Today’s post comes from one of the winners of the Her.meneutics Summer Writing Contest, responding to the question, “What do you wish the local church knew?” Winning entries will appear on the site each Wednesday through Labor Day. –Kate

I know a pastor who leads a vibrant, growing multicultural church in the southeastern United States. His congregation includes people from more than ten countries, and most of them are bilingual. Members are black, brown, and white. In an age when many evangelical churches strive to break down racial barriers and become “multicultural,” they may be surprised to learn that this diverse body is actually a Latino church, led by a Puerto Rican pastor.

His church is one example of how white evangelicals can learn a lot from the diversity in America’s Latino population. No longer confined to certain areas of the country, US-born Hispanics and Latino immigrants live everywhere from Oregon to rural Wisconsin, from South Bend to Birmingham. Since 1980, the Hispanic population has more than tripled, from 14.8 million to 54 million. Now, more than 1 in 6 Americans is Hispanic.

While the majority of Latino immigrants come from Mexico, the United States increasingly welcomes populations from countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, and Colombia. Despite a (mostly) shared language and some common history, these immigrants—even those from the same country—bring widely different experiences and cultures.

Most Hispanics speak English, but the expectation of a language barrier still prevents many white families from making friends with Latino families. Segregated cities mean some don’t cross paths with Latinos. They may even believe there are no Latinos in their community… even though Hispanic grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses tell another story. And so does the church landscape. Protestant Latino congregations are thriving in our backyards, if only we’d take time to notice.

Some Latino immigrants come to the United States with a background in evangelical or other Protestant churches. Many leave their Catholic upbringing to join such churches. Currently, 22 percent of Latino adults in this country identify as Protestant.

These congregations are not monolithic. They may be English only, Spanish only, or bilingual. Many have Spanish church names, but they may or may not identify as a “Hispanic church.” They may have dancing, flags, and speaking in tongues as part of their worship service, or they may appear more traditional and liturgical. They may serve Communion every week, or only occasionally. Some consist of former Catholics; others primarily include evangelical transplants. Some have men and women sitting apart during worship; others have female pastors.

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How will the rest of the evangelical church in the US respond to these Latino brothers and sisters? Will we regard them as "other" and foreign? Or perhaps condescendingly, like a little brother or sister, or as a mission field ripe for harvest?

I’ve noticed some powerful lessons demonstrated by these diverse and faithful congregations. What if we looked to our Hispanic brothers and sisters as having something to teach us about church life?

Church as Family

Living in the States alienates immigrants from family and relatives in their home countries. Many do not have the money to travel back. Instead, often they’re saving and sending money home. This means spending years away from loved ones, in some cases from parents or children. While living in this country, Latinos worry what will happen to their aging parents and family. They can’t return home on a few days’ notice to say goodbye or attend the funeral. Those without documentation face more complications.

Without family nearby, the church community becomes critical as an adopted family, in a way most white evangelicals rarely experience. Members of these churches spend multiple evenings a week together. They throw birthday parties at church. They laugh together; they weep together. In other words, they look a lot like that early group of disciples in the Book of Acts: Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (2:46-47).

Meeting with our church families every single day may seem strange to our American sensitibities. But perhaps it's we, with our busy schedules, many commitments, and conflicting priorities, who are the strange ones. In light of our Latino hermanos’ witness, we might ask: Can a congregation that meets for just one hour on a Sunday morning truly live as the body of Christ? How might we better live out the kind of love that Jesus claims will prove we are his disciples?

Church on the Margins

In his book The Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise, Hispanic theologian Virgilio Elizondo writes of the “double alienation” of those living on the frontiers of society. They are not Mexican enough for the Mexicans, and not American enough for the Americans. In sum: “The mestizo is not allowed to feel at home anywhere.” Similarly, the church has long considered itself “on the way.” Living between Christ’s first and second comings, we are not meant to feel too comfortable here. At a time when many evangelicals feel their beliefs are under attack within mainstream society, perhaps we need to remember that we worship a Savior who did not have a home (in the words of Rich Mullins) and whose call was countercultural.

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Those who live among us as immigrants experience multiple levels of marginalization: racial, linguistic, socioeconomic. Their experience of rejection and alienation is not unlike that of Jesus: born to a poor family, belonging to a weak people under the thumb of a proud empire, executed at the end of his life as a criminal.

Negotiating multiple cultures is not a matter of compromise, as Peter Chin points out, but of creation. We see this throughout church history: hymns written in new languages, new rituals emerging out of cultural contexts. Indeed, the first crisis the Christian community faced came from meeting of two cultures: Gentile and Jewish. Similarly, mestizo identity points us not only to alienation and marginalization, but also growth and emerging practices.

The Epistle to Diognetus, a Christian letter from the second century, describes Christians this way:

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.

In our day, we also can learn from those among us living as strangers. We have the opportunity for light to be shed on our faith without even leaving our hometowns.

Church as Multicultural

The Puerto Rican pastor I know shares a building with an English-speaking congregation. The Anglo pastor suggested they consider merging their bodies “to become a ‘multicultural’ church.” With gentle honesty, the pastor told me his response: “We already are a multicultural church. We don’t need them in order to be multicultural. They need us.”

Instead of seeking a few non-whites to diversify our mostly white congregations, we can seek to learn from Latino churches among us. We can approach them with humility, knowing that as followers of a marginalized Savior who preached a gospel for the weak and vulnerable, we probably need them more than they need us.

Mandy Rodgers-Gates is a Th.D. candidate at Duke Divinity School, a Wheaton College graduate, and a research fellow with the Latino Protestant Congregations Project. She has spent extensive time in Central America, most recently teaching and training Methodist pastors and lay leaders.

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