This past April, I attended a gathering of Hispanic/Latin@ church leaders with the intent of discussing how to reach Hispanic/Latin@ millennials for the church. There was great diversity of denominations, national origin, language and polity among this group. I was fortunate enough to have been asked by our denominational Ecumenical Officer, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson and the good people of The Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the UMC Council of Bishops to attend on behalf of the UMC.
The event was put on by Christian Churches Together. The UMC is a partner communion of CCT. Christian Churches Together is a relatively young ecumenical group made up of denominations across the spectrum of Christianity. Its stated purpose is as follows:
The purpose of Christian Churches Together is to enable churches and national Christian organizations to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness in the world. The by-laws list seven specific tasks:
- to celebrate a common confession of faith in the Triune God,
- to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer and theological dialogue,
- to provide fellowship and mutual support,
- to seek a better understanding of each other by affirming our commonalities and understanding our differences,
- to foster evangelism faithful to the proclamation of the gospel,
- to speak to society with a common voice whenever possible, and
- to promote the common good of society and engage in other activities consistent with its purposes.
To fulfill its purpose of growing closer to Christ and to each other, Christian Churches Together focuses, in its annual meeting, on praying together, discerning the guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer and theological dialogues, and providing fellowship and mutual support. Out of this process, participants discern how and when to take action together in common witness to our society. In 2006, CCT began to address the scandal of domestic poverty; specific proposals for CCT actions will be brought to the next annual meeting for consideration and decision.
From this initial work, a vision was set to bring together Latin@ church leaders together in an effort to:
- Meet and develop relationships with other Latino/Latina leaders
- Pray together and celebrate our common identity in Christ
- Learn of other’s efforts, actions, and programs
- Talk about our differences and seek a better understanding
- Coordinate common actions in support of the Latino community
The April 2016 meeting was the third gathering of Latin@ leaders to date. It was held at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino, CA on April 26-27. I have attached an agenda of the meeting to this report as Attachment A.
There was ample attendance to facilitate good conversation and adequate denominational representation from a diverse group of communion. The demographics were heavily male in the makeup of the delegation. There were few young adults with an estimate average age of attendees being around 50 years of age.
Those in attendance were:
Rev. Carlos L. Malave, Executive Director, Christian Churches Together, Louisville, KY;
Mr. Alejandro Aguilarea-Titus, Director Ministerios Hispanos de la Conferencia de Obispos Católicos, Washington, D.C.;
Rev. Eddy Aleman, Coordinator of Hispanic Ministries, The Reformed Church in America, Grand Rapids, MI;
Rev. Luis Avila, Director Ministerios Hispanos de la Iglesia Internacional de Santidad y Pentecostal, Oklahoma City, OK;
Rev. Dr. Fernando Cascante, Director Ejecutivo, AETH – Director del Centro Justo L. Gonzalez, Orlando, FL;
Rev. Iris de Leon-Hartshorn, Director of Transformative Peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA, Portland, OR;
Rev. Nancy Frausto, Associate Rector, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, CA;
Bishop Jose Garcia, former California State Presiding Bishop for the Church of God of Prophecy, now Director of Church Relations, Bread for the World, Washington, D.C.;
Rev. Rudy Gonzalez, Office of Race Relations, Christian Reformed Church in North America, Moreno Valley, CA;
Rev. Marco Grimaldo (PCUSA), Senior National Associate for Latino Engagement, Bread for the World, Washington, D.C.;
Rev. Canon Anthony Guillen, Missioner, Hispanic/Latino Ministries; Los Angeles, CA;
Rev. Enrique Baldeon, Director America Latina y Brasil; Biblia, Inc. (formerly known as International Bible Society), Doral, FL;
Pastor Florecita Merlos, licensed, Principe de Paz (Church of the Brethren), Santa Ana, CA.
Rev. Salvador Orellana, National Coordinator – Latino Ministries, American Baptist Home Mission Society, Valley Forge, PA;
Rev. Ruben Ortiz, Senior Pastor, La Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de Deltona, American Baptist Church USA, Daytona Beach, FL.; and
Vince Gonzales, Laity, United Methodist Church, Board, General Commission on Religion and Race; Chair, Racial and Social Justice Task Force, Churches Uniting In Christ, Weatherford, TX.
We opened with a shared meal, greetings, and introductions. After an opening prayer, Rev. Malave gave a brief devotional to start us on our path of discussion and discovery.
In the first session, we shared professional and personal stories of being a Hispanic, latin@ and immigrant within the context of the church. The stories, often of success, often reflected success within the Latin@ church and did little to shed light on a greater struggle to find equity in the mainline denomination. Regardless, these stories were encouraging as these leaders have shown the ability to overcome many obstacles that our congregant and those seeking a church have faced.
We fell behind schedule so we spent a little time discussing programs and actions that were working at reaching Latin@s in our communities. I mentioned the Hispanic/Latino Ministry Christian School in the Northwest Texas Conference. This joint project with United Theological Seminary has been training small group leaders with an eye to moving these trained persons into local pastor roles. This has spurred a leap in Hispanic new members within this Conference. The Iowa Conference has considered this program, the New Mexico Conference is starting to implement it and, as I understand it, the North Georgia Conference has reviewed this program and may be considering its implementation.
Our first presenter was the Rev. Marcos Canales. Rev. Canales is the Hispanic Ministries director at First Nazarene Church in Pasadena, CA. Born in Costa Rica, his family moved to Lima, Peru and then to Quito, Ecuador. His family then returned to San Jose, Costa Rica. He eventually came to the United States. After a one year stay in Miami, Florida, he then traveled to Asuncion, Paraguay.
Leaving Paraguay, he moved to San Diego, CA to attend Point Loma Nazarene University from which he graduated. After graduation, he attended Fuller Theological Seminary while serving as Senior Pastor at San Fernando Church of the Nazarene. After 8 years there, he moved to his current appointment.
His migration story is relevant when he speaks of what he sees as the Four Core Issues for the Latin@ church.
These Core Issues are:
- The Power of La Familia.
- The complex reality of migration.
- Leadership dynamics.
- Identity formation.
The Power of La Familia.
Self is defined by one’s relationship with one’s family. Stress/tension is created between 1st generation, Spanish-language dominant family members and 2nd generation, English-dominant family members. Children often have to take on adult roles as intermediaries for their parents. The roles are often in the form of translating at doctor’s appointments, legal appointments, banking, school meetings, etc. This can often lead to low attendance or inability to participate in church programs.
The complex reality of migration.
Churches must be cognizant of migration stories to create effective ministries to Latin@s. The need for a church to be aware of community resources that prove to be valuable to Latin@s is extremely important. These resources must be more than benevolence programs. The two top concerns for Latin@ millennials are High Blood Pressure and Diabetes, followed by clinical depression. Knowing resources for health care, both physical and mental will assist in bridge-building. Being in a relationship with the community will help tp identify specific needs that might exist.
Latin@ youth suffers burnout and/or under use. In large part, this may be due to rampant patriarchy within Latin@ congregations.
To make matters worse, within predominantly white churches, the use of language often serves in a manner that invites, obscurantism, the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known to Spanish-dominant or bi-lingual speakers.
Identity formation is dependent upon spaces for the narratives which define the Latin@ culture and character. Any missional agenda must embrace the issues which lead to Hispanic/Latino identity formation.
In an interesting exercise, Rev. Canales had the group watch a YouTube video by the group Las Cafeteras. The song title is “La Bamba Rebeledes”. It can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/9xv-FjbXaqk
The purpose of viewing this video was for the attendee to answer the following questions:
- What values do you see reflected in the video?
- Which parts could one relate with in the video?
- Which parts made you uncomfortable?
Having been born and lived in Los Angeles until the age of 12 I was reminded of the four core issues Rev. Canales addressed in his presentation. The Latin@ love and respect of family, culture, faith traditions, the manner of dress, food and identity are often lost in the inadvertent (maybe even to some degree, intentional) attempt to assimilate Latin@s to become mainline church members.
Rev. Canales pointed out that it should be a major pastoral concern to know the difference between being an agent of change or a recipient of change. To be an agent of change, one maintains his or her self-identity and all that is attendant to that identity.
To recognize and respect the value of Latin@ Christians, we must be willing to give a load-bearing responsibility with the attendant high visibility in positions of church missional work and church leadership.
In a side-bar conversation with Rev. Dr. Cascante, he pointed out that many churches utilize the model:
Believe> Behave > Belong
This model requires a change in order to belong and creates a litmus test before acceptance.
The preferred model is:
Belong> Behave> Believe
Belonging to a community of faith is an ecclesiological question, not a programmatic one.
We began with a moving devotional delivered by Rev Ruben Ortiz. We were asked to listen to a portion of an NPR podcast entitled “Walking Across America.” The selection can be found here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/494/hit-the-road Start: 16:00 End: 18:41
We then discussed Race and Grace. It was moving to discuss who each of us extended grace as well as had grace extended to each of us.
Our next session was presented by the Pastores Molinas from Iglesias de Restauracion in Los Angeles, CA. A father and son pastoral team, Rene Sr., and Rene Jr. lead a 3,000-member church affiliated with Mision Cristiana Elim International, a Pentecostal group with approximately 60,000 members. Both pastors are working toward the M.Divs at Fuller Theological Seminary.
I have attached a newspaper article from the L.A. Times that covers most of their presentation, but would add the following points from their presentation:
- “Tradition is the dead faith of the living.”
- Proselytizing among millennials (doesn’t work because) young adults don’t like it.”
- Authenticity if very important. Do not treat millennials like a “bar-code.”
- We must stay fluid to develop meaningful relationships.
- We must decide what we intend to follow, the tradition of the Gospel or the tradition of the church.
- Millennials only have “space for grace” when churches fail when there are genuine relationships.
- “Closed small groups” lead to greater accountability based on trust and relationship. Once a small group is formed, there can be no new members. The privacy and sanctity of the small group have led to open discussions on issues such as homoeroticism, same-sex attraction, demons, etc.
- We must utilize relevant age and demographic appropriate social media.
- “Nones” (spiritual, not religious) people are an issue across denominational lines. They ask “Why go to church when technology usurps church structure?”
- Young Adults have experienced diversity within their social structures. Why does the Church create impediments to that practice?
Rev. Nancy Frausto asked the question “How do we deal with our sexuality conflicting with our theology?” Pastor Rene, Jr. responded, “We don’t as millennials, it is fluid.”
Finally, we must struggle with determining how to identify 1) leaders; 2) followers; and 3) those simply on a journey. Then we must provide appropriate resources for each group’s spiritual development and formation within the structure of our theological traditions.
Our next set of presenters was Mr. Alejandro Aguilarea-Titus, Director Ministerios Hispanos de la Conferencia de Obispos Católicos, Washington, D.C. and Alberto Embry, the Archdiocesan Coordinator for Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Los Angeles.
Mr. Embry delivered most of the presentation. He emphasized that connexionalism is dependent upon bridge-building with marginalized groups. This is done through small group gatherings of these marginalized people and very intentionally draws connections back to the church. The “who” is more important than the “what” when it comes to programs. When the “who” is identified, the “what” defines itself.
It is important to address individual needs through identification, classification, and connection to appropriate resources. One size does not fit all!
Our final presenter was Pastor Christian Garcia, New Generation Church in Temple City, CA. Although his ministry focuses on youth rather than millennials, he feels that many of the techniques and practices are applicable to both groups. He states that one of the greatest challenges to working with millennials is they (millennials) desire immediate satisfaction and personal attention to their needs.
He suggests not using a set curriculum but to respond to the Spirit.
He went on to point out many issues which churches should be aware:
- Millennials are quite diverse, tolerant, free-thinking and more global.
- To millennials, friendship is more important than family (not consistent with comments made by a previous presenter).
- Ministry (preaching) from the pulpit is not effective.
- Leadership through dictatorship in ineffective.
- Leadership from a distance is ineffective.
- Leaders are judged by words and actions.
- The church must paint a vision of the future for ministry, family, community, relationships and work.
- Innovation as a work rule.
- Establish deep friendships/relationships.
- Boost up, as a faith leader, others and believe and trust in them.
Final thoughts from the group
At future gatherings, we should start a mentoring process by bringing a young adult/millennial from our denomination with us.
Be aware of the next National Convocation of CCT. Notices will be sent out.
Concentrate on the gender balance of the delegations. Only three women were present and that was a step forward.
What will unite us is the intentional development of relationships.
Our differences are relatively small compared to that which ties us together.
Important statistics and information:
According to Pew Research Data, among Latin@ mainline Protestants, 45% are English-dominant, 28% are bi-lingual and only 26% are Spanish-dominant.
Among the general population, 36% a are English-dominant, 41% are bi-lingual and only 23% are Spanish-dominant
Approximately 54 million Latin@s in the U.S. Of that number 17.9 million are younger than 18 years of age.
14.6 million are millennials.
A millennial is defined as someone born after 1980.
Hispanic: a person of Latin American or Iberian ancestry, fluent in Spanish. It is primarily used along the Eastern seaboard, and favored by those of Caribbean and South American ancestry or origin. English or Spanish can be their “native” language.
Latino: a U.S.-born Hispanic who is not fluent in Spanish and is engaged in social empowerment through Identity Politics. “Latino” is principally used west of the Mississippi, where it has displaced “Chicano” and “Mexican American.” English is probably their “native” language. “Empowerment” refers to increasing the political, social, and spiritual strength of an individual or a community, and it is associated with the development of confidence of that individual or community in their own abilities.
Latin: an abbreviation for “Latin American,” or “Latinoamericano” in Spanish (written as one word), a Latin is a person who was born in Latin America and migrated to the United States. Regardless of his or her immigration status, a Latin is a foreign-born worker for whom English is a “foreign” language and who lacks the cultural fluency taken for granted by those born and raised in the United States. Spanish, Portuguese, or an indigenous language is their “native” language.
My reflections and observations:
Bilingualism in our programs and church programming is imperative to maintain familial connections.
Latin@s make up a rich tapestry of cultural diversity. To approach all Latin@s as one body is fool-hardy and detrimental to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World. It fails to recognize cultural differences and creates an impediment to deep, personal relationship building.
The National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry of The United Methodist Church fails to recognize that the vast majority of Latin@s speak English. To focus on ESL courses and Spanish-language church startups further alienates Latin@s. As Rev. Canales stated so well, this is the difference between being an agent of change or a recipient of change. If the church is only interested in keeping Latin@s as recipients of change, it should continue on the path as outlined in the National Plan, however, in doing so it strips many Latin@s of their self-worth, self-esteem and his or her self-identity and all that is attendant to that identity. It ignores the Latin@ culture.
One thing is for certain. Much can be learned from dialogue with other denominations and communions. The “evangelical” churches seem to be doing a much better job at reaching millennials, as well as Hispanic/Latin@s than the mainline Protestant communions.
Once again, it is an ecclesiological question, not a programmatic question. May we prayerfully seek the way to be in relationships with our Latin@ brothers and sisters, rather than simply create programs where we are in ministry for, rather than with.
 For the purposes of this report, I have chosen to use the gender-neutral Latin@ rather than Hispanic or Spanish. The use of any descriptor raises objections from many seeking definitive “political identity.” I personally choose to believe that all Latin@s are Hispanic, but not all Hispanics are Latin@. I will further elaborate in the body of this report.
 Referenced Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D.