Wrestling with Displacement

As a Bethel professor, a student, and a St. Paul therapist, Cristina Plaza Ruiz dedicates her life to serving immigrant and refugee communities and to teaching Bethel students to wrestle with the complexities of immigration.

By Katie Johnson '19

March 11, 2019 | 2 p.m.

Bethel professor, student, and St. Paul therapist, Cristina Plaza Ruiz GS'15

Bethel professor, student, and St. Paul therapist, Cristina Plaza Ruiz GS'15

Cristina Plaza Ruiz GS’15 has two lives. At Bethel, she’s an adjunct assistant professor at both Bethel University and Bethel Seminary. Outside Bethel, she’s a therapist for immigrant and refugee families in St. Paul. And when she’s not working, she’s learning and nurturing her curious mind. She earned a certificate at the Harvard Medical School Program in Refugee Trauma in 2018, and she’s currently pursuing her Ed.D. in Higher Education Leadership at Bethel, where she’s researching the experience of therapists working with refugees and immigrants.

“I feel like one informs the other,” Plaza Ruiz says, referring to her multiple roles. “My clinical work and my hands-on experience working with immigrant families makes me a better professor. Staying up on top of things academically makes me a better clinician. It keeps me on my toes.”

Plaza Ruiz has dedicated her life to serving refugees and immigrants, both directly through therapy as well as training the next generation of therapists in the Masters of Marriage and Family Therapy Program. She has encountered real-life examples that inform her teaching. Plaza Ruiz says there’s something about wrestling without having to come to hard and fast answers. “When I think about my work at the Seminary, the beauty is being able to wrestle with spirituality and faith integration as we look at the complexities of mental health—being okay with not having all the answers and always leaving room for the Holy Spirit to act and to use me as I speak. Knowing that God is there, all the time. He is present.”

In her undergraduate Intermediate Spanish course through the Modern World Languages and Cultures Department, her students speak Spanish while exploring issues of immigration from a biblical perspective. One of the course’s purposes is that students have to be immersed in another culture through community learning, and Plaza Ruiz has helped her students connect with various immigrant families. She has noticed that after the semester’s over, many students continue volunteering at these organizations. “That shows not just that they have obtained a little more knowledge or application, but something has transformed inside of them,” Plaza Ruiz says. “And I love that. I don’t need to know exactly what that is; it’s not my job to know, but I know that God is doing something inside their hearts.” She enjoys serving as conduit for this learning opportunity, and like in her graduate studies courses, these students have to wrestle with the difficult and sobering aspects of immigration.

"I realized that the experience of displacement is one that you carry with you all the time, from the moment you leave your home to the moment you die, the idea that I had to leave my home is with you."

— Cristina Plaza Ruiz

An immigrant herself, Plaza Ruiz can empathize with immigrants and refugees, but she is quick to add that her experience has not been one of trauma or forced displacement. She and her husband were both born in Spain and attended university together. They moved to Minnesota 26 years ago.

“I am certainly familiar with what it feels like to be outside of your home. No matter how many years I have lived in the United States, I still feel a little bit like a foreigner, because I am,” Plaza Ruiz says. However, she also notes that, “my experience was one of privilege. The majority of the families I work with and their experience of forced migration is very different than mine. I respect that. I don’t want to make my experience be like, ‘I know what you feel like,’ because I don’t actually.”

She does acknowledge the experience of displacement, regardless of if that’s something people choose or are forced into. “I realized that the experience of displacement is one that you carry with you all the time, from the moment you leave your home to the moment you die, the idea that I had to leave my home is with you.” And, as a therapist, Plaza Ruiz welcomes the opportunity to help those displaced establish new roots. “We train therapists to be good, caring professional individuals that can be instruments of healing. Not to save anybody. But definitely gaining a sense of home—meaning a sense of belonging in a new land, an ability to grow roots and healthy families in a new place as well as recovering a sense of home in your own body. When a person has experienced trauma—emotional, physical trauma, spiritual trauma—just being comfortable in your own body is hard.”

The connection between the various aspects of her life ultimately boils down to her faith. “My faith is central. We are sojourners in our faith.” Right now, she’s growing in courage as she advocates for the families she serves frequently and knows personally. “We wrestle with things that are in the news right now,” she says. “They’re not just news, but in my perspective, they’re the lives of the families where I work, who I know personally, and, who I believe have been created in the image of God.” She’s thrilled to share her perspective with her students on multiple levels at Bethel, and to keep learning as she strives to serve this community in St. Paul.

“I can say my experience at Bethel is very positive. I know it well, because I know it as a student and professor. I feel very privileged to have experienced both.”

Explore Bethel’s Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy Program

Cristina Plaza Ruiz says that part of her goal as a professor in the program is “to educate whole and holy leaders of the future.” Explore how you can be one of those leaders and serve individuals across all communities.

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