Tired of second-class membership

Episcopal Church must get serious about ministry to Hispanics
September 30, 2004

U.S. Hispanics who are Episcopalian regularly negotiate two worlds, but they tire of second-class membership. That is an experience Latinos and Latinas share across denominations.

That experience is an imposed adjectival identity -- the name of their denomination is always modified by the adjective “Hispanic” or “Latino.” Non-Hispanic whites never have to qualify their identity as Methodists or Presbyterians in a similar way, because their culture is the norm for their denomination. Hispanic Christians must all live with this “adjectival” existence, and must constantly explain and sometimes defend their distinctiveness within any given denomination.

Today, in both the marketplace and the polling place, this Hispanidad is not only recognized, but also celebrated. No marketers or campaign managers ever would discourage Hispanics from trying a product or trusting a candidate by disparaging either Spanish or the cultures that come from Spanish-speaking countries. Rather, they spend millions annually to attract and retain Hispanic consumers and voters.

Although some Hispanics receive support from their denominations, many churches still act as if one has to be an English speaker of pure European descent in order to be truly welcomed. Too often the Spanish-language Mass still is celebrated in the basement or at an unreasonable hour. This is just one reason why Hispanic parishioners who occupy the same space (though seldom at the same time) as non-Hispanics often feel not welcomed but only tolerated, and then only as long as they do not inconvenience the “real” owners of the church.

Protestant Hispanics find it difficult to afford attendance at accredited seminaries or to move into positions of regional or national influence. Both Catholics and Protestants publish glossy documents about their commitment to Hispanic ministry, which no doubt is sincere. But their behavior too often shows an ignorance that leaves Hispanic members feeling unimportant.
Try the following experiment. Ask any Hispanic congregant when the United States obtained its independence. Most will be able to give the date and the month, if not the year. But ask a non-Hispanic congregant when the United States invaded Mexico or Puerto Rico, and most cannot guess even within a decade. Although both are questions about U.S. history, one is an event regularly glorified, while the other is typically forgotten.

Research preparatory to a summit of Hispanic religious leaders from many denominations at Duke University last fall indicated that leaders and their congregations faced similar challenges across denominations. One of the co-conveners, Milagros Peña, reported that in 2002, 34 percent of Hispanics were younger than 18. This is significantly higher than the percentage for non-Hispanic whites. And 43 percent of adult Hispanics have less than a high school diploma, compared with 11 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Among full-time workers in 2002, only 26 percent of Hispanics (compared with 54 percent of non-Hispanic whites) earned $35,000 or more annually.

According to another co-convener, Edwin Hernández, and other summit participants, formal theological education and training is one of the most pressing needs in Hispanic ministry. Because of limited income, however, few would-be Latino/a pastors and lay leaders are able to pursue degrees that qualify them for positions of leadership. As a result, Latino/a pastors typically are unable to serve full time and rarely reach the highest ranks within their congregations and denominations. Although Latinos now account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population, only 2.5 percent of divinity students nationwide are Hispanic/Latino.

Most Latino and Latina pastors of all denominations feel ill-prepared by their seminary training for the realities of their mostly urban ministry. Not only did the seminary often ignore their culture and dismiss their language; it also did not educate them in any practical way to lead Hispanic churches.

Virtually all the Hispanic pastors surveyed, including the Rev. Canon Daniel Caballero, missioner for Hispanic ministry in the Episcopal Church, indicated that their denominations were not investing resources into the Hispanic community commensurate with their numbers.

“To proclaim the gospel to Latinos, as with other ethnics in these United States, is a no-brainer," declared Caballero, who attended the summit. “The Episcopal Church needs to get serious with Latinos -- and stop holding out hope in the form of the proverbial carrot -- a carrot that is never quite within their reach. The gospel is not served by this ambivalence. The church needs to fish or cut bait.”

Caballero says he hopes eventually people of color will be able to say, “The Episcopal Church, that’s the church that’s been looking for me!” Otherwise, he says, they will and probably should “go to love and serve the Lord elsewhere.”

To respond to this column, write to Episcopal Life (address, page 2) or e-mail commentary@episcopal-life.org. We invite your Commentary. An earlier version of his article appeared in America, http://www.americamagazine.org/, a Jesuit publication. It is reprinted with permission.