Our church decided twenty years ago to seek added diversity by establishing the goal of raising the ELCA’s minority membership to 10% within the first ten years of our common life. Sadly, the ELCA has consistently fallen short of this mark, despite the best of intentions.
In this article, I will share from my perspective, drawing on observations and experiences garnered over seventeen years in Hispanic ministry in three synods and three states. I am a pastor in the church and a “second career person.” I will use, for the most part, the language of the church but will also borrow the language of business in order to enhance my analysis.
Above all, I care a lot for this church. In the first place I am a member of the body of Christ. I enjoyed for many years being a lay member of the church, sitting in a pew and participating in the Divine Liturgy (as Worship used to be called when I grew up), serving as a catechism teacher and council secretary before going to seminary and becoming a pastor. What I share here is the way that I see it. I am ready to listen and to be corrected if a good argument is given.
The Past And The Present
Many, many congregations were born in Chicago as part of the migration process. Chicago, a city of neighborhoods, has always offered a mosaic of ethnic groups. A study done in 1990 by the Metropolitan Chicago Synod and the Lutheran School of Theology Hispanic History class revealed the distinctive beginnings of every Lutheran Hispanic congregation in the metropolitan area. Some congregations started as intentional ministries of predecessor church bodies of the ELCA. Others emerged because immigrants came knocking on the door of the church to find a place for fellowship with the body of Christ.
Some congregations were vibrant points of outreach and welcome centers for the immigrants. Others focused their attention on immediate needs. Most congregations in the Chicago area experienced growth, depending upon the leadership. Hispanic Lutheran congregations vary in size: some hold worship for 30 to 40 persons; some have 300 or more.
In 1980 and 1990 the majority of those worshiping in Chicago’s Lutheran Hispanic congregations were of Puerto Rican descent. However, by the turn of the millennium, there was a more Mexican American presence. This was simply the demographic reality of Hispanics in Chicago. Many primarily Puerto Rican areas changed to Mexican American, especially the area of Humboldt Park in Chicago. A significant Mexican American community had lived in the Cermak and Little Village area for decades, and had grown westward.
Iglesia San Jose in the inner ring suburb of Cicero was established as a response to that population shift. This parish was under the leadership of Pr. Jose Cortez, who also started another congregation on the other side of Interstate 290 in Franklin Park also called Iglesia San Jose). Pr. Jose Cortez is one of the pioneers of what I call the Mexican American Outreach Phase of the Hispanic ministry in Chicago. I learned a great deal from him and from Pr. Roberto Lopez, a retired pastor. The main thing is this: love the people and learn from them. Too many pastors see their function as a teacher, correcting the imperfections of the faith of those who come to the Lutheran church. In ethnic ministry, we come to accompany the people in their faith journey, as fellow travelers. We are not only teachers, we are called to nourish and to be transformed by the people’s faith journey and our faith journey. We pastors are called to be changed by the sacraments and the Word of God. When we only pretend to do that, those whom we are inviting to follow Christ notice.
Stewardship: a Complicated Issue
Most Hispanic Lutheran ministries received initial assistance of the Division for Outreach (now called Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Ministries). Generally, this involves a full financial partnership for three to six years, and a decreasing partnership until the congregation is self supporting. This approach generally meets with success in English speaking mission developments. In three years, the new start or redevelopment congregation is able to establish itself in the community. This is could be called, in lay terms, “the entrepreneurial model.”
This model had been encouraged by the Division for Outreach as the goal for Hispanic ministry too. One might ask, “Why not? You have an experienced pastor and you give him / her the same opportunity to develop a congregation for three years. They should be able to do the same.” Then comes the jarringly different socio-economic realities of the Hispanic mission context. The goal of self-sufficiency never gets accomplished in most cases. Many of the parishioner households need three or more jobs, paying $4.50 to $7.50 per hour, in order to make enough to support their families. This reality is reflected in the collection plates.
I remember the son of a fellow pastor in Hispanic ministry. This 11-year-old boy had a sad face. He told he was worried about the future. What would happen to his family and the church when the support of the national church ended? Even though it was a larger Hispanic congregation (300 persons), their collection was not large enough to support the ministry. I felt like a container of cold water had been dumped on my body. Inside myself I wept to hear a child of God whose only experience of the Lutheran church was as a preacher’s kid. I could only offer active listening and companionship.
When our national church committed itself to a 10% level of racial inclusivity, I am not sure they understood that some minorities earn one fourth of the average income in English speaking congregations. The average giving level of ELCA members is 2.9 % of their salaries. This is a socio-economic issue for the whole church. Leaders try to increase this giving level through teaching, pledge drives and fund raising… and the results are mere campaign-driven changes. In a couple of years, the figures fall back to the 2.9 %. It is hard to find an explanation for this; my guess is that it is socio-economic and cultural.
Pastor Mark Lund used to say that we have a very Calvinist model i.e. if you just do this or that, everything will be OK. It is not like that for Hispanic ministry. If you check ELCA yearbooks for the last 17 years, you will find new congregations and developers listed with the initials “SP” indicating a Spanish speaking ministry. You will find this SP by the name of the congregation for three years or so and then the next year that congregation will drop from the book.
This is the result of a short-term mentality. Bishops, pastors and conferences get excited and give a lot of lip service to Hispanic ministry. But when the time comes to think in the long range something gets lost. On a churchwide basis, it is like the movie “Groundhog Day,” with one synod after another repeating the same scene, except under different mission directors.
The ambitious goal of 90 to 100 new ministries is announced every year. A portion are Hispanic ministries which, in most cases, will exist only as long as funding is provided by the ELCA. This short-term mentality is killing our resources and creating a false reality and an illusion of progress in Hispanic ministry.
In many cases, mission directors and outreach committees charged with the evaluation of ethnic ministries lack the sensitivity to look for pathways of understanding for the ministry under review. They are sent to evaluate what they themselves have never experienced. In my experience, those who volunteer for those outreach committees are full of good intentions, but they lack experience. We need to bring the brightest and most successful pastors and council members doing Hispanic ministry to advise and facilitate the process of understanding and evaluating new Hispanic mission starts. People who have been in similar situations can understand and motivate others.
As a fellow mission developer explained, an excellent pastor and council members from an English-speaking congregation cannot understand a marginalized church setting. That it is not part of their experience. These committees, comprised of good-hearted people, go out with a checklist to evaluate developing Hispanic mission starts. They return from these young, emerging parishes with their “findings”—and their recommendations and standards. Most of the time, they are out of touch with the life of the congregation. They come from another reality and paradigm.
The reality of most Hispanic ministries requires a lot from the pastor or mission developer. The desperate social needs of these populations really require parish-based social workers to intervene in the immediate concerns. Pastors are trained as preachers, teachers, short term counselors, liturgists and evangelists, but pastors are not social workers. Pastors in Hispanic settings routinely double as semi-social workers. They need additional, trained staff persons to meet overwhelming needs. As a church, we need to find ways to be intentional in our Hispanic outreach with the partnership of our Lutheran Social Services and health care institutions.
This model of doing Hispanic outreach victimizes those who are already oppressed. I have heard comments on more than one occasion, “If they want Hispanic ministry let them support themselves.” However, the mandate of increasing our inclusivity came from our church body, not from the Hispanic community. The ELCA is touched by law and called to repentance by becoming a more multicultural church, a church that wants to achieve 10% minority membership.
There is a socio-economic divide that is not overcome by entrance into our church. After all, we do not ask for an IRS form 1040 when a person wants to join the church. Some congregations for these reasons have sold their buildings, cut salaries of pastors, or discontinued programs. This socio-economic divide persists, but we are called to effect change by the Grace of God into a more humane and just society.
The Word and the Teaching
Despite our convictions about inclusivity and ongoing ordinations of Hispanic pastors, it is amazing to note that there is not a full two-year Spanish language Lutheran curriculum for confirmation or first communion published by the ELCA. Instead, a Methodist resource has appeared in the catalog of multicultural resources for many years. I have deep appreciation for the Methodist church, but the sacramental theology which is a hallmark of Lutheran theology is absent from that material. Rejoice was supposed to be translated into Spanish, but this plan was later dropped for financial reasons. Apparently, there was not a profit to be made.
In 2007, we still lack materials for the basic development of Hispanic ministry. I get invited to several multicultural events, institutes, parades and Hispanic ministry association meetings every year. To my dismay, I have seen millions of dollars used for these worthy aims, and then I go back after these events to my parish and, like most pastors in Hispanic ministry, scramble to put together an appropriate confirmation class curriculum.
One year I was foolish enough in my desperation to consider borrowing from another church body, thinking that maybe I could “Lutheranize” the material. This material contained a different order of the Ten Commandments and a very legalistic view of the Gospel. Missing was the distinctive centrality of Law and Gospel in the lessons.
In this church we are excellent at parades and events and gatherings regarding Hispanic ministry, but we neglect what is basic: Sunday school material, confirmation class curriculum and first communion class curriculum. The few resources produced by Augsburg Fortress and the national church can be exhausted in a single Vacation Bible School with four class levels. Con-cordia Publishing House has recently published a curriculum that may answer this need. Concordia’s material is at least an alternative, despite the absence of women in pastoral positions.
It was so easy when I taught English-speaking confirmation classes! You pick up the phone, call Augsburg Fortress and within a week you will have your text book, student manual and leader manual. What a different world! When I open the catalog of Augsburg Fortress it is like going to Disneyland. And every couple of years an even better curriculum will come along. What a delight! In Hispanic ministry we are dealing with a lack of basic tools to build a strong church that is based in an understanding of the Word. For a church that claims to be centered in Holy Scripture, this is very disturbing.
Leadership that Fails to Represent the People: Servants, or Bosses?
A little bit of schizophrenia does not hurt anybody unless you are a church body. I pointed out before how entrepreneurial the system of outreach is in our church. It is not like that when it comes to the evaluation of those in leadership in the church. We follow what I call a mom and pop store way of doing business.
In order to do effective leadership with minorities, we need to ask the minorities in positions of power to be accountable to the minorities they represent, and not simply to the administration of the church. When they do not match the expectations of our minority populations, our leadership management needs to remove them in order to find a better match for the task.
I have found that minorities in positions of leadership at the national or synodical level often feel that the opinions of parish pastors and lay persons are not important and that their own agenda is the most important thing. The dynamic seems to play out this way: “My employment and call do not depend on the people that I supposedly represent but on how good I look in the eyes of my Anglo boss in the headquarters or in the synod office.”
I understand how disconcerting this word may be for what is done in the life of our church. We may need to dare to do things differently if we want different results in our quest for a more multi-cultural and inclusive church. We should be candid and admit that what we have done so far, for the most part, has not worked. The ELCA continues to be comprised almost entirely of one single race, and even in areas like Chicago, it does not reflect population trends.
It was considered success when five years ago, a total of 3,000 Chicagoland Hispanic Lutherans worshipped on Easter Sunday. I personally called every parish to get a census for that year’s day of the Resurrection of Our Lord. This, I am sad to say, is not the reality today. If we are going to keep up with the growing population of Chicago, we need to increase our Hispanic Lutheran community to match the 14% of the population in our parishes. That would truly be success.
In a service-oriented model, the question is “How may I help you?” Unfortunately, in our church body, national church staff who are of Hispanic background—those who are supposed to represent Hispanics in the church—are evaluated from the perspective of the needs of an Anglo world. Most of the time, they do not represent what is actually happening in the life of the emerging church. They may have represented the grassroots ten years ago, but without direct contact and practice you soon become a church official that speaks the language but does not understand the needs.
When I listen to one of my brothers in a position of authority in the national church, I hear a person who has been disassociated by their job from the needs and priorities of the Hispanic community. After they explain the phenomenal new approach to mission by the national church—whatever approach is in vogue that year—they apologize and state that we do not have any examples of this really functioning in an organic way in a multicultural setting or Hispanic setting. I believe this creates a culture of disservice to the whole church.
At the end of the 1990’s, I was in the export and import business. A product called Epilady female hair removal equipment needed to be sold. The company had excellent sales managers; their first choice was a person who knew the retail market quite well, but was a man. He soon became very frustrated and was unable to sell even the first container of the product. We needed to hire a woman in order to sell the product; in an all-male multinational firm, there was not a single female manager. She was hired and soon increased sales by 200% for this single product. She knew how to approach retail store managers (who were women) to take the risk with this new product.
We need to do the same in Hispanic ministry. There is nothing better than the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a product; it is God’s Grace to us. We need as a church to acknowledge that the world is changing fast. We need to move as the population moves. We need to focus on the Mexican American community, the fastest growing segment of the Hispanic population. We need to intentionally look for the advice of that portion of the Hispanic population that we are trying to reach.
Let me give an example. My tires got worn out and I bought a new set. They were wonderful and I was very happy. In a week, I got a small booklet from the tire store. They asked questions about my experience in purchasing the tires, the time I spent in the lounge, and the over-all experience of buying a new set of tires. They embodied a servant-oriented policy. They care enough about keeping my business to consider my opinion.
This servant-oriented policy is lacking in our ELCA in regard to Hispanic ministry. The national church, the presiding bishop, and the local bishops ask their paid employees about how they think Hispanic ministry should be done. These employees are disenfranchised from the target population. They do not truly know what the priorities and inclinations are of the 1,888,000—most of them Mexican American—in the Illinois Hispanic population. (Incidentally, according to a demographic study of the Roman Catholic Church, of every five Mexican Americans who immigrate to the United States, only sets foot in a Roman Catholic Church.)
We need this process in the ELCA, not only for Hispanic ministry, but also in other departments of the church like candidacy. When was the last time a newly ordained pastor received an evaluation to rate the candidacy process in order to improve it? Our leadership needs a report card, an evaluation from the grassroots.
How Do We Keep the Leadership We Need?
It is said that a pastor needs at least four years to provide leadership, create change, and implement a vision in a congregation. A church body like the ELCA needs leadership that is able to think and plan for the short term with long- range implications, open to changes in the population. What will be the population of Chicago in 2020 and 2030 according to census projections? You don’t need census.org to learn a major feature of our future population. It is clear that Mexican Americans will only grow as the largest component of the Chicago and Illinois Hispanic population.
Our problem as a church is that the leadership that we have at the headquarters and at local level does not represent the majority of the Hispanic population in Illinois or the United States for 2020 or 2030, which will be Mexican and Mexican American. This means that we need to change the leadership or continue to fail to meet our goals.
In the last decade, I was developing a congregation in California inside an existing English speaking congregation which rented the space on Saturdays to a Seventh Day Adventist church. Families from the Seventh Day church approached me about a Quin-ceañera (celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday). I asked as always when I am approached by a new family for a rite: “To which parish do you belong?” and “If you belong to a parish, why are they not doing that for you?” The answer was “We come to church on Saturday to a Seventh Day church and our pastor does not do that rite.”
I asked them to get their pastor’s consent. I called him and he agreed for me to do the rite for this family as an act of ecumenical cordiality. I was surprised that most of the indigenous belief of the family regarding liturgy, veneration of the Virgin Mary and other aspects were intact. It was almost what I would find in any family from my own parish.
I was curious and invited the Seventh Day pastor to my house with his family. We spoke the whole night, supporting one another in the difficult task of preaching and proclaiming the Gospel, serving different churches but in the same building. He asked me how many Lutherans there were from Los Angeles to San Diego. I guessed about 2,000, including the Hispanics who worship in English speaking settings. He explained to me that there were 17,000 Seventh Day Church Hispanic members in southern California, not counting Los Angeles because L.A. was part of another Seventh Day jurisdiction. I could not escape the thought of that biblical text “If you do not proclaim the gospel even the stones will cry out.” I understood that night how badly we are doing in Hispanic ministry by comparison to a relatively new denomination.
The 2006 American Community Survey reflects that Chicago has 774,000 Latinos, not including the suburbs, and that the total for all of Illinois is 1,888,000. Here there is a great sign for our suburban and downstate congregations: there are more Hispanics in your midst than in Chicago—a total of 1,100,000 Hispanics. This means that if our church wants to keep pace with the demographics of this state, the synods in this great state of Illinois need to achieve a Hispanic membership of 14%. Studies made in 2005 pointed to a Hispanic population shift from the center of the cities to the suburbs. If your congregation of 250 persons seeks to reflect the population that surrounds it, you need to have about 35 people from Hispanic origin in your congregation.
But the promise is larger than the challenge. Four of every five Hispanics will never put their foot back in a Roman Catholic Church. You have maybe 1,700,000 Hispanics that come from a Mexican American background, so you have 1,300,000 Hispanics without a parish to go to just in Illinois. It is clearly in our best interest to do outreach to Hispanics. We are called, after all, to fulfill God’s commandment to proclaim the Gospel. As Paul described it, we are called to become as a Jew to the Jews or as a Gentile to the Gentiles in order that, by any means, we reach people with the Gospel.
New Ways to Function Organically With Ethnic Communities
It is instructive to consider how some Delaware Valley Lutherans ended up becoming Episcopalian. Their ties with customs and rites from the old country were not what other Lutherans practiced in the United States. The culture of those in the majority at that time alienated the Swedish Delaware Valley Lutherans, making them feel so far removed from the rest of the American Lutherans that they decided to become more like what they experienced in the home country. They became Episcopalian. They knew and loved the traditional Swedish mass with all the bells, the priest and the Lutheran Mass.
I have observed that current leaders of Hispanic heritage now inside the Lutheran church alienate the new wave of Mexican immigrants by their bias about traditional and old country spirituality. The old rites of the Swedish Lutheran Church are closer to the experience of Mexican Americans than the new Libro de Liturgia y Cantico. I recall using the old Swedish liturgy for a baptism of a child and how the grandmother cried, saying how connected she felt to God in this rite of her grandson.
A person coming from three generations of Hispanic Lutherans is a kind of insider. Such insiders may be are good at their own games, but can be terribly lacking when trying to do outreach. They have forgotten what it means to be outside the Lutheran church. They have forgotten the popular religiosity and experience of the majority of the Hispanics. (For example, they do not find any meaning in Our Lady of Guadalupe or Candle Mass on February 2). They are set in their ways and not open to the spirituality of others. They want to exclude what they have not experienced.
Think of a parallel outside the church. Let’s say that you need foot surgery. For foot surgery, we are not going to hire a dentist, because he does not know the anatomy of the foot. So far our church has tried very hard and with plenty of good intentions to do foot surgery with a well qualified staff of dentists.
What we have to do is to look for the advice and counsel of the next generation of Hispanic immigrants (the Mexican American) and ask them what it is meaningful to them regarding liturgy, piety, and spirituality. Knowing their needs, we can offer the best of our Lutheran heritage and not be afraid as a church to be changed and enriched by these new brothers and sisters. We will learn something as a church.
We need to try harder to become a church of the people. So far, in seventeen years of direct observation, the prevailing mindset has been, “How can we become more like our lighter skinned brothers and sisters.” From the conception of the Spanish book of worship to the Hispanic or Latino ministry strategy, it is all heavily influenced by an insider view and not by the larger ethnic group among Hispanics in the USA: the Mexican Americans.
My prayer is that for the sake of a strong Evangelical Lutheran Church in America we may become more representative of the population of the United States.