. The following is an edited transcript.

F&L: What do folks see when they come to visit your ministry from other parts of the U.S.?

RR: Well, obviously, the areas here are in great need. Anybody that comes to serve will immediately be stricken by the need and the dualistic [society] that we live in.

For example, right now, I’m in my office at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. To the 30,000 students, it looks like a regular college. Then you get in your car and you drive 20 minutes, and you’re in the colonias, which is an impoverished area.

We are really in this place of dualism, where we see the polarities of incredible wealth and incredible need. So people, when they come here, will see that.

But one of the things that I wish they could see is that after they leave, life goes on.

I believe that it would be very helpful for churches to think strategically as they’re planning a visit or a mission trip. I always wonder what would it be like [if they asked], “What’s going to happen after we leave? What is a long-term strategy that we can work on?”

F&L: You are, as you say, in a place of great need. But that’s not all it is. What’s your vision for the students you’re working with? It’s not just to help them survive, right?

RR: We have incredible need. But we also have incredible wealth: the amazing students that we have that I value so much. I definitely see them as the future leaders of our country.

When I see a student — and always when we’re training our staff, we tell them this: “The thought you need to have in your mind when you see a student is, ‘Today a college student, tomorrow a young professional committed to God and committed to his church and committed to his community.’”

And that is exactly what we seek to develop. We believe that what they have to offer in terms of their experiences, in terms of their capacity and abilities, is incredibly beautiful to the United States.

I happen to believe that we are living in this area that is ahead of its time, when it comes to demographics rapidly changing in the United States. We’re getting to see the incredible pool of students that we have that are cross-cultural. My goal is to help all these leaders become just that.

I encourage our students to see their experiences not as a roadblock but as strength.

For example, many students, if they come from a background as migrant workers, many times they keep those experiences quiet.

But I’ve encouraged them to embrace that story. This is not something to keep hidden. This is a strength. This is an ability that you have to talk to people and to actually share something that very few people get to experience.

I strongly believe that our students are a gift by themselves, as who they are. But when God gets ahold of their lives and you include that passion for the church and the local church and everything, it just compounds and it becomes an incredible gift to the United States.

F&L: What are the benefits of growing up in this area? What do they have that someone like me, from Middle America, doesn’t have?

RR: It is very interesting that you ask that question, because for a while now, I’ve been kind of thinking of a theological answer to that question and finding models to explain that.

For example, we live in between two borders, the border with Mexico and then the 50-mile “border” that is the [interior] checkpoint. Between those two areas, that’s where the Rio Grande Valley is.

Every time you travel up north, you have to cross a checkpoint. If you live on the border, that’s something that is ingrained in you, the fact that you’re going to have to go through a checkpoint.

A benefit of that, thinking theologically, is the Old Testament shibboleth — knowing the right word, the right pronunciation, the right everything. It’s kind of equivalent to that.

That experience of living in between two countries really is transformational. Most of the people living up north — yeah, we technically live between Canada and Mexico anywhere in the United States. But when was the last time you thought, “I live between Canada and Mexico”? You don’t.

But here, you think about it all the time. So it is one of those areas that really transform you in an application to kingdom living for a God that calls us to live in the kingdom of God.

I think you can grasp that concept of “I’m here, but I’m not from here; I’m from there, but I’m also from here.” It really gets ahold of your life.

That’s the feeling of “the Valley” that exists. I think that those are areas that are change makers in regard to how you live life and approach life. I think that’s something that is transformational, and it makes you think about your life in the United States a different way.

F&L: I wanted to shift gears a little bit and ask you about your approach to the projects that you and your students do.

RR: I remember arriving at my post with the mission of making disciples. I remember mobilizing a student to come with me to the campus and go and talk to students and share the gospel with them and make disciples. I remember very well that the student was cold. It was a cold day. He kept putting his hands in his pockets, and he was not wearing a jacket. I remember being a little bit upset.

I remember being like, “Why wouldn’t he bring a jacket? This is kind of throwing a curveball to our plans. We can’t be on campus as long as we want to be because he didn’t think to bring one.”

I asked him, “Why didn’t you wear a jacket? You know it’s cold.” He said, “I don’t have one.” I was like, “Well, why don’t you buy one? You know it’s going to be cold.”

He said, “I don’t have money to buy one.” I remember just really feeling humbled about it. Here I am thinking about, “Let’s go make disciples and do this and champion this cause,” and I’m not even caring for the basic needs of my students.

We went and bought a jacket and put it on him, wanting to find out, “What is it about this young man, about his life, that even a jacket is something that he doesn’t have access to?” Just learning his story of poverty and need.

How come I didn’t know this? How come I was so prompted to get him to do something I wanted instead of asking, “How can I minister?” When did being a minister mean being a mobilizer only?

Scripture asks us, How can you tell someone, “Go and be blessed” and know that they have needs and not do anything about it? (James 2:16).

That’s what my approach to students is: “What’s your story?” — me being highly sensitive, with ears open, eyes open and just really hearing them.

When we read a report that came out from the university that there was close to 50% food insecurity on campus, we were like, “What can we do about this?”

I decided, let’s open a pay-what-you-can deli and have students provide food with dignity to our students. It’s a great equalizer when you’re sitting at the table and everybody has access to food, the same food; everybody is feeling OK.

Since [September] 2019, we’ve been operating. We operated all of 2020 except for two weeks back in March when the pandemic first hit. We operate every single day, and I believe we served about 12,000 students last year.

That’s our way of telling students: “Listen, we care about who you are the same way God cares about you, and we want you to be OK, and we’re praying for you.”

F&L: You also encourage and support students in entrepreneurship. Tell me a little bit about your process.

RR: I learned early on that when we’re going to do something, we need to plunge fully into it but with a short-term commitment, so that you’re able to prove concept and then maybe expand and see what God might want to do.

My process with students is finding out how they’re wired, what their passion is, and then connecting that to God and ministry and how God can use that. Then we empower them to carry out a pilot project, then later on, roll it out fully.

I remember meeting a student who said he was passionate about coffee, and I said, “Well, let’s prove it. What can you do?” I encouraged him to develop a business plan, and he came up with his plan, his projected sales and revenue and costs and all of that, and we launched it.

We converted one section [of the deli] to become a coffeehouse, and I just got the report that they got close to 500 drinks in September. And not only that, he developed others who have the same passion, and they all came together and they produced a wonderful product.

At the same time, they’re changing the world, because their profits go toward God’s work. It’s really just beautiful.

F&L: Do you have a hard time selling this vision to them? Are they confident that they can be leaders, or is part of your work persuading them, “You’re not a needy person; you’re a powerful person with talents”?

RR: Something incredible has happened. At first, a few years ago, it was a little bit hard to cast that net. I remember talking to students and casting the vision about this, and many students not being able to grasp it.

But now, after a few years, it’s part of our culture. We have students mentoring the younger generation. They’re like, “You can do this. Come on, let’s go!” It became something organic, which is really hard.

Many times, people say, “I’m going to develop leaders.” But I say, “I’m going to uncover leaders.” I believe that we are all wired a specific way that makes us leaders, whether we want it or not. That has for many years now become the culture of our organization: that fabric of leaders being uncovered. Not developed but uncovered.

I remember the time I sent a group of seven students to Alaska on a service project. I remember the leader of the group in Alaska saying, “Your students are like nothing I’ve ever seen. They’re so strong, and they serve, and they’re up on it.”

He didn’t know that three of those students [already] worked really hard. Here in Texas, gas stations sell tacos. So three of them woke up every day at 4 in the morning to go to work, make flour tortillas and tacos and sell them — and then go to college.

When they arrived in Alaska and they were supposed to make breakfast, they were like [laughing], “I don’t want people to know I made tacos by morning, student by day.”

Now those students are engineers and teachers.

F&L: Do you find gender differences in the way that your students embrace the self-confidence you’re talking about?

RR: I definitely feel that female students respond better. I feel like we have to work harder at pulling stories out of our male students versus the female students.

It also is generational. Some third-, fourth-generation Hispanic students might not want to revisit the early stories of their parents. They don’t talk about it, because they’re like, “Oh, that was way past. That’s not me anymore; that’s not my family.”

It’s not always particular to Hispanic students. All of us as immigrants that have the stories of hope and strength and resiliency that our families have instilled in us — we want to reconnect with that.

This summer, we were at the airport in Dallas. [An intern] saw a young mother with a child. The intern knew the mother was an immigrant, because in Texas, when they arrive at the border, they give them a yellow envelope and they send them on their way as they await their claim for asylum.

She knew that that lady was in distress. She knew she was an immigrant. She went and talked to her. She prayed for her. She ministered to her. I was like, “What motivated you to do that?”

All of us as immigrants that have the stories of hope and strength and resiliency that our families have instilled in us — we want to reconnect with that.

She said, “It’s because that was my mom with me when I came. I can connect to that.”

Our job with students is to put their identity, their heritage, right in front as they live and interact with this world. We want them to embrace the world that way.

F&L: Before we close, is there anything I haven’t asked that you would want our audience to know about your work?

RR: Pray for the border. We’re all called to pray for our own spaces, but I think it is important that as we seek to care for our neighbors, we pray for the border area.

I want the audience to really be bold. Be bold where you are, find needs, and just go be creative.

Many people ask, “How did you start a deli?” I really just don’t know — I just did it. You’re not supposed to know. You’re just supposed to be passionate about who God is and how he’s wired you to be.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.