REVIEW: Not your ‘abuelo’s’ church — reaching U.S.-born Latinos
I don’t speak Spanish, but I’ve spent the past 46…
OKLAHOMA CITY — What do you suppose young Ephraim and Manasseh were thinking, standing before their grandfather, Jacob, and hearing him ask, “Who are these?”
They probably didn’t look much like their cousins. The sons of Joseph and Asenath were half Hebrew and half Egyptian. Their father was Pharaoh’s right-hand man and had made his boss incredibly wealthy.
The boys were probably treated like Egyptian royalty. Their other grandfather was a priest who likely led people in worship of the sun god.
Yet Jacob says, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.”
These kids lived “in the hyphen,” a phrase we use when we talk about Latinos (“Hispanic-Americans”) born here in the U.S. There’s a dire need for churches to reach this rapidly growing demographic, says Dan Rodriguez, professor of religion and Hispanic studies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
I heard Dan speak recently at a workshop sponsored by the South Walker Church of Christ, just south of downtown OKC. The small congregation is predominantly white and increasingly gray. So its leaders have adopted the goal of better reaching their Hispanic neighbors, emphasizing the children and grandchildren of first-generation immigrants. Too often, these folks are overlooked by our fellowship — even by churches with dedicated Spanish-language ministries.
The drive to the South Walker church makes the need clear. Just blocks from the 1950s-era building, with its beautiful arched auditorium, is a Supermercado Morelos and La Guadalupana Bakery. There’s a row of shops where you can find a dress for your daughter’s quinceañera.
The church wants to invite a mission team of young Latinos to work with them, said minister Taylor Cave, a former missionary to Brazil. For this plan to work, the team will need support, prayerful and financial, from other congregations.
To be a multicultural congregation, a church has to “have a Latino flavor, and I’m not talking about that queso stuff.”
More than that, the congregation will need to adopt a new mentality of what a church should look like, Rodriguez told us.
“As you dream about reaching this Hispanic community, are you under the assumption that, when they come here, they’re going to ‘act American,’ ‘act Oklahoman?’” he asked. “You’re going to help them become a ‘real American?’”
To be a multicultural congregation, a church has to “have a Latino flavor,” Rodriguez said, “and I’m not talking about that queso stuff.”
Having at least one bilingual minister on staff is a good start, he said, but don’t think that having a Spanish-language option for your members is enough. Spanish-language ministry is not Hispanic ministry. According to Rodriguez, “Successful models reinforce constantly that we’re one church with two languages.”
Getting back to his Old Testament analogy, Rodriguez said that multicultural churches should feel like home for Latinos in the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob generations (first-generation immigrants plus their children and grandchildren, who are likely more fluent in English than Spanish).
Reach out to your local school system and police department if you want to see what the needs are in your Hispanic community, Rodriguez advised. Sadly, many Latino youths live in low-income neighborhoods and are susceptible to gang-related violence. Many grow up in single-parent families.
Churches have tremendous opportunities to provide healthy male role models and safe, welcoming environments for Hispanic youths. They also can sponsor programs for healthy marriages and families.
Spanish-language ministry is not Hispanic ministry.
Whatever programs your church chooses, focus on developing intentional and transformational relationships with those you serve, Rodriguez said.
Adopt a nearby, predominantly Hispanic school. Go there and tutor kids. (I should mention here that the South Walker church has some experience in this. For decades the church has worked with an amazing program called Whiz Kids that provides role models for under-resourced children across the OKC metro.)
Rodriguez, himself a U.S.-born Latino, gives a lot more advice in his book “A Future for the Latino Church.” He also recommends “Walk with the People” by Juan Francisco Martinez. A few days after this meeting, I heard Arkansas minister Mark DeYmaz speak at a convention. His book “Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church” also is a resource.
In Genesis 48, we learn that not only did Jacob bless his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim, he also adopted them as his own sons. The descendants of these mixed-race children became tribes of Israel.
Are we willing to adopt our Hispanic communities in the same way — to accommodate them instead of trying to get them to assimilate to our culture? I pray that we are.
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