Editor's Note: In April 2013, Time magazine created waves with a story titled simply "¡Evangelicos!" On its cover, the magazine was more elaborate: "The Latino Reformation: Inside the New Hispanic Churches Transforming Religion in America."
Christianity Today beat Time to the punch by more than 20 years with its October 28, 1991, cover story by Andrés Tapia, "¡Vivan Los Evangelicos!"
Both articles talk about the tremendous growth that Latino evangelicalism has experienced in the United States, offering challenges and opportunities to both Catholic and Protestant Evangelical churches. They also project the growth and influence of the U.S. Hispanic population, expecting it to be a major cultural force nationally. In 1991, Christianity Today predicted that by 2070, the Hispanic population would reach 57 million, making Hispanics the largest minority group in the US. That prediction was way too conservative. Hispanics became the largest U.S. minority in 2001, when they reached 37 million, and by 2011, the U.S. Hispanic population was just under 52 million.
One thing that hasn't changed from 1991 is the fear that many people experience as they face seismic demographic shifts. Immigration and population issues are complex and require carefully designed changes in public policy. However, the Hispanic population is likely to strengthen the pro-faith, pro-family, pro-work ethos that helped make the United States economically strong.
While many of the issues portrayed in the article remain constant, the U.S. Catholic church has increased its efforts to retain Latino adherents. Only time will tell, but we suspect their efforts have come too late to preserve the traditional Catholic influence on Hispanic immigrants. Today, among Latinos who continue to identify as Catholic, church attendance is significantly lower than among their evangelical counterparts.
One positive change to note: in the church, there has been a healing of the breach between the immigrant generation with its desire to retain its language and culture, and the younger, native-born generations who have assimilated and prefer English, while holding on to their love for Latin food and music and other signs of their cultural heritage. Dr. Jesse Miranda, quoted in this 1991 article, has played a key role in reducing these tensions, and as younger leaders have now taken the stage, Latino evangelicals are adjusting to new ways of being Hispanic in the United States.
One further update: Andrés T. Tapia, a young Peruvian-American journalist in 1991, is now president of Diversity Best Practices.
With that context, we hope that you enjoy this classic—and prophetic—article from Christianity Today.
—David Neff, former editor in chief, Christianity Today
On the two-mile stretch between the Montrose and Foster Avenue beaches on Chicago's lakefront—with pricey condominiums to the west and showcase architecture to the south—thousands of Hispanics celebrate Memorial Day. Salsa, Latin America's contemporary beat, shimmies out of huge Sony boom boxes; the staccato of Spanish punctuated with an occasional "hey man" fills the air; the smell of tortillas grilling on Weber Smokey Joes wafts across the park; and wiry soccer players elicit cheers from huge families that include parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, first, second, and third cousins, and the boy next door.
As an Anglo couple whizzes by on their 10-speeds, the man comments, "I feel like I'm in another country!"
The browning of America
According to the Census Bureau, by 2070 the 21 million Hispanics legally in the U.S. today (there are estimates of up to 10 million here illegally) will have multiplied to 57 million, making them the largest minority in the U.S. Currently, in some Texan cities, Hispanics make up the majority (in Laredo, 95 percent; in El Paso, 68 percent; and in Corpus Christi, 51 percent), and in some important regions they make up a substantial number of residents (37 percent of Los Angeles County and 24 percent of California). In the seventies, the Hispanic population grew by 61 percent, says the U.S. Department of Commerce, while the entire U.S. population grew only 11.5 percent. In the eighties, the Hispanic growth rate was 34 percent.
This Latin explosion is spicing up nearly every sphere of mainstream North American life. Jews in Skokie, Illinois, are heard humming "La Bamba" as they leave movie theaters; yuppies dance away their stock-portfolio worries to Miami Sound Machine's "Conga Beat" in discos; teenagers go nuts over Latin heartthrob Esai Morales; and everyone, including Scandinavians in Willmar, Minnesota, are eating tacos.
But the changes go beyond People magazine editorial copy. Numbers bring power.
Political candidates court the Hispanic vote. Michael Dukakis gave part of his acceptance speech in Spanish, while candidate Bush, in an effort to reach out to the Hispanic vote that backfired, referred to his Mexican-American
grandchildren as "my little brown ones." In Chicago, with their 20 percent of the population, Hispanics hold the balance of power between the polarized white and African-American communities, each representing 40 percent of the city.
Madison Avenue, in the meantime, courts the Hispanic dollar. With a purchasing power of $130 billion, Hispanics are getting the attention of companies such as Procter & Gamble, which spent $30 million in 1990 advertising to Hispanics. P&G, Anheuser-Busch, Campbell's, and myriad other companies spent over $628 million last year targeting Hispanics sometimes in tortured translations) on any of the two national Hispanic TV networks, 145 Spanish-language magazines, 30 bilingual or English publications, or 450 Spanish radio stations.
The numbers also bring fear.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act passed four years ago granting amnesty to certain illegal aliens has also made it a crime to hire knowingly those who do not qualify for amnesty, making some employers hesitant to hire anyone of Hispanic descent. Former U.S. Sen. S. I. Hayakawa of California, founder of the English Only movement, is so concerned with Hispanic growth that he wants English to be declared the United States' official language. And once a month, frightened white southern Californians hold a Light Up the Border rally by shining their pickups' headlights across the Mexican-U.S. border to help nab illegals.
The browning of the church
In addition to being the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S., Hispanics are also the fastest-growing segment of the Protestant church. According to various polls, more than 20 percent of Hispanics are Protestant—an astounding figure given the virtual assimilation of Catholicism into Hispanic culture. In the past two decades, the growth has occurred at a dizzying rate. According to studies conducted in part by Clifton Holland, executive director of In-Depth Evangelism Association, the number of Hispanic Protestant congregations in Southern California jumped from 320 in 1970 to 1,022 in 1986 to 1,450 in 1990.
Factors contributing to the surge are the influx of legal and illegal immigration, the highest birth rate among all ethnic groups, and massive defections from the Catholic church. It is in the reasons for the defections that the story of Hispanics and the evangelical church lies.
Defections from the Catholic church in the U.S. to Protestant denominations are occurring at a pace of 60,000 a year, or 1 million in 15 years. This is according to a report presented in 1987 by Allan Figueroa Deck, a Catholic theologian and specialist in Hispanic studies, to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Sociologist of religion Father Andrew Greeley refers to this exodus as an "ecclesiastical failure of unprecedented proportions."
Deck and others point to studies demonstrating that Hispanics will constitute the majority of Catholic faithful in the United States by the year 2000. However, as Roberto Gonzalez and Michael LaVelle observed in The Hispanic Catholic in the U.S., fewer than 23 percent of Hispanic Catholics are practicing. This has Catholic leaders worried. As Deck told the nation's Catholic bishops, "If we miss this historic moment, the window of opportunity may close on us for many centuries to come."
In fact, the Vatican is worried. In the spring of 1987, Pope John Paul II made his second visit to the U.S. His stops: Miami, San Antonio, Los Angeles—three cities with significant Hispanic populations.
As in all major demographic changes, both push and pull factors are at work in the exodus from a church that in this century has traditionally served the nation's immigrants. These factors can be summarized as intimacy, opportunity, and expression.
The emphases at evangelical churches on a personal relationship with God and on the fellowship of believers are an invitation for intimacy at a divine and human level.
Jesse Miranda, president and founder of AHET (a research institute in Pasadena, California, dedicated to examining issues affecting Hispanics in the U.S. church) and trustee of Fuller Theological Seminary, explains that the need for intimacy among Hispanics is especially acute. Not only is Latin culture relationship-oriented, but as with any recent immigrant group, Hispanics are in a state of uncertainty and flux. "The upheaval of immigration creates a need for familiarity and intimacy." The evangelical focus on small groups and accessibility to God meets this need.
In addition, says Miranda, "the Catholic church has neglected Hispanics." Catholic officials concur by saying that the church has driven away some minorities through apathy and insensitivity. Meanwhile, evangelicals are busy knocking on doors, presenting their message, and inviting people to church. Allan Deck writes in his book The Second Wave: Hispanic Ministry and the Evangelization of Cultures: "A mature and creative response to the Hispanic presence requires a great deal of energy. Frankly, there are some signs that the energy is not there [in the Catholic church]. The vigorous and often effective outreach of evangelical Protestant groups to Hispanics compared to the sometimes lackluster outreach of Catholic parishes and schools to the same group is a case in point."
H. O. Espinoza, founder and president of Promesa, a parachurch organization dedicated to training second-generation Hispanics to serve in the church and integrate into U.S. society, points to another reason Hispanics feel less attached to the Catholic church: "The Latin American Catholic church, which was virtually left untouched by Vatican II, is very different from its U.S. counterpart. The result is that the U.S. Catholic church feels foreign to many Latin American immigrants."
Isaac Canales, who is currently pastoring an inner-city church while completing his doctorate in New Testament at Fuller's Center for Advanced Theological Research, adds, "By already being in a milieu of change—new neighborhood, new language, new jobs—and dealing with a lot of fear and trepidation, immigrants begin to question fundamental traditional religious values. Hence their openness to the evangelical church down the street."
The opportunity in evangelical churches to serve and be served is also attracting Hispanics.
The promotion of lay leadership and the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers empowers people who have long struggled with powerlessness. In addition, Miranda says, evangelical churches such as the Baptists and Pentecostals raise and recognize indigenous leadership. The Catholic church is not even close in terms of raising leaders from within the barrios. Only 4 percent of U.S. Catholic priests are Hispanic and, worse, many of these priests are not from the communities they are serving. Most are from Spain or South American countries where the cultural differences between their heritage and, say, an immigrant Mexican community are significant.
In contrast, the Southern Baptist Convention claims to have 2,400 Hispanic pastors, while the Pentecostal denominations and independent churches have an estimated total of 4,200. And according to Deck, three times as many Hispanics are enrolled in Protestant seminaries and schools of theology as are enrolled in Catholic seminaries.
Other hindrances for Hispanics to serve in Catholic parishes are the church's rigorous entrance exams and long preparation time, which, for many Hispanics with lower incomes and less education, become almost insurmountable. Meanwhile, in the fastest-growing Protestant denominations, the academic requirements are less stringent and place more emphasis on spiritual anointing. ''I'm indebted to Bible colleges with low entrance requirements," says Miranda, who nevertheless earned a doctorate in ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. This philosophy of leadership development, he says, "eliminates the rails between the clergy and the pew." Adds Canales, "This gives Hispanics a wonderful sense of ownership."
The opportunity to be served draws Hispanics to evangelicalism as well. Hispanic churches spontaneously and frequently take up collections for a needy family ih the congregation. Sermons are practical, speaking to daily issues, while prayers focus on specific needs such as jobs or health. "We're a vulnerable people," says Miranda. "Since many of us don't have Blue Cross/Blue Shield, we Hispanics need to rely on the Spirit for help."
Miranda speaks from experience. When he was a boy, a revival in his New Mexico family began when his mother was instantly healed through the prayers of two door-knocking Pentecostals. Faith for this type of divine intervention comes easily for Hispanics, whose world view includes a belief in common supernatural occurrences.
The other opportunity to be served, of course, is the one for which Hispanic immigrants made the long trek—a chance
to better their economic condition." It is important to note that the image of America in Latin American villages is that of a Protestant nation. And so Protestantism gets equated with technology and advancement," says Miranda.
Longitudinal studies by David Martin, documented in his book Tongues of Fire, do indeed show a correlation between Protestantism and upward mobility. This is borne out in the Hispanic sectors of the church. The median income for Catholic Hispanics is $19,000, while for Protestant Hispanics it is $25,000. Canales believes that the Protestant ethic, with its emphasis on work, stewardship, and tithing, helps lower-income Latinos get hold of their personal finances. Discipleship, with its focus on changing destructive lifestyle behaviors such as drinking, adds Canales, also goes a long way toward bringing economic stability to families.
It is the difference between la iglesia fria (the frigid church) and la iglesia caliente (the hot and spicy church). While worship in most parishes is muted and private, gatherings in many Hispanic evangelical congregations rock and sway to loud and effusive music-expressions of the Latin spirit of fiesta. At Hope Christian Fellowship, a multiethnic Christian Reformed Church in Chicago's predominantly Puerto Rican Humboldt Park, the Afro-Latin beat of the conga accompanies both Spanish coritos and traditional North American hymns such as "Amazing Grace."
The freedom to pray and preach in a style true to their cultural background is also inviting to Hispanics. "While Anglos are afraid of emotion, for us it's a way of life," says Miranda. Sermons by Hispanics have a certain level of intensity that speaks to the Latin heart. Writes Alex Montoya in his book Hispanic Ministry in North America: "A typical Hispanic speaks with his soul not just with his mouth. Hands wave in the air, feet move back and forth, the eyes are aflame and penetrating, and there's an urgency in the tone of his voice. This is the way he speaks about everyday life. Can we imagine him accepting the truths about God with any less energy?"
Because of these factors—intimacy, opportunity, and expression—it is no wonder that the churches with the greatest Hispanic growth are the Pentecostal churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the American Baptist churches. Hispanic membership in the Southern Baptist Convention climbed 54 percent in the eighties while it climbed 35 percent in the Assemblies of God. Holland observes that if it weren't for the Hispanic explosion, the Assemblies would actually have, after accounting for demographics, a flat growth curve. Miranda says that nationally, 15 to 20 percent of all Hispanic evangelicals consider themselves Pentecostals, while the Latin America Mission found that 58 percent of all Latin Protestants in Florida's Dade County are Pentecostals.
The message of what evangelicalism offers is spreading through aggressive evangelism within the U.S. and Latin America. According to Manny Ortiz, a professor in the practical theology department at Westminster Theological Seminary, many Latin immigrants are pre-evangelized either in Latin America, which is experiencing a Protestant explosion of its own, or in the charismatic renewal sectors of the Catholic church, which stimulate excitement in people for a living relationship with Jesus but often cannot nurture them further.
Canales sensitively, yet unabashedly, extends invitations to accept Jesus at funerals for gang members in his church near East Los Angeles. One time a whole gang came forward, made a circle around the coffin of their fallen comrade, and accepted Jesus. Protestant evangelism, not surprisingly, is causing tensions between Catholics and evangelicals. Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, Missouri, says Protestant groups have a deceptive plan for recruiting Hispanics that includes churches featuring Catholic art and music to draw Hispanics in to hear anti-Catholic teaching.
The Catholic church is trying to make parish life more Protestant in appearance. The National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry, published a few years ago, lays out a strategy to make parish life more intimate and inviting by increasing lay leadership and developing small groups. It also suggests emulating the more personal, emotional, and mystical style of the Pentecostals.
Canales remembers Pope John Paul II's mass at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum a few years ago. "It could've been a Billy Graham crusade. The mass included a popular liturgy, Protestant hymns such as 'How Great Thou Art,' and a focus on Jesus rather than on the Virgin of Guadalupe." And Saint Louis Catholic Church in Miami, Florida, which has 3,500 Hispanic parishioners, effectively uses evangelical programs such as James Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion.
But Catholic efforts have little chance of stemming the exodus. As Pablo Sedillo, coordinator of the pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry told the Chicago Tribune, "When dioceses meet to balance their budgets, one of the first things to get axed is the Hispanic Ministries office. This is a dangerous action. Their congregations become a prime prize for fundamentalists."
Challenges for Protestants
The Protestant success has its down side, however. The evangelical church now faces some of the same issues Catholics have not been able to resolve.
Hispanics, as all other immigrant groups before them, experience prejudice in many evangelical churches. "Hispanics coming to a white church often face racism," says Canales. "The murmuring begins with 'Who are all these Mexicans coming to our church?' These murmurings get louder when the Spanish-speaking congregation or the Hispanic department gets larger than the mother church. Whites begin to fear that Hispanics are going to take over."
Partnership is at the crux of whether the Protestant success among Hispanics will continue. Says Espinoza, "Anglo churches are receiving Hispanics with open arms, but then they are asked to serve in the kitchen rather than in decision-making committees."
Espinoza feels, however, that Hispanics share some of the blame because of their own insecurities in stepping up to the calling that God has for them. Miranda equates today's situation with what the early church had in Acts 6:1: "The biggest problem after revival is distribution." Miranda again: "That's why I don't like Hispanic departments within churches, because Anglos still hold control. We've been saying 'listen to us' for a long time. I hope that now that we have the numbers, churches will begin to."
The comments that follow come from long struggles and frustration. While the level of anger seems to have decreased in the past few years, key issues remain to be worked out. Here's a sampling of what Hispanic leaders want their Anglo brothers and sisters to hear: Don't treat us as just another marketing target group. ''I'm afraid that we are
being seen as commodities" says Ortiz. Miranda shares this sentiment: "Often, dwindling white urban congregations look to Hispanics as a means of paying the gas bill rather than seeing the need to build a Hispanic church," he says.
The evangelical community needs to prepare leaders better for urban ministry. Seminaries, say the Hispanic leaders interviewed, are not adequately preparing pastors for work in urban multicultural settings. Classroom case studies, for example, involving a budget of $50,000 for the church's education program are irrelevant to future Hispanic pastors charged with leading·low-income congregations. Furthermore, the dichotomy most seminaries continue to perpetuate between social justice and evangelism leaves Hispanic seminarians with few ways of applying to the street what they have learned in the classroom.
Curriculum is not the only problem. The lack of sensitivity to the unique challenges Hispanics face means that Hispanics are being recruited to seminaries as students and faculty but not nurtured in their new environments. "Retention levels for Hispanic pastors
and faculty in Anglo settings is minimal in hierarchical church structures," says Ortiz. This reality is leading Hispanics seriously to consider establishing alternative institutions that focus on the city and unique Hispanic issues.
The church needs to address the illegal immigration issue theologically. Not all Hispanics have the same view on this issue, but many congregations must deal with its conequences. How should churches minister to those illegal aliens in their congregation? When does help cross over to become active support? Should churches act as advocates for illegal aliens? Some point out that it is not simply a case of legality. A U.S. missionary in Mexico points out that 95 percent of missionaries in that country are there illegally because Mexico does not give visas to missionaries. "If the evangelical church can justify breaking the law in order to stay here, why can't Mexicans break the law in order to stay there?"
Realize that not all Hispanics are alike. The differences between a Cuban in Miami and a Mexican in San Diego are great. Because values, foods, slang, and economic status differ among the 20 different Hispanic nationalities in the U.S. (see "Not All Hispanics Eat Tacos"), outreach methods much be appropriate to each Hispanic subculture. Advertisers are realizing that to reach a Puerto Rican, they must use salsa and not a mariachi band. The church must do the same.
Challenges for Hispanics
Hispanics face challenges of their own. The Hispanic leaders interviewed had these words for Protestant Hispanics:
We need to become more U.S.-oriented. Espinoza feels this strongly: "For a long time we Latinos complained that North American missionaries to Latin America were trying to Americanize us. But now we have situations where many of the Latin American leaders in the U.S. ministering to Hispanic Americans are trying to Mexicanize or Guatemalicize us. They are trying to recreate the past in the U.S. rather than working with God on the creation of something new. This polarizes our people."
The challenge is to "become future-oriented without forgetting the past," Espinoza says. "Fortunately, a new kind of Hispanic leader is emerging for whom Latin America is a foreign country. These men and women have an unabashed commitment to what God is doing here in the U.S."
We must stem brown flight. "Hispanic pastors and congregations are moving further away from the inner city," says Ortiz. "Brown flight is following white flight as some Hispanics find their economic conditions improving. In the past, displacement was forced on us by oppression, but it is now time for us to look at voluntary displacement like Paul described Jesus doing in Philippians 2."
Ortiz observes that most cross-cultural mission is coming from the Anglo community. "Will we stay? For Anglos coming from the outside there is a sense of heroism, but for us Hispanics who stay, there won't be many strokes because society's assumption is that this is where we belong." He concludes, "The challenge to stay is the very challenge Hispanics and blacks have put to Anglos for many years."
We must promote racial reconciliation. Ortiz is concerned that the highly publicized statistic that Hispanics are about to displace African-Americans as the largest minority is setting up both communities for great tensions. "Demographics means money, scholarships, and other resources," he says. "We Hispanics need to talk about our own racism and begin bridging gaps between us and other communities, especially blacks."
Learning from each other
The Hispanic influx is changing both the Hispanics coming in and the evangelical church as a whole. If partnership can be achieved, the church will end up much richer and stronger.
According to the leaders interviewed each culture has something the other needs. The white church, long one that has served more with its head than its heart, has the potential to lose many of its inhibitions as it experiences the freer, more soulful styles of Hispanics. Hispanic culture, long fatalistic to the extent that even its language reflects a sense of powerlessness (for example: "el avión me dejó," which translates as "the plane left me," rather than, "I missed the plane"), can learn from the Anglo can-do attitude.
In the same vein, the focus on management in Anglo America can help Hispanics more efficiently serve their communities. And Anglos, who have come to run churches like Fortune 500 corporations, can imitate the Hispanic reliance on the spontaneous and the inspired leading of the Holy Spirit—perhaps even catching the spirit of siesta by focusing more on relationships than on productivity.
George Muiioz, a lay Catholic partner at the prestigious Mayer, Brown, and Platt law firm in Chicago, describes another contribution Hispanics are making to U.S. society in general: "What made this country strong were the values of the Protestant ethic: deep religious faith, strong families, loyalty to the country, and a working ethic. With the breakdown the American family and the declining significance of religion among North Americans, it's no coincidence that U.S. economy is not strong. Hispanics have what it takes to carry the banner of the American Dream in to the twenty-first century—not just for themselves, but for all Americans."
It is this new blood in evangelicalism that can bring renewed vitality to the North American church to reach with more relevance and conviction to its inner cities and to the pueblos across the oceans. A popular Mexican saying goes, "Pobre Mexico—tan lejos de Dios tan cerca de los Estados Unidos." Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States. The paradox today is that by coming to the U.S., millions of Mexicans, and other Latin Americans are getting the opportunity to come closer to God.
Andrés Tapia is a technical writer and journalist of Peruvian and Anglo descent. He is the author of The AIDS Crisis (IVP).