Friday, August 7, 2020

Latino Lutheran Catholics

It was only a couple of months into the COVID-19 quarantine that I came across an article discussing the lossof life that the Rev. Fabian Arias was witnessing among his parishioners. Over 40 at that point had already died from the novel coronavirus, and the victims were Hispanic. Seeing that he was connected with St. Peter's Church and knowing nothing about it myself, I assumed that this was a Roman Catholic parish. After all, his vestments in one photo featured Our Lady of Guadalupe

In fact, he's a Lutheran pastor, and so I had questions. 
photo via
Our Lady of Guadalupe is said to have been a vision of Mary the mother of Jesus, referred to by Roman Catholics as 'the Virgin Mary,' received by an indigenous Mexican peasant named Juan Diego in 1531. Diego reportedly saw her 4 times, and his uncle saw her once at his bedside while sick. Healings and miracles were attributed to her, including the appearance of her image on Diego's cloak, and over time she became the patroness of Mexico. Through and through she is a manifestation of the distinctively Catholic Mariology. So what is her image doing on a Lutheran pastor's vestments?

The CNN article didn't offer any explanation, as this wasn't the topic anyway, so after letting it sit for a while in the back of my mind I finally got around to looking into it recently . It turns out that in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), a mainline Protestant denomination, there is a fairly recent history of embracing aspects of Hispanic religious traditions, including imagery and customs. Based on the CNN article I had initially viewed this practice as deceptive, because any average layperson seeing the symbols and terminology used would reasonably assume that this was Roman Catholicism. The St. Peter's Church website even has this on its homepage: "A welcoming and diverse evangelical catholic communion nourished by God and publicly engaged with others in creatively shaping life in the city."

Having studied religion in general and Christianity in particular for years I have the benefit of understanding what's really being said there. In Germany and Austria the Lutheran Church was never called 'Lutheran.' That happened after the faith arrived in the United States. Instead, they were the Evangelische Kirche (Evangelical Church). Thus the ELCA has 'evangelical' in its name even though it is not evangelical in the commonly understood sense. When most people hear 'evangelical' in our times they think of a conservative theology that emphasizes more literal interpretations of the Bible. Saying 'evangelical catholic' potentially evokes images of a church that is Roman Catholic in ritual but evangelical in theology, when what I think St. Peter's Church means is more like 'Lutheran Catholic.'

It isn't incorrect for Lutherans to refer to their faith as 'catholic.' That term simply means 'universal,' as in this is at its core the faith as it was commonly defined and received in the ancient Ecumenical Councils of the church. Any Nicene Christian denomination can rightly affirm that it is 'catholic' in that sense. Furthermore, Lutherans (with some exceptions) tend to practice a worship style that is more historically liturgical, resembling that of the Anglican or Roman Catholic communions. For a month or so when I was 18 I attended at Lutheran church affiliated with the conservative Missouri Synod and, having been raised Roman Catholic before converting to evangelicalism, I felt right at home. I would have stayed had I not decided I should join a congregation closer to where I lived.

Shedding quite a bit of light on the situation of Lutheranism among Hispanic immigrants in the United States is a fascinating paper by Luisa Feline Freier entitled, "How Our Lady of Guadalupe Became Lutheran:Latin American Migration and Religious Change." The following quotes are from this paper, with my comments dispersed in between. I strongly recommend a full read of this paper if you're interested in the topic, as I'm only picking out the parts I found useful for this post. 

International migration is initiating myriad processes of religious change from the level of individual conversion to the institutional transformation of religious structures and practices. An approach combining a transnational perspective and the concept of diaspora space facilitates the analysis of the different scales, agents, and actions involved in migration-caused religious change. The article analyzes the broadening of Lutheranism to incorporate Latino Catholic culture into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (elca) in Madison, Wisconsin. Under the leadership of their pastor, Latin American immigrants in Madison are agents redefining the understanding of the category Lutheran through the incorporation of popular Catholicism. Though strongly contested by the Roman Catholic Church, the elca accepts these processes due to its institutional interest in the recruitment of new Latino worshippers.

That's the abstract for the paper, giving you a good idea of what's to come. The focus here was on a particular Lutheran church in the same part of Madison, Wisconsin as a Roman Catholic church. It makes for a fascinating case study. The Lutheran ministry to Hispanics in Madison is referred to as 'Nazareth,' although that is not its real name. Freier used different names for churches and individuals in order to protect their identity and privacy. With that in mind:

The three defining characteristics of the Nazareth Latino convert congregation are: 1) The vast majority are first-generation migrants, and they were practicing Roman Catholics in their home countries. 2) Latino worshippers at the Lutheran Nazareth Church see themselves as a group sharing higher educational and socio-economic backgrounds than Latin American members of the Roman Catholic St. Patrick congregation. And 3) although roughly half of Nazareth Latino converts come from Mexico, they believe that they constitute a truly “Latino” congregation that comprises members of numerous Latin American countries, in contrast to the St. Patrick congregation, which they pejoratively label as Mexican.

So far we're not getting the picture of a congregation of dupes who have been misled into thinking they're at a Catholic church rather than Lutheran. They at least see themselves as having a higher educational and economic background their Roman Catholic counterparts. They must surely know that the differences are more than skin deep. 

Olga Odgers Ortiz sees international migration as a factor leading to religious change based on four main characteristics: 1) migrants’ conversion due to the exposure to a context of greater religious diversity, 2) migrants distancing themselves from traditional mechanisms of social control, 3) the vulnerability associated with the migratory condition, and 4) the process of redefining identity referents in the integration process into the destination society (2007:168-9). These are important reasons explaining why international migration leads to religious change.

That element of social control is particularly valuable in this context, I suspect. Without being strangers in a strange land many people of various races, ethnicities, and cultures have chosen to move away from traditional religious systems that lay guilt on them for being themselves. 

In the context of more pronounced religious liberty, Latino worshippers at the Parroquia Nazareth criticize the Roman Catholic Church as being a conservative and manipulative power, and they distance themselves from its traditional mechanisms of social control (Odgers Ortiz, 2007). They take issue with the church’s hierarchical structure and its use of the concepts of sin and guilt to control its members, especially the less-educated communities in the smaller villages of their home countries.

During my mission internship in 1997 I met a young woman who had recently been baptized by immersion and joined one of the churches I was visiting. She was very happy with her newfound faith and the direction her life was going, but there were problems at home. While her family had no real issues when she just attended evangelical worship, the point at which she was baptized as an adult was a line they couldn't accept her crossing. She was, in their minds, renouncing not only a particular belief system, but the way she was raised and even her identification with her family. Others, though, already have problems at home, or difficulties with Roman Catholicism due to some condition of their life that is judged. For them, Protestantism offers greater freedom.

A 76-year-old Mexican Lutheran worshipper narrated: In the Catholic Church, I couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper, and I was left with a trauma, because my mother-in-law [pause] she is divorced too. She was divorced, and when we went to church in Mexico, she couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper. And I asked: Why? She couldn’t because she was divorced. So, she died in sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So, when I got here, I was left with that idea that I couldn’t receive the Lord’s Supper, but I went [to a Catholic Church], and I did receive it, and I felt with sin, because I said: apart from being divorced, I was receiving the Lord’s Supper without having the right to do so. So, that’s a double sin. [She pauses.] So when I came here [to the Lutheran Nazareth Church], the table of the Lord’s Supper was an Open Table, and I really liked that. That: “Come—no matter which denomination, the table of God is set, come!” They don’t put anything like: You are divorced. You can’t receive Lord’s Supper!” So, now I don’t feel guilty. I feel comfortable when I go and receive the Lord’s Supper, and I feel free. 

That's the view from the Hispanic side of things. I still wondered at the reasoning from Lutheran leadership. I have absolutely no doubt that they feel particularly motivated to embrace certain aspects of Hispanic Catholic culture in order to bring in parishioners. The ELCA, like all mainline Protestant denominations, has been in constant decline since the mid-20th century. New adherents are their only hope. Just check out these projects to see how dire the situation really is for the ELCA.

There is an obvious need for 'new blood' in the ELCA, and drawing in Hispanics with a more welcoming and engaging approach than what they find in Roman Catholicism seems a reasonable course of action. Whether it's deceptive or not remains a question. Freier quotes someone in her paper saying that they know people who went to the Nazareth Parish thinking that it was Roman Catholic. The problem for a devout Catholic is that taking communion in a church not aligned with the pope is a sin. Referring to the service as a 'Mass' and using familiar Latino religious imagery and language without further explanation is potentially emotionally harmful to people. At the same time, there is a very good case to be made for the adaptations beyond simply trying to pack the pews with new people. A Latino Lutheran pastor explains:

As Latino Lutherans, we should understand that our faith in Jesus Christ does not require an abandonment of our common roots to become Nordic Europeans in the name of the Gospel. [He pauses.] So, we keep our traditions, with the water, the Saints, the Virgin, but all of it from a Lutheran point of view. So, yes, culturally we are more Catholic, culturally. But everyone who enters this church knows that it isn’t a church affiliated with the Vatican, it’s not Roman. But it keeps up the liturgy—because the Lutheran Church is very liturgical—and, at the same time, we can add something else, which is the Latin flavor. Something alegre joyful.

When Christianity was spreading through Europe over a 1000 years ago it picked up customs, religious festivals, and folk beliefs and revised them to fit into the new belief system. It was cultural adaptation that made it easier for people to accept Christianity. In my preparation to be a missionary there was quite a bit about not making the gospel into a vehicle for Western or North American culture. We were called to distinguish between the essentials of the faith, and the ways of the people we were trying to reach. Ideally, we were to let go of our own cultural expectations and let the locals guide the expression of the faith. That was, of course, easier said than done. One Brazilian complained to me that congregations of the Church of Christ in Brazil are like mini-US embassies. I would say that if a Latino minister is leading a culturally Latino parish, he or she would know better than a white Anglo person would about what is appropriate. 

The pastor believes that there are many things in the Lutheran Church that are not negotiable, including “the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and the teaching according to the Lutheran confession.” Other things, including the use of icons like the portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he describes as adiaphora, as matters not essential to the faith and thus permissible in Lutheranism. 

What I come away from this with is this:

First, this is about church growth, but it also involves serious theological reflection along with a liturgical expansiveness. There is openness expressed in putting up an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a Lutheran church, and following first communion practices common to Central and South American culture. At the same time, it is wrong to assume that the Lutheran content of the teaching and counsel is absent or lost. I have no reason to consider the pastors doing this work as being anything but sincere in their desire to minister to people. 

Second, it is racist to assume Hispanic people are being fooled into joining Lutheran churches. The ugly stereotype of the poor, semi-literate Central American being easily misled is simply unacceptable. From my direct, personal experience with Brazilian immigrants in the United States, I can say that there is communication within the immigrant communities. Immigrants share with each other about where to shop for certain items, where and how to look for work, housing options, and what the churches are like. A Lutheran church could not possibly deceive an entire community into thinking it's Roman Catholic. As soon as someone learned the truth it would spread like wildfire. Instead, the Lutheran churches appear to be making themselves as accommodating as possible, without hiding their identity. Furthermore, as someone who was raised Catholic I can tell you that however similar a Lutheran service might be to a Catholic mass, the differences would be obvious to any Catholic worth their salt.

Again, I find this all fascinating, although it isn't exactly in my 'lane' as a Unitarian Universalist. There could be applications though, and I'll try to suss that out in a separate post to follow.