This sounds a little bit like the kind of subject you would find in a questionnaire made for marketing research. You know, the sort of study where you compare and contrast what you can offer versus the needs of a particular population to find a niche within. It’s similar to the old story of the salesman who gets his foot in the door in order to sell, or at least talk about, his product. So, we might wonder, are we trying to “sell” our product to the Hispanic population? Or maybe we are deciding what’s our best strategy to position ourselves within the Hispanic market. I’m not trying to be sarcastic, at least not on purpose; rather I’m trying to rephrase this question, which can be entirely honest, in such a way that we can talk about it with a different understanding.
At its inception, the ELCA made it a goal that in 10 years, 10% of its membership would be “people of color and/or [whose] primary language [is one] other than English.”1 Ten years after that, in the 1997 Churchwide Assembly, still well below that goal, we recommitted to it through a new resolution. Today, as we prepare to celebrate our 10th Churchwide Assembly, minorities in the ELCA represent less than 3% of our membership, with Hispanics standing at .81%.2 In comparison, for the same year, Hispanics comprised 14.5% of the total United States population.3
Now, it is not my intention to do the numbers game here. In fact, it is likely that we won’t get too far if we limit our measure of success to a matter of totals and percentages. Important as they are, numerical figures will only tell you part of the story. For far too long, we have overemphasized the kind of ministry we are doing based on the numbers we get in return. I will not underestimate the value of demographical data, but there is something not completely right about making that the decisive factor on how we will engage the task of ministry. Oh yes, we can talk numbers, but let us do it in such a way that they are not the goal of our ministry, but rather the natural result of doing ministry.
In Puerto Rico we say, don’t put your cart in front of your horses, meaning that things have to be done in a certain order for them to work. So, I say, let us do ministry, but let us do ministry in a meaningful, caring way that will address the spiritual and temporal needs of our communities. Let us preach a gospel and practice a service that will be relevant to the issues they face daily. Let us get better at doing that and numbers will happen.
I recognize how arrogant I might sound, but let me be the first to say that I do not pretend to be the authority over these matters nor have the answers to solve these problems. Rather, I want to share a personal and communal testimony, about a particular understanding and practice of the Christian faith that has touched the deepest places in my heart and in the hearts of many others. I want to tell you that this particular way of thinking and doing ministry, has made me and many others remain interested and invested in the life of the larger Church.
Then, I’d like to suggest that this is what we need to do, regardless of our goals and measurements of success. I’m convinced that people, Hispanics included by the way, will respond to this input and will come. They will come, not as a result of a successful evangelistic campaign, but because they will want to participate in something good.
Let me begin with a short story. María (a fictitious name) was having a very difficult time ever since she came to this country. Her health had deteriorated over the years and she had recently been diagnosed with yet another ailment that threatened her life. Being a devout religious person, she asked her daughter to go to their spiritual leader to ask him to come to pray for her and impart the sacraments of their religious tradition. However, certain circumstances of her life impeded their spiritual counselor, due to doctrinal limitations and assumptions, from responding to her need. Disheartened, the daughter went on not knowing what to do or where to go to get what her mother needed. Along the way, she walked by an open church. With not much enthusiasm but still desperate to provide some comfort for her mother, she went in. After receiving her and listening to her story for more than an hour, the pastor of that community of faith said he could go to pray for her mother and offer whatever other spiritual help she could need. It was not what she was used to, but was good enough to bring her peace while she recuperated from her illness. After some time, María’s health improved. Thankful for the time when she was taken care of, she started to attend that church. She was graciously welcomed by all and little by little learned a different sense of community. María and her daughter had found a new home.
Now, this story is real, but I have intentionally left many details out so that it can be made to fit whatever circumstances you can imagine. Both sides of the experience can happen in any community of faith. The question is, can it happen in ours? Can this be someone’s experience of our Lutheran Church? It certainly can, both the good and the bad, but I have reasons to think that with the correct interpretation and practice of our theology and doctrine, we can be more hopeful of the happier ending. What does the Lutheran Church offer to Hispanics? Better yet, what does the Lutheran Church offer to all people, whoever they might be, who walk in through our doors?
The pastoral and merciful response offered by a pastor was the main reason that prompted María and her daughter to find out about and later on become members of this church. They naturally migrated to a place where they felt not only welcomed, but also cared for and loved. Some might argue that this could merely be the result of a “make-me-feel-good” kind of ministry. And indeed there are many out there who are intent on being people-pleasers without much thought as to what they do or why they do it.
Nevertheless, even a beginner in matters of Lutheran theology will easily recognize a strong emphasis on concern and care of the person and the soul. Said differently, the pastoral response that you are likely to find in most of our congregations is a direct result of a doctrine that takes into account the person and his or her need. It’s a theology from below, where the divine intervention in human history is prompted by our inability to deal with our own painful dilemma.
Take for example the doctrine of justification. Although it comes directly from a sound and strong biblical basis (Romans 3 and 4, as it is noted in the Article IV of the Augsburg Confession), Luther’s experience of the “dark night of the soul” became the basis for its understanding. In spite of his best spiritual efforts and practices, Luther was unable to find peace on his own account. It was not until he understood that there was nothing he could do to atone his sin and that only through Christ’s sacrifice he could be forgiven, that he finally felt relief from his burden.
From there on, Luther understood that the old tradition of offering forgiveness on the basis of buying indulgences was not only unfaithful to the biblical testimony but a cruel imposition over those who could not otherwise find peace for their souls. Luther’s admonition against the indulgences was then both a defense of a biblical understanding of God’s forgiveness and a pastoral concern for those troubled by their human need to feel truly forgiven. As a theologian, he addressed what he thought to be errors in doctrine; as a pastor he was concerned with the well being of those in need. This was one of many ways in which Luther addressed issues having to do with the pastoral care of the person.
I would argue also that Luther’s Small Catechism is another attempt at trying to provide good, compassionate pastoral care for the layperson. Again, the historical and theological backgrounds are deeper than plain old pastoral care. In fact, Luther’s catechism was his way of protesting the lack of Christian instruction among the people. So he writes in the introduction: “The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form.” Even in the way he writes, you can see his concern. The phrase “in this small, plain, simple form” denotes Luther’s concern for the lay, simple person who would not have any other way to learn the basic teachings of the Christian faith. A small token, some might think, but a critical step in the age of Christendom when everybody was concerned with the saving of the soul.
By providing to the people an easy method of Christian teaching, Luther capacitates the average head of household to instruct his family. In doing so, even the most uninstructed person had a way to learn the basics of Christianity. You can also see Luther’s pastoral concern in the way he introduces each principle in the catechism: “As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.” We need to remember that in the time that Luther is writing, only the Church had the authority and the expertise to teach. Those who were not ministered to, because of lack of pastors or for whatever other reason, simply went on uneducated. With your soul in the balance, this meant an additional burden for the poor. The Small Catechism provided them a “small” yet important tool that give them some reassurance in their desire to learn about God. Today we can only appreciate how significant has been this contribution of the Reformation era to today’s strong emphasis on Christian education of children.
We can go on and on describing the pastoral concern underlining our doctrine. We could mention our understanding regarding the priesthood of all believers meaning that each of us has a genuine call by God to serve in His name. We could talk about the use of the means of grace, through which every soul can be reassured of God’s real presence in the sacraments. In the end, what is the result of all this? From its inception, the Lutheran Church has been known for its deep concern and care of the person. As we address theological, doctrinal, liturgical and other issues, you can always find a special emphasis on those elements that affect the human being.
Our social statements are another proof of that. Social issues like abortion, death penalty and even the economy are always addressed in such a way that the human person is at its center of concern. And by that I’m not implying that God is not present. On the contrary, we are always striving to understand how is it that God encounters us in each topic of discussion.
What does the Lutheran Church offer to Hispanics? I think we’ve always offered a church that is based on the human need to encounter and understand God in a real human way. In doing so we want to be relevant to the issues and needs that people face in their daily lives. That’s how Word of God becomes alive. It is a way of doing exegesis in which the Bible speaks directly to my particular situation. And then that Word becomes praxis and encounters people at the point of their need. I think this is what we can offer to the people of God, whether Hispanic, Asian, African American or Caucasian — regardless of whether they speak English, Spanish, Swedish or Swahili. After all, we are only imitating what Christ did and His grace is offered equally to all.
ELCA continuing resolutions 5.01.A87.
ELCA Research and Evaluation. 1988 to 2005 Racial/Ethnic Membership of the ELCA report. http://elca.org/research/fyifacts.html
U. S. Census Bureau