Almost ninety percent of this rapidly growing “nation” is unevangelized.
America has long been known as the “melting pot” of the world. For many years, individuals and families from every nation under the sun have swarmed to the United States in search of a new life. In the past, the vast majority of these immigrants were European. Today, however, almost one out of every two newcomers is from Latin America.
More than 12 million Hispanics now reside in the U.S. They are found not only in the Southwest, but in large cities and small communities as well. New York City, for example, is home to almost two million Latinos. In such cities as Miami and San Antonio, Latin Americans constitute over one-half the total population. Except for Mexico, Spain, and Argentina, the U.S. has more Spanish-speaking people than any nation in the world.
But over 90 percent of this vast nation within a nation remains unevangelized. “They are part of the 130 million souls of the world who, according to missiologists, would receive Christ if only confronted with a clear and simple presentation of his claims,” states Dick Mercado, general director of the Mexican Gospel Mission in Phoenix.
How can we meet this growing Latin American challenge?
First, we must recognize that different areas and circumstances pose different problems. Hispanics in major cities often constitute large and distinct communities. While these communities tend to become isolated, usually Spanish-speaking churches can be formed within them. This is not always possible in smaller communities, and Hispanics there must be reached through the resources of established, English-speaking churches. Border areas, of course, have their own unique problems and opportunities. Prejudices are sometimes magnified, but the lifelong exposure these people have to one another’s culture and language often provides open doors for ministry.
People involved in cross-cultural ministries agree that certain principles must apply. First, and most important, we must avoid prejudice or condescension. We must respect cultural differences, recognizing that the cultures of other ethnic groups are as valid as our own and in no way inferior. Neither should we group all Latinos together. There is considerable difference both linguistically and culturally among individuals from different Latin American backgrounds. Culturally, a Mexican from Chihuahua may have more in common with an English-speaking Texan than with a Spanish-speaking person from South America.
We must also minister to Latin Americans in their own language whenever possible. This may be difficult. But we must always remember that the language of love, expressed in genuine consideration and open friendship, often speaks louder than words. At the very least, Spanish Bibles, hymnals, and other materials should be made available.
Robert Weiss, pastor in a small, agricultural community in the mid-South, found himself thrust into a ministry to Hispanics without warning. “One Sunday morning, a Spanish-speaking family attended our worship service. I could not speak a word of Spanish and they could not understand English. I was at a total loss until I recalled a young member of our congregation knew Spanish. With his help I was able to communicate at least.”
Weiss investigated, and found people in his community from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Colombia. Some were migrants, following the crops from state to state; others had settled down and found permanent jobs. “In both cases,” Weiss remarks, “no attempts were being made to minister to their spiritual needs. We began to visit and actively seek their presence and participation in our services.”
We also need to recognize the physical needs of these people. Most are here to gain economic opportunities. Many are attempting to escape incredible poverty or repressive political situations. Unfortunately, their condition is sometimes little improved by immigration. San Francisco’s “Mission District,” for example, comprises some 150,000 persons from every nation in Latin America. With a median income one-third less then the citywide average, 12 percent unemployment, and school drop-out rates of from 12 to 14 percent, their needs are often acute.
Lutheran Latino Ministries in San Francisco supports worship services in Spanish, provides legal service for immigrants, Christian education in a multicultural setting, summer programs for underprivileged children, and cross-cultural workshops to promote greater understanding between Anglos and Latinos. Citizenship classes and courses in English also help newcomers to become part of a new, sometimes strange culture.
Government sources indicate that by 1990 the Latin American community may outstrip the black population to become the largest minority in the U.S. We must plan now to meet this growing challenge. We need to present the claims of Jesus Christ with boldness and clarity, and out of hearts filled with genuine concern for the spiritual as well as the material and social need of our fellow human beings.
Mr. Clark is director of Las Buenas Nuevas/The Good News, a bilingual ministry in the U.S. and Mexico, based in Bisbee, Arizona.
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