In Canada, everything that is involved in its becoming a bilingual country is called le fait francais. In the United States, most of us have not yet become aware of la realidad hispana—the fact that our southern neighbors have moved in with us and (even though they have slept late) are now beginning to create quite a stir.
One indication of our unawareness is the fact that none of our censuses, not even the 1970 one, has tried to trace out the details of America’s biggest non-English-speaking minority. We want to know how many blacks, Indians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, and Koreans live among us, but we don’t ask about the Spanish-speaking groups.
To be more accurate, the census does study the presence of “Persons of Spanish Surname” living in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas (there were 3,464,999 in 1960), and it reports on Puerto Ricans. But where to find Mexican-Americans outside of the Southwest is a puzzle, and how many Cubans, Santo Dominicans, or other Latin Americans have settled among us we do not know. The estimate is that we now have 12,233,000 Americans who speak Spanish. They keep coming at the rate of 200,000 per year, and they multiply at an annual rate of 3 per cent.
Many evangelical Christians, however, are aware of this “Spanish presence,” and in October of this year, in San Antonio, Texas, a Spanish-American Congress on Evangelism will be held. This congress is one in the series that began with Berlin. It was at the Latin American Congress in Bogota, Colombia, that the idea of a special Spanish-speaking congress in the United States was born.
However, the problems facing this congress—and all evangelical efforts—are numerous and complex. Many Spanish-language churches and most Anglo churches (as those of English-speaking Americans are known) are completely unaware of what is being planned. That teams of linguists, sociologists, educators, and anthropologists have been researching and writing about the Spanish-Americans suggests that this group certainly is a hard nut to crack. We merely hint here at the exciting task that confronts the Austin congress and, beyond that, all evangelical Christians.
For Protestants, the primary reason for not getting involved with the Spanish-Americans is the belief that “they are all Catholics.” This turns out to be an imaginary mountain. Benson Y. Landis says that 80 per cent of the Spanish-Americans have no religious affiliation whatever. Thus, without counting the Catholics, the United States has 9,786,690 persons of Hispanic background who need the Gospel.
In addition, the kind of Catholics who come to the United States are the more adventurous ones: those who are dissatisfied and ready to sever their ties with a former way of life. They are ready for change. Christopher Rand, speaking of Puerto Rico, says, “There has long been an anti-clerical tendency there.… Many Puerto Ricans who come up are inclined away from the Church to start with …” (The Puerto Ricans, p. 20). The same thing could be said—but more emphatically—about Mexicans coming to the United States.
Perhaps most immigrants assume that they will continue being Catholics in the United States, but they are due for a shock. For one thing, life here is not lived within earshot of clanging church bells, as it is in Latin America. Nor are there Spanish-speaking parish churches; rather English-speaking churches offer step-child-type ministries for the Spanish-speaking. “There is something very basic missing,” we read in La Raza: Forgotten Americans (Julian Samora, ed., p. 35), “which makes it possible for thousands of Spanish-speaking to leave the Church each year to embrace an alien form of worship.” Glazer and Moynihan add (Beyond the Melting Pot, p. 104): “Thus the capacities of the Church are weak in just those areas in which the needs of the migrants are great—in creating a surrounding, supporting community to replace the extended families, broken by city life, and supply a social setting for those who feel lost and lonely in the great city.”
The Roman Catholic Church, not blind to its predicament, has been casting about for solutions. For one thing, it has replaced its National Council for the Spanish Speaking and its special Bishops’ Committee with the Division for the Spanish-Speaking, with offices in Lansing, Michigan, and San Antonio, Texas.
One other imaginary mountain needs to be demolished: the mistaken notion that Spanish culture and Catholic culture are indissolubly wedded. A non-Catholic Spanish culture, it is said, would be like Istanbul without mosques. Canadians also argued that French culture and the Catholic Church are inseparable. But Edward Corbett says,
An anomaly in the new situation is that Quebec is becoming more French as it becomes more pluralistic on the religious level. As the old cliché that language is the guardian of the faith is disproved and discarded, it is now possible for non-Catholic groups to be assimilated into the French-Canadian milieu or to confirm their adherence to a culture which leaves them free to reject the dominant religion. Many of the most dynamic elements of the cultural renaissance Quebec has been undergoing identify with the mass of French Canadians in language alone [Quebec Confronts Canada, Johns Hopkins Press, 1967, p. 291].
The Canadian experience corroborates what Kyle Haselden has said about Spanish culture in the Death of a Myth.
No one knows how many evangelical Spanish-language churches continental America has, but every book on la realidad hispana speaks of these churches as being an important part of the Spanish-American scene. Ten years ago the Protestant Council of New York reported 427 churches carrying on a Spanish ministry there. Last fall, the Rev. Luis E. Vega, manager of Libreria Caribe in Brooklyn, was certain that there are now more than 1,000 such churches in the metropolitan area. While Anglo churches swelter in the heat of agonizing self-examination, Spanish-American churches are enjoying one of the fastest-growing rates in the world. The number of Hispano churches in the United States could well be over 7,000.
Evangelism among Spanish-Americans, then, need not come apologetically. The climate is just right, and evangelicals have the right answer. The small local church meets the people where they are. It understands their need of concern and fellowship. Before they emigrated, the kinship pattern and the parish church supported them in times of crisis; in an impersonal new world, the evangelical community can gather them warmly into its circle of love.
Nevertheless, nine million Spanish-Americans are still outside that circle. Evangelism needs to create for them this climate of concern. If there is to be a good crop the soil needs first to be tilled and well fertilized. Fortunately it is good soil. In spite of his anti-church bias, the person with Spanish background is naturally religious. “Go with God” and “If God will” are phrases that come naturally to his lips. Love and death are constant themes in his poetry, and to seek spiritual solutions for his deepest problems is the most natural thing in the world.
The immigrants from Puerto Rico and Mexico are young laborers who have large families. The median age in the Southwestern states in 1960 was 19.6 years. At that time the school enrollment of Spanish-background children in Los Angeles, for instance, was 499,118 pupils. In San Antonio, 193,133 Mexican American children were attending school. Evangelicals, and specifically the forthcoming Congress on Evangelism in San Antonio, therefore, must address themselves to youth caught between two cultures.
There are signs that the characteristically patient Puerto Rican and the long-suffering Mexican are getting tired of waiting. Taking the cue from civil rights agitators, they threaten to take matters into their own hands. However, even here the religious element is a vital part of the formula. In Manhattan the Young Lords invade a Methodist church. In Houston the MAYOs take over a Presbyterian church. New Mexico’s Riies Lopez Tijerina once attended a Bible institute. To an audience which included Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez of California’s National Farm Workers’ Association said in 1968:
It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strangest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men. (Sal Si Puedes, p. 196.)
Normally, in Latin America, to play the man, to defend one’s honor, blots out every other motivation. When Chavez transmutes this blind brute energy into a fight for social justice he is a true genius. And surely, to play the man in personal evangelism is no less a sign of manliness.
Another difficulty for evangelism is the Spanish-American’s characteristic individualism: he is notorious for being a poor joiner. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis points out that this lack of cohesiveness comes from Mexico. At this point Spanish-American organizers of the evangelism congress and subsequent campaigns may need to make a super effort. Perhaps they will enlist the help of their Anglo counterparts.
The Spanish-American community is monolithic in name only. Hispanophiles point out that the kind of Spanish spoken in East Harlem is much different from that spoken in East Los Angeles. Sociologists add that Mexican-Americans differ from the Spanish-Americans of New Mexico; Puerto Rican city dwellers differ from Mexican-Americans in Chicago; and the Cubans of Ybor City differ from Cubans in Miami. And all of these variations pose interesting (if not serious) problems to evangelical leaders.
And what will they do for the disculturized person with a Spanish surname? He can no longer speak Spanish or tries not to, and yet he cannot understand much English beyond what he needs at his job. What about households divided by language—households where children have difficulty communicating with their own fathers and mothers? A million English-speakers who still have Spanish thought patterns are offset by a million Spanish-speakers who have adopted an Anglo value system.
Something stronger than a common language and a common background is needed to pull the Spanish-American community together. This integrating force can be the evangelical faith. God has provided the key; how to use it is the American church’s problem. Protestant churches located near areas where Spanish-Americans live must make their facilities available to them. Why should cooking facilities, day care facilities, and classroom space be closed all week? Why should we wait until the Young Lords and MAYOs shame us into using our talents?
Concerned Christians in places where Anglo and Hispano churches are neighbors can set up a technical assistance program. There professionals (doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, teachers, and others) give their services for reduced fees, and if the Hispanic neighbor cannot pay, a non-technical Anglo member picks up the tab.
In non-contiguous churches a Spanish Action Committee can be formed. The committee can visit Spanish-American pastors and work with them in establishing Helping Arm Services for counseling, psychological assistance, housing clinics, day camps, legal advice, and so on.
Also, each Anglo church can have a Spanish-speaking club made up of people who have learned to speak Spanish in school or elsewhere. Club members would invite Spanish-speaking pastors and others to study the Spanish Bible with them. The Lord will open many service opportunities to these clubs, but surely one such avenue will be cooperation in area-wide and city-wide evangelistic campaigns.
On the national level, as CHRISTIANITY TODAY pointed out seven years ago (July 19, 1963), we still need a “coordinating agency for Spanish work,” a National Council of Hispanic Churches. The National Council of Churches has its Department of Spanish American Ministries to coordinate NCC-member activities, but the evangelical associations, Southern Baptists, and others need to be drawn together.
If national unity is to be achieved, a national evangelical magazine in Spanish is needed to tie together the many varied parts. Thousands of small “minority-minded” churches need to know that they are part of an exciting movement of the Church of Christ. A national, evangelical Spanish-language training school for Hispano church leaders is also needed. Missionary statesmen recognize that pastors for Hispanic churches cannot be effectively trained in Anglo seminaries. On the other hand, the present proliferation of feeble Bible institutes only brings north of the border a sad phenomenon which has been often deplored south of the border.
The Spanish-American presence is a leaven which could bring new vigor to the entire lump of American Christianity, or it could join with other disruptive forces to further tear this country apart. The congress in San Antonio merits our watching and our prayers.—WERNER G. MARX, writer and lecturer, Pasadena, California. (Mr. Marx served for thirty-three years as a missionary educator in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.)
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