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An uncertain Hola
Professor analyzes whether the Episcopal Church truly welcomes Hispanics


12/1/2006

  
In the realm of Latino/Hispanic ministry, much is now happening for which all mission-minded Episcopalians can be grateful.  But despite these gains, Latinos remain conspicuously absent from, or only sparsely present in, most of our English-speaking congregations, even in regions where Hispanics constitute a major segment of the English-speaking population. 

Nearly three-fourths of Hispanics living in the United States are native-born citizens of this country, and most U.S. Hispanics are likely to be more comfortable speaking English than Spanish. We might reasonably expect to find greater numbers of them in our congregations, but we don’t. I, as a Latino, find it discouraging that so few Episcopalians seem curious enough to wonder why that is. 

For decades now, Latinos/as in both the United States and Latin America have been finding their way into Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. Although the Episcopal Church, with its liturgical and sacramental emphasis, would seem to be an obvious alternative for disaffected Roman Catholic Hispanics, it does not appear that many of them are making a beeline for the Episcopal Church. Why is that?

If I were a social scientist, I might be able to offer a raft of empirically researched analysis -- but I’m not, so permit me to voice my hunches. 

Whether anyone realizes it or not, we Episcopalians have for generations been implementing in our worship life an enduring and very successful system of cultural filters — a.k.a. the sacred cow of Anglo-Episcopalian aesthetics. 

As inspiring and effective as that system has been for some (and I include myself here), it has had the side effect of filtering out those whose cultural sensibilities make them unlikely to find much attraction in our British-influenced ways.  Because of that, typical Episcopal worship easily could seem a bit foreign, a bit too stiff-upper-lip, introverted, dull, perhaps a bit too precious to many Latinos/as, including those whose primary language would be English.

There are many Latino Episcopalians of long standing who, out of frustration with Episcopal aesthetic correctness and the we-were-here-first syndrome, have drawn harsher conclusions: “It’s obvious that we’re invisible to them, . . . that they just don’t get it, and don’t want to, . . . that they think we should be content with their back-handed tolerance of us, . . . that they’ll only sing songs in Spanish if they get to choose them, . . . that they claim to accommodate our Latino sensibilities in the design of liturgies, but go out of their way to prevent us from giving input, . . . that, when all is said and done, we’re not really welcome anyway.” 

Right or wrong, these are complaints that I have been hearing for years — and, regrettably, they also are complaints that more than a few Latinos now are voicing about their behind-the-scenes treatment at the 2006 General Convention, which in some respects was a microcosm of the Episcopal Church as a whole.

Once in a while, fortunately, something extraordinary happens that prompts us Latinos/as to take heart that we finally may be gaining serious attention in the Episcopal Church.  A striking example of that — and I wish there were space here for more examples like this — is the powerful message that Latinos/as heard at the General Convention when Presiding Bishop-elect Katherine Jefferts Schori repeatedly — and comfortably — used Spanish to address the House of Deputies following her election and confirmation as our next primate. 

The impression made by that linguistic gesture was reinforced one day later when she again used Spanish, but this time more extensively, during her comments to a gathering of the deputies of color.  Though the English-language press, including the Episcopal News Service, took scant notice of what her use of Spanish might be signaling, I can assure you that none of us Hispanics who were present failed to detect the nonverbal message that she was directing to us.

That message, I believe, went something like this: "You are not invisible; you are not intruders, but beloved and welcome among us; your presence and full participation are integral and essential to the Episcopal Church."

We Latinos/as, of course, now will be watching hopefully for indications of how, when and whether the promise of that message will show up in concrete realities.  No matter what, however, we will continue to praise God and to love all our sisters and brothers in Christ, even at those times when our welcome in the Episcopal Church is noticeably less than enthusiastic.

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