Categorizing the church as a non-essential institution is another blow to the Latino church. Many know firsthand what it means to be marginalized in society. Forced church closures add to this experience of rejection. It tells the Latino church that its ministry role in the neighborhood is not needed during this pandemic. The federal government does not identify churches as being so essential that their closure “would have a debilitating effect on security, economic security, public health or safety.” This categorization itself has bothered not only Latino ministers, but many other Christians, as seen by recent lawsuits in California, Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Kansas, to name a few.
Like many others, Latino Pentecostal ministers in southern California are facing the challenging choice between the freedom to gather or the freedom to put others first by staying at home.
Since the First Amendment includes the freedom to worship and the ability to assemble, churches are fighting for their constitutional freedom to congregate—including some Latino pastors in California who are planning to reassert this right on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, with or without state approval. They may not have the resources to join a lawsuit, so civil disobedience is another means to voice their displeasure.
But this desire to reopen will involve more than an expression of our constitutional right to gather. It will reveal how we understand our freedoms in Christ; whether we champion the right to gather above the health and safety needs of the other. This decision is not that simple. It also intersects with ministerial, cultural, and technological challenges in being the church for the Latino community.
John Brito, the senior pastor of Spirit Life Community Church in Norwalk, California, is concerned not just for his congregation’s spiritual well-being, but for their entire, holistic lives—spirit, soul, and body. “The average family is running out of money. I know people that got the stimulus check and it has not been enough to keep them going,” Brito said. “There are real families that are hurting. Business owners are going under, despite intervention from the government. The death tolls predicted by the models never materialized, and now we have to endure a lockdown for three more months?”
Economic hardship is “another kind of pain, suffering, and death,” he said. His ardent love for his congregation keeps him going. He continues to minister, preach, teach online, and network for resources for the community. But Brito also has concerns with the government’s stay-at-home orders. He even wonders if “they are taking advantage of the pandemic in order to bring another agenda” to keep the churches closed indefinitely—although most recent statements propose church opening within weeks. For many Latino and Latina pastors, indefinite closure is also interpreted as a spiritual attack on the very institution and mission of the church, an attack that they will not allow without a response.
Brito represents those who are not certain if the data on the pandemic and disease in California is an accurate assessment. After all, COVID-19 related deaths in California do not mirror New York and prolonged closures of small businesses impact Latino families disproportionately. Other pastors are also discouraged that politicians do not trust churches to practice safe social distancing. As one pastor of a large Latino church asked, “why are we more dangerous than others? Why are we a higher risk than stores like Home Depot?” COVID-19’s financial, psychological, and emotional impact on the Latino community has led some to reassert their rights with planned civil disobedience.
Freedom to Gather
Further, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the Latino Pentecostal church in Southern California to rethink what it means to be called a church for the people. The identity of the Latino church is colliding with both the stay-at-home orders and the American constitutional right to gather in peaceful assembly. As Pastor Brito explains, “the church is a gathering of people, it is an ecclesia. Without the gathering, we are not the church.”
Not all Latino ministers agree. “Pastor, if your notion of ‘church service’ is a gathering on Sunday, no wonder our government sees us as non-essential,” says Jack Miranda, the executive director of the Jesse Miranda Center for Hispanic Leadership. Miranda encourages ministers to look at their ministries and ascertain if they are making an essential impact on their communities. If our churches would take Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 to heart, perhaps the church would never have been categorized as a non-essential institution. Miranda believes that keeping church gatherings temporarily suspended for the sake of people’s health does not impede the proclamation of the gospel.
Latino pastors recognize that their churches are an essential institution. The Latino church serves the most vulnerable and underrepresented community. It establishes itself in places where no church of privilege wants to be. Who will minister to the drug addict, the gang member, the migrant, and homeless if not the Latino church—which also resides in the same community? The Latino church may not have a public marketing campaign and advertise all the benefits it has provided to the city, but it does have an essential role. The failure to recognize this contribution does not sit well with many pastors and ministers.
A Christian life without corporate worship proves most difficult for many Latinos and Latinas. We do not go to church just for an hour. Our services are longer, often three hours. Church is a place not only for sharing in worship, but also in food, culture, and language. It is the one sacred place where a marginalized Latina can worship with her fellow sisters and brothers in her own native tongue. It is the one place where her cultural identity is part of her religious experience. There is something different about being in a place where one does not feel marginalized, profiled, and stereotyped. Church, for the Latino community, is the place where we are important in the eyes of God. Losing the ability to gather has a greater loss for the Latino believer, especially in a society that marginalizes and undervalues their contribution. For these reasons and more, Latino pastors and ministers are willing to reassert their right to gather.
Freedom to Serve
But what if our entire focus on the freedom to gather is misplaced? Rather, what if this is a season for the church to utilize their freedom to serve?
The apostle Paul talks about freedom, but not in a way that could be easily reconciled with American ideals. It is not the type of freedom that we fight for in legislative battles or class-action lawsuits. In Galatians 5:1, Paul states, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Paul talks about “freedom in Christ” but for what end? To protest all forms of hindrances, laws that govern our ability to move, shake hands, or gather in our churches?
This discussion on freedom was in reference to the Mosaic Law. Paul is trying to make the argument in these verses that those who attempt to be made righteous by the law through circumcision are nullifying the righteousness that comes from Christ through the Spirit (Gal. 5:2-6). He continues, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:13-14).
Paul encourages the Corinthian church to serve others with their freedom. To the Christians who complain about people seeking to limit their “freedoms,” Paul responds: “do not cause anyone to stumble… for I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:29-33). Their freedoms had limitations and must be oriented toward the other.
What if we take Paul’s language on freedom seriously? What would happen if instead of fighting to gather in a building we would actively fight for the freedom to serve our neighbor? What if we put our brother or sister’s safety above our own desires to be with them? The activities of my freedom should be determined and shaped by the needs of my neighbor.
Their needs are simple: food, health, and medical resources for the most vulnerable communities. Many have lost their jobs and are struggling to put food on the table or endure this pandemic season with adequate housing and financial support. In fact, CDC guidelines encourage community organizations to “work across sectors to connect people with services, such as grocery delivery or temporary housing.”
“It is a huge issue,” said food bank director Cecelia Bernal. “Because if you do not have food, then all other issues will emerge like stress and anxiety.”Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Los Angeles county, the food ministry at another Latino Pentecostal church, Church of the Redeemer in Baldwin Park, has grown exponentially. Like many other food banks, they are working hard to serve the needs of the community. They used to serve the community once a month. Now they open the church eight times a month and include home deliveries for seniors and those who are unable to drive to the church.
Bernal is a Latina leader for her community that serves people all over Los Angeles county. She and her volunteers represent another way of utilizing freedom in Christ by providing essential needs. People come not for spiritual food, but their daily bread. “We always say that we are the church,” she said. “Now we see that you do not have to be in the building, [but] together we are still the church.”
Which Freedom Will We Choose?
We are not the only believers throughout history who have lost the right to gather publicly. The Jewish people who were exiled to Babylon and those who survived the destruction of the temple in 66-70 CE were able to worship apart from buildings. Early Christians would secretly gather in homes or catacombs and worship together before the emergence of the basilica. Yes, worship can be facilitated through communal gatherings. Hebrews 10:25 calls for believers to gather.
We must remember that our freedom to worship has not been restrained; only the ability to gather in buildings. Believers throughout the years have learned to worship apart from buildings. Gathering must be different during COVID-19. We can preach online. Other Latino ministers had already adjusted to these new realities of online church. But these are the adaptable tech-savvy churches or those who had utilized the skills of second-generation Latinos and Latinas prior to COVID-19. Other Latino churches do not have technology budgets or church members with reliable internet access at home. This is another reason why it is appealing to reenter their buildings and defy orders. There is a desire to belong together, and the church building location is a place of belonging. The Latino church is wrestling with the desire to belong without putting their most vulnerable at risk.
The Latino church is one example of the complexity and challenges of gathering together. What are we going to be known for as a church during this season? That we defied stay-at-home orders and placed our most vulnerable in harm’s way? The way we gather is also a public statement on how we view and value one another. The freedom of Christ that is fundamental to our faith is not supposed to be lived for oneself. It is a freedom that prompts us to reimagine how we can love and serve one another, especially during this pandemic. We must exercise our freedom with the most vulnerable in mind. Our freedoms are not unlimited rights to put the community’s health at risk, especially communities that may not have access to adequate health care and experience further unintended consequences of contracting COVID-19.
There is an even heavier burden on Latino pastors: their congregations especially look to their spiritual leaders for direction. Latino and Latina believers view the pastor as an esteemed figure anointed by God to lead the local church. The pastor’s decision will communicate more than just a desire to gather, it will reveal how they believe God views the most vulnerable.
But perhaps we also need to look at other Latinos who are already considered essential workers, the people who make up the church nationwide. This includes undocumented workers who pick the food from agriculture fields, Latina grocery clerks who expose themselves to multitudes of people, and the food plant employees who have been ordered to resume work by presidential executive order. The Latino church and many of our multiethnic churches are made up of many migrant and marginalized members who are the church.
These people exemplify what it means to serve others through their vocations. They are not free to serve our consumer goods through Zoom meetings, but are putting their lives at risk. They gather to serve and put the needs of others first. Can the broader Christian community follow suit? Or will we use the most vulnerable amongst us, our people, our gatherings, to force the governmental authorities to relent and allow us to officially gather?
We need a reorientation of our understanding of freedom and make churches essential again. We need new ways of thinking about what it means to make the church visible to our civil leaders. We need to creatively brainstorm what it means to gather for each other. We cannot go back to the church as usual, thinking that fighting for the freedom to gather exemplifies what it means to be a church. This is not how we use our freedom given to us by Christ. The freedom of Christ is not found in those who want to walk around without facemasks, overload our healthcare workers by not washing their hands, or open churches without social distancing measures and spread the disease. The church is not a place solely for social belonging. It is a church because its identity imitates Christ, who utilized his own freedom and life to serve others, especially the most vulnerable. This would be the freedom Paul beckons: the freedom to put the needs of the other before my own.
Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III is the director of institutional research and adjunct professor of the New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. His most recent book is A Pneumatology of Race in the Gospel of John.