The U.S. is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
Al bergfalk has been a long-time promoter of Hispanic ministries in Chicago. But in many respects over the years, local Anglo (non-Hispanic) evangelicals haven’t been buying.
As a chief fund raiser for CASE (Chicago Area Spanish Evangelism), a group of evangelical pastors ministering to Hispanics, Bergfalk has encouraged local churches to write Hispanic ministries into their annual budgets. Despite the apparent need—less than 2 percent (about 20,000) of the area’s 1 million Hispanics are believed to be evangelical Christians—the churches have been slow to respond. Bergfalk says: “Churches love to send money to Argentina or Ecuador—that’s foreign missions. But for the hundreds of thousands of Hispanics right here—that’s different.”
The retired Baptist General Conference missions executive noted that the thousands of Latin American missionary dollars that annually leave the nearby evangelical hub, Wheaton, might be put to more immediate use among the Chicago-area Hispanics practically next door.
America’s estimated 20 million Hispanics constitute a built-in mission field. More than 100,000 Cuban refugees have entered the U.S. since spring. Latin Americans are fleeing bloody unrest in such nations as El Salvador and Nicaragua, and nobody knows how many Mexicans have crossed the virtually fenceless 2,000-mile border between Brownsville, Texas, and Tijuana, Mexico. Immigration officials routinely qualify their estimates of 2 million annually by saying, “It’s like trying to count the number of fish you didn’t catch.” (Estimates range between 5 and 12 million illegal or undocumented Mexican residents. See page 39).
Churches and pastors sensitive to the situation call Hispanics the greatest opportunity for ministry in this century. Hispanics are predominantly Catholic, but nominally so. One pastor commented that Puerto Ricans are more familiar with the gospel than Mexican immigrants. A majority of Hispanics are unchurched. Businessman and pastor Mike Protasovicki, president of evangelist Luis Palau’s recent Hispanic crusade in Los Angeles, estimated there are less than 20,000 “born-again evangelical” Christians among the 4 million Hispanics in the Los Angeles area (see page 38).
In many instances, Anglo Christians have been ignorant of the need—their Hispanic contacts limited to after-church snacks at the corner Taco Bell. Others aren’t convinced of the need.
However, an increasing number of denominations are developing new Hispanic programs or beefing up existing ones. These groups have applied the gospel to the Hispanics’ many felt needs: government statistics indicate that Hispanics are below average economically and educationally. As such, churches have had a variety of opportunities for social assistance programs among Hispanics.
The most effective Hispanic ministries are designed to meet both physical and spiritual needs. José R. Velazquez, Jr., is best known as chairman of the activist United Methodist Hispanic caucus, MARCHA, which now is lobbying for the election of a first United Methodist Hispanic bishop. Velazquez is unique, however, in that he is accepted both by the activists and by conservative evangelicals. As pastor of John Huss United Methodist Church on Chicago’s South Side, Velazquez instituted a “broom power movement,” when, instead of passing tracts, his church members knocked on doors and invited people to help clean the streets, which had been littered with debris following the melt-off of a major blizzard. Many did.
Other area residents attended a forum in his church to discuss ways to ease Latino-black tensions following violence at a local high school. As a result, many came into contact with the church for the first time and would not feel uncomfortable inside the church. Two families became regular attenders, Velazquez said, and several Latin Kings gang members started coming to the church youth group.
Activists at first had questioned whether Velazquez’s Asbury Seminary training qualified him for an effective, broadly based ministry on Chicago’s South Side. Of his conservative evangelical training, Velazquez would say, “I don’t think I could be effective without it.” He believes in “earning the right to talk about Jesus Christ.”
Persons in Hispanic ministry also can offer Christ’s peace to Hispanics who live in constant fear. Some fear deportation: one Chicago pastor says that many Hispanics think all policemen are immigration officials, and these illegals are afraid to go outside their homes or report crimes perpetrated against them by gangs and organized crime members in many of the big city Hispanic neighborhoods.
There are signs that many Hispanics are disenchanted with Roman Catholicism: more than 25 percent of the nation’s 50 million Catholics are Hispanic, and the church for years regarded them as a self-perpetuating constituency. Not any more. Some Roman Catholic officials are concerned about the apparent seepage of Hispanics. Some have expressed concern that Protestant groups and sects are fishing for Hispanics outside their own waters. U.S. Catholic bishops spent half a day studying and promoting Hispanic ministry at their recent spring national meeting. Hispanic affairs officer Frank Ponce told the bishops that while 85 percent of Hispanics call themselves Catholics, they “frequently feel the church is more interested in Americanizing them than in evangelizing its people.” Hispanic ministry, he said, is no longer “a nice pastoral option … it is today a pastoral necessity which must lead us to concerted action.”
Catholic officials cite several reasons for Hispanic dropouts: too few Spanish-speaking priests, inadequate Bible training for laymen, lack of warmth, and an insufficient appeal to the Hispanic emphasis on the family.
If evangelical groups don’t reach out to these Hispanics, other religions have indicated they will. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reportedly have a growing Hispanic membership of 45,000. At a recent area meeting attended by 75,000 Southern California Mormons, President Spencer W. Kimball noted proselytizing efforts toward Hispanics and other minorities were “a little behind” and said his church should more actively seek such converts. Even so, he noted that the Mormon Hispanic membership in Southern California had tripled in the previous five years, and that there were 50,000 Spanish-speaking Mormons in the Southwest. Some Catholic clergy have warned about the spread among Hispanics of the so-called Santeria cult, a mixture of Catholicism and African spiritism. Those Protestant groups with the strongest Hispanic ministries are Baptists and Pentecostals.
There are 1,400 Hispanic congregations affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, with 115,000 members and 150,000 Sunday school attenders. Language missions director Oscar I. Romo, a Mexican-American, responding to a CHRISTIANITY TODAY Hispanic ministries survey sent to more than 25 denominations, listed 21 Southern Baptist Hispanic programs, ranging from development of Hispanic Sunday school materials to leadership training for Hispanic pastors. American Baptists report 300 Hispanic congregations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
The Assemblies of God list 707 Hispanic congregations with 66,000 members. The Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) has divided its Hispanic churches into five districts, and reports that its small Hispanic membership has doubled to 10,000 members just within the last two years.
Other church bodies and religious groups have only recently gotten involved in outreach to Hispanics. An increasing number of seminaries—such as Fuller and Concordia (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod)—have developed Hispanic ministries programs. WMBI/AM radio of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago now devotes all day Saturday to Hispanic programming—an increase over the first, single, 15-minute radio program for Hispanics in 1970. Spanish programming director Jaime (Jim) Shedd said, “One of the exciting things has been that we’re the only noncommercial station doing things in Spanish in Chicago,” and that as a result Hispanic community leaders have expressed an interest in the station. He said Moody has been getting involved in public affairs, pushing Hispanic support for the census and learning English, although, “of course, our primary purpose is to touch them with Christ.”
Other examples of innovative Hispanic ministries include one begun by the Miami Baptist Association in Florida, which is promoting the value of indigenous leaders. The association, which has 39 affiliate Hispanic congregations—most of them Cuban—is supporting the Ethnic Branch of the New Orleans Baptist (Southern) Theological Seminary, where 110 laity and clergy now are receiving advanced Bible training. Wheaton College students were involved in registering nearby West Chicago Hispanics to vote.
Four years ago the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.) created its first full-time director for Hispanic ministries. Since then, the number of its Hispanic congregations has increased from 9 to 18. “The majority of new ministries have been started by strong, well-established Anglo congregations who are reaching out in commitment to their communities and beginning Hispanic services in the neighborhood,” said Church of God president Marvin Hartman.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has 39 Hispanic congregations totaling 3,800 members. It hopes to double that number soon. Last year’s synodical convention established a goal to open 50 new Hispanic churches and to recruit 100 new workers for Hispanic ministries within the next 10 years.
The Latin America Mission has done evangelism among Hispanics outside the U.S. for more than 65 years. But just two years ago the mission appointed its first Hispanic ministries director for the U.S., Richard Boss, a New York City native and missionary for 12 years to Colombia. He said his division grew out of an awareness of the Hispanic influx, and because of the many requests from local congregations for information on how to minister among Hispanics.
A problem has been ignorance of successful models for Hispanic ministries. “We feel there’s a gap in finding out what actually is being done, and what needs to be done in different areas of the country,” said Boss. He said LAM expects to bring on a full-time, evangelism-research specialist who can evaluate what needs to be done in different cities throughout the country.
Responding to the CHRISTIANITY TODAY Hispanic survey, denominational officials listed several problems common to Hispanic ministries. Most often mentioned was the lack of trained Hispanic clergy, as well as divisions among the Hispanics themselves.
Because of the mixed racial groupings and unique cultures, it is difficult to speak definitively of what constitutes Hispanic ministry, except that it is one conducted in the Spanish language.
(The nation’s Hispanics are grouped primarily in the cities. New York City’s 2 million Hispanics are predominantly Puerto Rican. The second largest urban Hispanic aggregation—Los Angeles, with about 1.9 million—are mostly Mexican. Miami’s 512,000 Hispanics are overwhelmingly Cuban. Since the Castro takeover produced the first wave of immigration, Miami’s Hispanic population has grown some 10 to 40 percent. Chicago is unique in that its officially estimated 420,000 Hispanics are divided in almost equal proportions among the three racial groupings.)
Cecilio Arrastia, associate for Latino mission development in the United Presbyterian Church, noted a problem of division and “lack of trust” among Hispanics. Talk about a “Latin American culture” is misleading, he said. “There are many subcultures within the total spectrum of Latin Americans. The differences which add color and romance in many senses, account also for lack of trust, lack of coherence, and lack of a sound strategy.”
Often Hispanics have been divided into hostile Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal camps. Indeed, lack of cooperation between Pentecostals and non-Pentecostal pastors in Chicago was cited as one of the reasons evangelist Luis Palau canceled an anticipated Chicago Hispanic crusade in 1976. Last month, Palau did hold his first Spanish-language crusade in the U.S.—his Festival of the Family in Los Angeles. (See opposite page.)
Richard W. Colenso, director of specialized ministries for the Christian and Missionary Alliance, cited a problem of competition among denominations “which brings about the offering of salaries, benefits, and status to pastors, or buildings, grants, and other assistance to the congregations, tempting them to leave their current denomination and switch to another, thus destroying the peace and the discipline of self-support we try to impose upon our people.” The CMA. with 73 Hispanic congregations, holds to the homogeneous philosophy and has placed its Hispanic churches into Hispanic conferences.
Pastors ministering to Hispanics face several tough questions themselves. For instance: How does one minister to an illegal alien? Should Hispanic congregations be started with the goal of later incorporating them into the larger Anglo body? Regarding the latter, Pastor Doug Moore of Salem Evangelical Free Church in Chicago prefers to retain his Spanish congregation intact. Though many in his congregation have a basic working knowledge of English, “you need to use Spanish to get at the ‘heart language,’ ” he said.
How can an English-speaking church get involved in Hispanic ministry? Obviously, churches in Hispanic neighborhoods can start sister Hispanic congregations.
Doug Moore has had success with his sister churches concept—inviting young people from other churches to spend a weekend at his Salem Church, where they can be exposed to the Spanish culture. Churches can also sponsor Hispanics who are seeking to immigrate to the U.S. They can bring into their homes a Latino youngster who may want to escape for a time the pressures of a teen gang environment in the city. Boss, of LAM, said, “We found that some churches had block parties or social events, in which they invited and asked Latin Americans to provide some type of typical food or dance or native folklore, just to get the Anglos exposed. Often we find that Anglos have a negative view of Latin Americans.”
Hispanics won’t be ignored. By the end of the century Spanish speakers almost certainly will pass blacks as the largest minority group in the U.S. Recent U.S. Census Bureau figures indicate the birth rate of U.S. Hispanics is more than twice that of whites and 60 percent greater than blacks. Put differently, the U.S. is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, after Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and Colombia.
The Hispanics, whose treks show they know something about personal sacrifice, can provide strength to a flabby, affluent society, say Hispanic ministry officials. The Hispanics’ unique culture can add flavor to a bland American melting pot.
“People should look at the growing Hispanic population as an opportunity rather than an infringement,” said radio programmer Shedd of WMBI in Chicago. In the Spanish congregation he’s been part of as a local pastor, Shedd has seen “a real spontaneity of the spirit. The Hispanics exhibit a real joy of the Lord.… We Anglos might learn, for instance, how to be able to exhibit that same joy.”
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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