It’s not often that you hear of an Assemblies of God minister — man or woman — having her own section in the Smithsonian. However, Teresa Ruelas, a longtime AG minister who passed away in 2019, has a brief history of her life featured in the Molina Family Latino Gallery, which is housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Although Teresa and her late husband, Ignacio (“Johnny”), served in ministry in the Hispanic community for decades, it was a disturbing and tragic decision by the U.S. government that led to her life and dedication to God being recognized.
Despite being a United States citizen, Teresa and her family were deported to Mexico as part of the Mexican Repatriation Act of the 1930s when she was just 4 years old. This was the time of the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce, which led to the repatriation of roughly one million U.S. citizens to Mexico. Tragically, while living in Mexico, Teresa’s father was murdered, leaving the family struggling to survive.
When she was 18, and with the help of her great-uncle, Antonio Muela, an AG minister, Teresa and her 17-year-old brother, Rafael, returned to the U.S. They worked in the fields, harvesting crops and saving their money to help bring the rest of the family back to the United States, which they ultimately did.
Abraham Ruelas, Teresa’s oldest child, a high school teacher and adjunct professor for Fuller Theological Seminary, says that even he only relatively recently learned of this difficult time in his mother’s life.
“I was attending my Uncle Rafael’s funeral, and my cousin began telling how he had been sent back to Mexico as part of the repatriation, then returned with his sister, when suddenly I realized she was talking about my mom!” Abraham says. “I knew she had gone back to Mexico, but I thought it was because the family was following the crop harvest — I didn’t know they had been part of the repatriation.”
That realization of his mother’s experience, combined with her advancing age and years of ministry led to Teresa’s story being part of an article in Latino USA in 2017 and an AG News story in 2018. In March 2021, Abraham received a call from the author of the Latino USA story, telling him the Smithsonian was interested in using his mother’s story in a new exhibit. They were wondering if it would be ok to contact him.
“Within minutes after I said yes, I received an email from Ranald Woodaman, the exhibitions and public programs director for the Smithsonian Latino Center,” says Abraham, who readily agreed to allowing the Smithsonian to use his mother’s story. “I then worked with the Smithsonian staff on Mom’s story and what would be included in her part of the exhibit.”
Interestingly enough, Abraham says that Woodaman has a Pentecostal background and understood the importance of Teresa’s faith.
“In the artist’s depiction of my mother as a child, Mom is shown holding both her doll and her Bible,” Abraham says. “Her Bible is who she was.”
The exhibit went on display at the museum on June 18, with Abraham and his family getting a sneak peak of the rather striking work a week prior. The display tells of Teresa’s repatriation and communicates her faith. Abraham says that her portion of the exhibit will remain on display for two and a half years. The first year, the artifact displayed will be her Bible, turned to two of her favorite passages: Psalm 23 for the first six months, then Psalm 121. For the following six months, her mother’s Mexican passport will be on display, then her father’s alien registration card, and finally her mother’s naturalization certificate.
Abraham shares that his mother became very involved in the ministries of Templo Bethania, a Spanish-speaking Assemblies of God in the Fremont, California, when she returned to the United States as a young woman. She became greatly impressed with one AG missionary in particular.
“My mother told me of the time she received a packet of materials that came with a little craft from (missionary) Alice Luce,” Abraham recalls. “When my mother spoke of Sister Luce, she did so like most people speak of Mother Teresa (of India). That packet inspired my mother to be the VBS craft director for her church for the next 30 years.”
In addition to serving as Girls Ministries (then called “Missionettes”) coordinator for more than three decades, Teresa also earned a Certificate (May 29, 1982) and a Bachelor of Theology (May 4, 1985) from the Latin American Theological Seminary. She and her husband pastored at various churches throughout the Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley.
Visitors to the Smithsonian or who are otherwise interested in learning more about Teresa Ruelas can go to the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center in Springfield, Missouri, where in 2013 the Ruelas family deposited the personal papers of Johnny and Teresa Ruelas.
“The life of Teresa Ruelas illustrates not only the difficulties faced by Latinos in America, but also the new life in Christ that many Latinos found in Asambleas de Dios congregations scattered across the borderlands,” states Heritage Center Director Darrin Rodgers. “Like many other largely unheralded Latino women Assemblies of God ministers, she overcame significant challenges and ultimately impacted countless people with the gospel.”