Samuel Gimez still dreams of a life outside San Antonio's West Side.
For now, the 21-year-old is living in this historically impoverished community of low-wage workers, modest homes, and a surplus of neighborhood churches.
He grew up in church with his parents urging him to follow the path of his older brother, who had parlayed a bachelor's degree into a comfortable insurance career and suburban home ownership.
But Gimez dropped out as a junior in high school.
His high school has a perpetual battle with high dropout rates and truancy. Administrators lock classroom doors once the bell rings. Pregnant teens frequent hallways. The lure of gang life competes fiercely with the appeal of graduation.
"The influence was too strong," said Gimez of his decision to drop out. "I wanted to fit in with the crowd and be accepted."
Gimez lives with his parents in federally subsidized housing. Last year, he said, he was saved through the ministry of Youth for Christ. Now, he's a YFC intern, getting a small stipend and eager to help teens encounter God while mulling his own future.
High Hopes After High School
About a quarter of Hispanics nationwide drop out of high school, according to Hispanic America: Faith, Values and Priorities, a November 2012 study by the Barna Group.
Despite recent signs of progress in Hispanic college enrollment, the battle remains challenging in Latino communities where youth struggle to envision themselves with high school and college degrees and professional jobs.
How should the Hispanic evangelical church respond? What's at stake should sizeable numbers of its youth continue to remain in the ranks of the uneducated in this country of opportunity?
More and more Hispanic churches are tackling this problem, taking a hard look at this perennial issue and calling for new ways to elevate Hispanic education as a critical step toward fulfilling the Great Commission.
"It's cyclical, but as churches mature, we're seeing them be more aware of education," said the Rev. Eliezer Bonilla, pastor of San Antonio's Abundant Life Church of God and a member of the executive committee of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the country's largest organization of its kind with 40,000-plus congregations.
"Obviously, the gospel comes first, but as families are integrated into the church's culture, the other areas of life come to the forefront."
The NHCLC has worked to advance church awareness of education. Education is one of its seven directives, and in 2008, it created the Alliance for Hispanic Christian Education whose chair is Carlos Campo, president of Regent University.
The alliance convenes educators with this same passion and has set a goal of reducing the Hispanic high school dropout rate to 10 percent by 2020.
To reach this goal, member churches are adopting high schools in their communities.
The principal and the pastor make an agreement that every student in the church who attends the school will graduate, said Sammy Rodriguez, president of the NHCLC.
The church uses its after-school programs and appoints mentors, especially in single-parent households, for tutoring and accountability.
The student signs a "covenant agreement" to commit to graduating and to reporting absences and discipline issues so the church can come alongside and give support, he said.
The moment a baby is presented in the sanctuary some churches start a scholarship fund to show "we are already sowing into your college education."
"In the Latino community, the church is still the most influential institution—whether Catholic or evangelical," Rodriguez said. "Our faith empowers us to deal with the daily minutiae, but it's education that will serve as the delivery mechanism for the Latino community. You can have faith, which is vertical, but without the horizontal piece of education, it's incomplete."Bonilla's church began to cultivate a network of Bible clubs seven years ago in San Antonio's public middle and high schools. Now at 45 campuses, the clubs have engaged youth in spiritual growth and educational aspiration, he said.
"I'm starting to see seven years later that we are now placing many of the original students in universities and community colleges," said Bonilla. "We are starting to see the fruit of our grass-roots effort to not only get their spiritual life in order but to stay in school. ... If churches make them aware, then students are responsive."
A West Side Story
The dropout challenge also inspired the largest state body in the Southern Baptist Convention to create the Hispanic Education Initiative. The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) is now providing resources to its churches in Texas with programs and advice and it is increasingly sharing its work with the NHCLC and other denominations and church networks.
"Hispanics have a culture that doesn't mind working and knows how to work," said Gus Reyes, the initiative's director based in Dallas. "The thinking is if you work hard, you do better. And in this country, if you take that idea and apply it to education then the doors swing open."
As a result of the convention's work, a few Hispanic churches in Texas have begun to organize events to honor their high school graduates at church. Others are providing after-school tutoring. And some are setting aside money—albeit small amounts at first—to offer college scholarships.
Much of the grunt work for this initiative began last summer when a wave of 25 college-age, missionaries fanned out across Hispanic churches in Texas. The BGCT regularly sends summer missionaries to support local church work from painting homes for the elderly and poor to leading neighborhood vacation Bible studies. But this was the first time this Baptist convention assembled missionaries to promote Hispanic education as a priority in their summertime work with churches.
The BGCT directed them to mentor church youth and raise a single message: God's best is for you to stay in school.
If the church doesn't communicate a message of care and concern for Hispanic youth and their education, a host of secular groups are already lining up to do so, said Elizabeth Tamez, associate director of student services at Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio.
A lot of pastors are having trouble marrying the idea of education to the task of evangelization, but this is a holistic approach to salvation, said Tamez, chair of the education commission for the Texas Hispanic Convention.
"If I can't approach a young person having so much trouble and feeling no one cares and their burdens are so high, there's only one solution and that is to drop out of school. I need to show compassion for their needs. … It's a tangible need that I as a Christian can address."
At least half the BGCT's summer missionaries were the first in their families to attend college. Others had grown up in single-parent homes. Most knew the financial and psychological hurdles facing church youth, telling them such factors didn't stop them from enrolling in college.
One missionary persuaded a 17-year-old high school junior to prepare for college upon graduation instead of only working on plans to wed his 18-year-old fiancée.
"A lot of my relatives married really young and didn't pursue a college degree," said Jessica Garcia, 25, of her talk with the 17-year-old. "It was too much for them. [The engaged couple] realized college would be a better route."
A San Antonio Leader
Higher education as a focus for Hispanic action is not only gaining momentum in San Antonio churches, but also in city hall. Pastors here have found a kindred spirit in Mayor Julian Castro, a Catholic who grew up on the city's impoverished West Side. Education was his ticket to overcoming his upbringing by a single mother, herself a community activist and the daughter of a Mexican orphan.
The Harvard-educated Castro is an attorney who at 38 enjoys a rising political career. His stardom climaxed last fall with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
Education continues to emerge as a cornerstone in his budding legacy.
Last year, Castro successfully persuaded city voters to approve a sales tax increase that will provide an unprecedented full-day, pre-kindergarten program.
He also created Cafe College, a one-stop shop for college advice and testing, a bilingual facility, and online center.
Echoing Hispanic evangelicals, the mayor's goal is to foster a "college culture," one that accounts for the obstacles Hispanic youth face—whether teen pregnancy, drug addiction, parental absenteeism, poverty, or especially the dropout rate.
His faith underscores his motivation, he said, despite describing himself as "not the most regular churchgoer" at his West Side parish. He has also said publicly that on such issues as abortion and homosexuality, he parts ways with conservative theology.
However, in San Antonio, he joins forces with evangelicals to champion public prayer, taking a turn at the podium for the yearly National Day of Prayer events held on the steps of city hall. He also meets periodically with local clergy, forming bonds on issues like education for the marginalized.
"I see Hispanic evangelicals as being at the vanguard of improving education and the democratic participation of the Latino community in coming years," Mayor Castro said. "They're helping to lift up families and help them realize their goals of fully participating in the American dream. I know that there are sometimes some policy differences," he said of his relationship with Hispanic evangelicals, "but the best path I believe is to focus on the things we agree on—and that's a lot."
"I believe personally that one of the reasons for learning is not just so that you can get a good job, but that you have a wonderful, God-given potential," he said. "And you can achieve something as a human being that is significant. And that's a reason to invest in a person's education."
In December, dozens of Christian volunteers gathered in a parking lot of a federal housing complex on San Antonio's West Side. They prayed for the impoverished Hispanic families to find salvation and pass out Christmas stockings.
Ethnos Missions Center, an independent evangelical ministry, led the event.
The fruit, its leaders say, won't appear for at least another 20 years. They work with first grade to fifth grade children, providing daily tutoring and mentoring. They partner with San Antonio housing officials who agreed to let them set up offices on the site of federal housing complexes. The ministry hopes to conquer the neighborhood's historic demons.
Violent gangs rule the streets, and inside local high schools, administrators lock classroom doors to counter high truancy. Meanwhile, the ministry commonly encounters teen couples who are also young parents.
While Christmas gifts curry favor in apartment complexes, Ethnos flexes its muscle by giving bus rides to children and teens to visit local art museums. It takes the youth to eat at downtown restaurants, instructing them on manners and protocol. And it walks with them in the halls of the state Capitol building in Austin, rare exposure for them to dream big.
"We need kids out of the West Side deciding to become statesmen," said Marty Gaines, the ministry's director. "We really want to put before them a vision that this is where you want to work every day. And these are the kinds of things they'll need to integrate into a college environment."
Salvation is what drives them, Gaines said, but education is the practical approach.
"The opportunity is wide open but the church asleep," he said. "We need churches to send people. The only thing stopping the church from having a major impact is the willingness of the church."
Next up for Gaines in the West Side is a mobile learning center: a bus being converted to have desks and chairs and books. He hopes it goes far in filling the West Side's two, large Catholic universities.
Despite their unmistakable presence and financial solutions, too many youth never enroll.
If Reyes and other Hispanic evangelicals have their say, Christian colleges will team up with a growing army of churches.
"In the same way God called Samuel as a teenager to serve him, the same God calls people to serve him in distinct ways," Reyes said. "The more equipped they are, the better they are to serve him. Today's church needs subsets of skills to provide greater leadership. It's a new day."
Abe Levy is a religion reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.
A summary of the Hispanic America study by the Barna Group is available here.
Christianity Today also reported on Hispanics and higher education in its March 2013 issue. An extended version is available in Spanish here.
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