Latinos and the Church
Sep 21, 2020
Since the introduction of Christianity in the Americas, racial divisions have existed in the Church. When we look at our churches in the United States today, the threads of these divisions have woven segregated communities and congregations.
So how do we as a church and followers of Christ participate in moving towards a community that better reflects the body of Christ in all its complexities and differences? To begin with, we must acknowledge the church’s role in these divisions in the Americas. During the colonization of Latin America, many indigenous groups were forced to convert to Catholicism. Under the guise of religion, their populations were decimated, their land was taken, and their bodies were bound in slavery1 Many of the new cathedrals and places of worship built in Mexico, in particular, were built atop the ruins of Aztec temples in a very physical representation of overthrowing the current religious and political structure of the civilization.2
However, Dr. Philip Jenkins, a Distinguished Professor of History and the Co-Director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion at Baylor University, asserts, “The conquered, the indigenous people, took that triumphalist Christianity and restored it to a faith for the oppressed.” By the grace of God, the indigenous people of Latin America saw through the doctrine of violence of their colonizers and experienced Jesus as he truly is; a God of love who pays special attention to the poor and oppressed.3
This strong faith adherence to Christianity has carried over to the United States as the Latino population continues to increase. However, many churches in the United States still seem to have difficulty valuing their religious traditions. The problem is the US church would still rather the Latino population assimilate to the Euro-American religious traditions and cultures than embrace the Latino expressive Latino faith traditions which include symbols, dance, celebration, and defining values of hospitality and generosity.4 The Anglo church appears to have a greater emphasis on the rational and cognitive creating a dissonance between the way the different cultures worship and connect with God.5
So how does the church overcome these divides and create an environment where everyone feels welcome and valued as made in the image of God? The fact is the US church is a diverse body of Christ and should be viewed as such. Latinos, their traditions, and culture should be seen as gifts to embrace. The church’s focus should not be assimilation but evangelization.6 Furthermore, churches must value Latinos for their deep faith, religious traditions, and modes of expression, and give Latinos a space to not only be participants but leaders in the congregation.
The question of how to serve the Latino population does not have a simple answer, but it is an answer we must constantly ask and explore. It is an answer that realizes no church or community is perfect and that recognizes our strong need for a powerful, forgiving God that continually leads us to loving and supporting our brothers and sisters better each day. It is an answer that we cannot fathom or enact purely with our own self will and intellects; it is an answer that will be firmly rooted in the transformational power of a God who saw our brown brothers and sisters underneath the yoke of slavery and discrimination and who is glorified in their vibrant worship day in and day out.
1. Jenkins, Philip. 2018. “Conquest and Conversion.” Christian Century 135 (20): 44–45. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rlh&AN=131647838&site=ehost-live.
4. Wirpsa, Leslie. 1995. “Latinos in U.S. Church: `Sleeping Giant’ Waking. (Cover Story).” National Catholic Reporter 32 (5): 7. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rlh&AN=9512053240&site=ehost-live.
6. Diaz, César. 2002. “To Mend Rift, U.S. Church Needs to Embrace Gifts of Latinos.” National Catholic Reporter 38 (20): 30. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rlh&AN=9685685&site=ehost-live.
This article was written by Katie Best-Richmond. She is the Pastor of Stewardship at San Antonio Mennonite Church, and the former Communications Assistant at Stark College and Seminary. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.