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Bicultural bonanza
Might the music, movement, drama of Hispanic Christianity ignite Anglo spirituality? This professor says “Yes!”


Schalkwijk / Art Resource, N.Y.
Friday of Sorrows on the Canal at Santa Anita by Diego Rivera (1866-1957) ©Banco de Mexico Trust, hangs in the Secretaria de Educacion Publica, Mexico City.   (Schalkwijk / Art Resource, N.Y.)
“Can’t we just translate what we already have?”

It’s a very natural question from church people whose whole approach to church is rooted in documents, texts, words, Scriptures, written liturgies. If we just somehow can get those words into the language of the new people flowing through our doors, then most of our problems will be “headed off at the pass,” right? If language were the chief obstacle, yes.

When our parish began a Hispanic ministry in 2004, our goal was not to begin a separate-but-equal Spanish-language congregation, but to draw into our own family some of the Mexican and Central American immigrants we saw trickling into our community. Over time, more and more Hispanic Americans will be moving into areas in the United States where they had not been present in appreciable numbers before.

As Anglican Christians, we will be called upon by the Holy Spirit to engage them -- not as robots, fit only to meet our workforce needs, but as fellow Christians in the kingdom of God. Your parish might respond with an outreach effort — by sending a check to an organization that “deals with those people.” But I’d like for you to consider an alternative. Consider examining Hispanic expressions of Christianity and how they might add to your own spiritual growth.

When the image is paramount Consider how churches in Latin America look so different from American churches, especially in the profusion of images. Why is that? And why are even the walls of our Anglo-Catholic churches relatively bare in comparison?

I think it’s because we come from a European mindset, where listening is how we receive the gospel. That’s why the pulpit and the text are so central to how we worship. We want readings and sermons.

The indigenous peoples of the Americas had a way of life in which the image was paramount — pictures, symbols predominate. The early Franciscan missionaries of the 16th century discovered that the use of statues and murals in telling the gospel did a lot more good than long sermons. This explains the success of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531. The picture made sense, whereas all those sermons had been just so much talk — even when they had been well translated.

Enacting things with one’s body is another form of receiving the gospel into one’s soul in Hispanic culture. The Franciscans devised a form of architecture that allowed the Indians to parade counter-clockwise around the patio of the church during different festivals, carrying crosses or saints’ images, performing the Stations of the Cross or the Nativity or the Lives of the Saints.

Theater is central to the Hispanic form of spirituality, and, looked at another way, the Eucharist itself is a reenactment, a theatrical recollection of the most sacred night in our history. This is why solemn processions with images are so important on saint’s days. It explains the Posadas, a portrayal of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging during Advent, done with costumes, songs, candles, sometimes a donkey. One needs to act things out with the body, to get the muscles and nerves and bones flowing with the blood to feel the kinetic energy of the Holy Spirit. 

Many Hispanic ministers will tell you that it is next-to-impossible to get people to come to Sunday school or mid-week classes. Perhaps it’s because understanding the gospel is not as important as enacting the gospel.

Again, the Franciscan friars were far more effective and beloved by the indigenous population because they didn’t make people sit in silence for long sermons like the Augustinian friars did! When you look at Augustinian churches, the pulpit is central. When you see Franciscan churches, you see murals, theaters, patios, niches.

Another way in which Hispanic spirituality is very different from our American brand is that sacrifice and suffering are central to the believer’s relationship with Jesus.

Something of sacrifice is required of each of us. Everyone’s contribution is needed. Your sacrifice may be physical labor — but it’s needed as much as someone else’s monetary gift. Even back in Aztec times, the temple work was distributed fairly — with even chiefs sweeping courtyards on a regular basis. Everyone has a role to play.

Nothing worth achieving is achieved alone. Everything worth doing is done by group effort — especially spiritual work. When you go to a Hispanic wedding, be ready for a printed program that tells you there is a godmother of the dress, a godfather of the photography, a godmother of the flowers. Everybody in the family pitches in, not just the parents of the bride, and heaven forbid if the couple pays for the wedding themselves!

The bloodiest Jesuses

We Americans can understand the concept of sacrifice pretty well — our ancestors sacrificed a lot in building this country. But we are afraid of blood, and we like to avoid every kind of suffering – even hay fever!

In Mexico, the churches are full of the bloodiest Jesuses in the world — and I’ve seen  people, young and old, men and women absolutely transfixed, transported, staring at the statues behind glass cases for half an hour or more, deeply identifying with the gore-encrusted Nazarene. Why is that?

Because deep within us, we all can see that our own hearts are pierced by something dreadful, and in contemplating his pain, we are made one with him. This is a mystery, but it’s not unfathomable.

The missing crucifixes in our American churches speak not only to our preference for the Risen Christ, but also to our inability to identify with pain. If we cannot identify with Jesus’ pain, can we identify with the pain we see on the faces and bodies of those in our community?

Once you begin to stare into the face of the bloody Jesuses of Mexico, you also can start to address the illnesses and disfigurations borne by people who have lived lives devoid of health care, those who have suffered unimaginable hardships in childhood, those who have weathered incredible privation and whose bodies show the results.

As the Hispanic population grows and diffuses throughout our dioceses, will we all have the courage to absorb them into our parishes and to learn from their spiritual heritage?

To respond to this column, write to Episcopal Life or e-mail We welcome your own “In practice” column at the same address.