This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

They Have a Plan: Hispanic Episcopalian Ministry

photo via St. Stephan’s Grace Community – ELCA
In preparing to write yesterday about Latino Lutheran Catholics, one thing in particular puzzled me. Why had I heard so much about the inroads the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was making into the Hispanic community, and really nothing about the same for the Episcopal Church (TEC)? As it turns out, there is definitely activity in that regard.

Rev. Kurt Neilson, pastor of the parish featured in the NPR report above, took pains to emphasize that no bait and switch was going on with the Hispanic ministry in his parish. Here's the relevant portion:

Neilson went to a Catholic seminary before joining the Episcopal Church nearly 30 years ago, and he says that might be helping him connect to the Latino members in his congregation who were raised in the Catholic Church.

"I can still, if you will, speak a fluent Roman Catholic," Neilson says. "Not that we're misrepresenting ourselves. We're very clear: This is the Episcopal Church. I tell them I have a wife and children."

As I noted in my post yesterday, the first thing that came to mind when I saw a Lutheran pastor with Our Lady of Guadalupe on his vestments was that some deception was involved. That was wrong of me, both because I was attributing bad motives to people actively ministering to others without real evidence, and because it infantilized the Hispanic parishioners. Reading further, I've come to understand those mistakes, and while I'm still certain denominational survival is at least one of the key motivators, there is much more involved that is good. What was true about the ELCA is most certainly the same for the Episcopal Church.

In fact, the Episcopal Church has a 'strategic vision' for Latino outreached laid out in a 30 page document available online. It's quite a read, utilizing Pew Research data, SWOT analysis, and mind mapping to identify and build a strategy. It begins very upfront with the rationale for the effort.

In the midst of various challenges resulting in the Episcopal Church’s membership decline, our church also faces the unprecedented opportunity to embrace the changing times with excitement, zeal, and hope. The dramatic increase in the numbers of Latinos/Hispanics in communities throughout the country should be seen as an evangelistic opportunity and hope for the church.

As the report by the 20/20 task force put it in 2001, “Such radically changing demographics should encourage the church to be courageous, resourceful, passionate, and enthusiastic in its response to these new circumstances.” This strategic document is a call for the Church to face its present and future in a spirit of discernment and mission as it responds to the growth of Latino/Hispanic communities in all regions of our country 

They didn't even try to sugarcoat it, which I appreciate. They see the demographic change that includes a 'dramatic increase in the numbers of Latinos/Hispanics' in the United States as 'an evangelistic opportunity and hope for the church.' The institutional survival of the Episcopal Church is on the line, and they know it.

Recognizing the promise for transformation that can occur with the encounter between The Episcopal Church and Latinos/Hispanics, a coalition of Latino/Hispanic leaders has prepared this strategy for effective evangelistic and pastoral ministries for a changing time.
Notice that it was 'a coalition of Latino/Hispanic leaders' who developed this strategy, and not a room full of white people. As I learned in ministry training years ago regarding mission work, the people who identify with a culture are the ones best suited to developing a church in line with their expectations. That should be a no-brainer, but the history of missions demonstrates time and again that even with the best of intentions, foreign missionaries who go beyond teaching their central creed only establish churches in the image of what they knew back home. Generally, such religious communities tend to fall short of providing  the kind of spiritual sustenance and support that their homegrown neighboring churches do.

Based upon what we have learned and our evaluation of past efforts of Latino/Hispanic ministry, we have determined that there is a need to shift the dominant concept of this form of ministry, from an immigrant-focused ministry to one that takes into account sixty percent of the Latino/Hispanic population second, third, and later generations. This is a necessary shifting of the focus, since immigrant communities and parishes themselves must deal with the cultural shifts that occur in subsequent generations.

Through my Brazilian ex-wife and my children, together with my church work in the Brazilian community, I've had some experience with the life of immigrants in the United States. One thing that became clear to me years ago was that while there are true immigrants, there are also successive generations of Brazilian-Americans who were born and raised here. Most of these latter speak Portuguese, although the quality varies dramatically depending on how much it was spoken at home, and while they identify with aspects of their parents' or grandparents' Brazilian culture, they are definitely Americans* in attitude and outlook. This is even more apparent with the Hispanic community, given that parts of the United States were taken from Mexico in the 1800s, including the resident population, and that migration from Central and South America, as well as from the Caribbean, has been going on for generations. This TEC strategy recognizes that over half of the Hispanics were born here, and are as 'American' as anyone else.

This strategy document also outlines three types of churches and communities in relation to Hispanic populations, and these categories would apply to any denomination in similar circumstances.
  • Emerging communities (churches with a recent influx of immigrants) 
  • Stagnant communities (older churches that are not growing but have Hispanic populations in the community) 
  • “We’re Here” communities (churches with high Hispanic population densities in the surrounding community representing two or more generations)
Among the emerging communities would be the 'Nazareth Parish' (a pseudonym used for the purposes of the study) in Madison, Wisconsin that featured large in yesterday's post, as well as St. Stephan's Church in Newark, New Jersey. This latter church is ELCA Lutheran and offers services in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, reflecting the demographic composition of the Ironbound neighborhood where it is located.

The stagnant and "We're Here" situations are pretty common too. Oddly, the Brazilian immigrant church where I was in lay ministry for several years didn't experience anything other than organic growth as children grew and were baptized, but when they helped facilitate a Hispanic service, offering them space and resources to get started, the latter grew rapidly to overflowing. It was evidently perfectly customary among them to invite friends and family to church, and as that happened entire families and friend networks started showing up. It was pretty remarkable to see happen. Meanwhile, the Brazilian church puttered along with the same folks week after week, and I don't think much has changed in the years since I left.

The report includes, as I mentioned above, a SWOT analysis. Without going into details, I've picked out some items from each that I think would be applicable or a point of concern for other types of churches, including Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In strengths they included '[s]pecial celebrations: Virgen de Guadalupe, Quinceañeras, and Día de los Muertos.' As noted yesterday, the inclusion of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a Lutheran context is somewhat unusual, but it's done anyway. I would think that she would be even more acceptable in an Episcopal context, given the stronger affinity for high church catholic style in the Anglican tradition generally.  

An opportunity that caught my eye was: '[o]ther denominations’ reluctance to minister to Latinos/Hispanics.' I'm going to have to look around for some hard data on Hispanic/Latino outreach among American churches, because everywhere I went in the Midwest and South while I was in college years ago I saw churches of many denominations with signs indicating the presence of a Hispanic ministry. In one case it was a Church of Christ that had a big building for the white people, and a tiny Spanish-language Church of Christ standing right next to it. The visuals were bad, but the ministry was present. At the same time, in the era of Trump it's possible that evangelical churches have put the breaks on Hispanic outreach. I just don't know.

There were three weaknesses list that I consider noteworthy:
  • Difficulties and obstacles in ordination process
  • Unrealistic expectation that congregations be financially self-sustaining
  • Growth impeded by small groups of families who are unwelcoming 
  • Exclusion based on nationality
The ordination challenges have also come up with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and in particular with regard to people of color being presented with a process that doesn't take into account their financial reality, time commitments, or life experience. Perhaps the issues within TEC are similar. The 'self-sustaining' portion is perturbing, as I have known churches to support the work of overseas missionaries for decades, which meant that the church plants were being subsidized if not funded outright. Maybe when it's people in the United States the expectation is that they'll make their new churches self-sustaining faster, when that's not necessarily the case. The groups of families sounds like the sort of frustrating congregational dynamics I've heard of many times, and the 'exclusion based on nationality' is, sadly, the reality of even progressive denominations.

Finally from the SWOT analysis is threats, and this is one I don't know how they can handle transparently: '[r]ecent theological positions of the Episcopal Church that are hard for conservative Latinos/Hispanics.' The Episcopal Church officially includes lgbtq+ people fully in the life of the church, affirming marriage equality and ordaining qualified candidates from that community to the ministry. This is particular is probably the challenge they identify here, although of course there are other progressive theological stances that could pose problems. At the same time, as we saw yesterday there are some from Latino/Hispanic backgrounds that will seek out this affirmation of everyone's humanity.

Based on the data collected from the SWOT analysis, the most successful churches are those with Latino/Hispanic clergy, those that offer services in Spanish, those that have their own building or installation, and those that have a dominant Latino/Hispanic congregation – even if it operates as a mission or parallel to the dominant Anglo congregation. This finding is corroborated in the Pew Religion Study. 

I've only included one of the charts created from the data in that report, which can be found online.

As noted in the Pew Study: “The houses of worship most frequented by Latinos have distinctly ethnic characteristics. A majority of those in the congregation are Hispanic; some Latinos serve as clergy; and liturgies are available in Spanish. The growth of the Hispanic population is leading to the emergence of Latino-oriented churches in all the major religious traditions across the country. “Foreign-born Latinos are most likely to attend Hispanic-oriented churches and to comprise the largest share of Latinos who worship at such churches. However, large shares of native-born Latinos as well as those who speak little or no Spanish also report attending churches with ethnic characteristics. Similarly, while Latinos who live in areas densely populated by Latinos are most likely to report attending Hispanic-oriented churches, smaller but still substantial shares of Latinos who live in areas where Hispanics are a sparse presence also say they attend ethnic churches. Latino-oriented churches, then, are not exclusively a product of either immigration or of residential settlement patterns. 

Having clarified the situation as it stands, noting what makes for a favorable environment for Hispanic ministry, the strategy document finally turns to theology. From the first page this paper is about church growth, and I'm a little disappointed that they saved the theological justification for so much later. 

The catechism of The Book of Common Prayer states the mission of the Episcopal Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Also, the church is apostolic “because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people.” Both of these statements are foundational for the Episcopal Church. 
The Latino/Hispanic Ministry Strategic Vision is simply an organic, natural manifestation of these statements. It seeks to carry out the very doctrinal belief about the church, which is that the gospel is to be proclaimed and shared with all persons. Given the increasing Hispanic/Latino population, this strategy facilitates the church’s effort to be faithful to its mission. . .

Fundamental to the identity of the Episcopal Church is its welcoming and hospitable environment. There is room for persons of different theological and doctrinal positions within the Episcopal Church, just as there is room for persons of different class backgrounds. . .

Such hospitality needs to extend to persons who are different from most of the members of the Episcopal Church. This hospitality flies in the face of the xenophobia increasing in the U.S. This hospitality proclaims the gospel in a countercultural way, demonstrating to the rest of society that God cares for all persons, no matter their legal status, their sins, their color, etc.

Given how well-thought-out the Episcopalian strategy is, and what the NPR report at the beginning of this post said, I'm surprised that so far I haven't come across a great deal of information online about what Hispanic Anglicanism in the United States looks like in practice. Clearly they have the insight and adaptability to carry out effective outreach. I'll be keeping an eye out for more on them, but in the next post I'll be taking a look at a small surprise I discovered while looking at what the ELCA is doing in Wisconsin, and in the one that follows I'll be thinking through the possible implications of all this for Hispanic/Latino Unitarian Universalist ministry.

*Note: Many in Central and South America, including Brazil, object to US citizens being referred to as 'Americans,' because despite long-established custom this is the correct term, they are also technically 'Americans' because they live in 'the Americas.' They are technically correct, and I often avoid the use of 'American.' It becomes cumbersome to use 'US citizen' in English, though, and frankly I'm not convinced it's really necessary.