Alexie Torres-Fleming, speaker and Christian urban leader, shared her faith journey with the Goshen College community at the special “Celebrate Service Day” chapel on Wednesday morning.
Torres-Fleming was born in a housing project in the South Bronx—the poorest area in the country. Her father came to New York from Puerto Rico before she was born, and he got a job where he had to complete tasks such as washing urine off of elevator walls.
Despite her sometimes difficult living conditions growing up, she said, “My life was wonderful, to me.”
It wasn’t until she entered high school that she began seeing how the outside world saw her. Being a Puerto Rican growing up in the inner city, people felt they needed to prevent her doing things, she said.
Torres-Fleming grew up in the midst of urban renewal and planned shrinkage. She recalls that as an attempt to rid the city of poverty and get a fresh start, businesses closed down in order to get people to leave. Sometimes landlords would burn down their own buildings and collect the insurance money.
“I could hear fire engines ringing in my ears, interrupting conversation; the taste of smoke in my throat all the time,” she said.
All Torres-Fleming wanted to do after she graduated high school was to serve, but opportunities simply weren’t available to her. As a result, she left the Bronx and became a successful businessperson in Manhattan.
Despite her wealth of material possessions, she said she still felt an empty void.
“I had a real hate relationship with myself,” she said. “I thought church and faith meant making it into heaven sometime. I didn’t realize it was about relationships between people.”
During one of her visits back to the Bronx, she decided to go on a drug march with the Franciscan church she attended. Her community (of less than one square mile) included seven known crack houses. The drug march group visited each of these houses and prayed for them.
A few days later, Torres-Fleming heard on the news that drug dealers, in retaliation to the march, had torched her church. All that was left were broken statues and piles of rubble.
“’What are you doing crying over this building?’ I heard God say,” she said. “God is not in the broken statues, but in the poor and the hungry.”
She felt a strong need to take action and decided to organize another march. Despite the threat of death and many people saying that no one would show up, 1,200 people were present for the second march. Torres-Fleming sensed a real power amongst the people gathered.
The crowd did not consist of the successful business people she used to work with, but rather single mothers, as well as her father.
“I had forgotten who I was raised to be,” she said. “I let other people’s thoughts about me actually define who I was.”
Two months later, Torres-Fleming quit her job in Manhattan and moved back to the South Bronx. From there, she founded Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a program that focuses on inspiring young people to become leaders for peace and justice.
Torres-Fleming also spoke during Wednesday night worship, and will speak to a number of student groups on campus. She will also be sharing during chapel on Friday.