The Common Good
April 2008

Where the Spirit Leads

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | April 2008

Pentecostals may be the least known and most unpredictable group on the landscape.

The enigma of Latino Pentecostals is found in their ability to resist labels and simple classifications. Or maybe it’s just that most people’s assumptions about them are all wrong? Either way, Latino Pentecostals have been ignored, misunderstood, and mislabeled for too long.

The Latino community has functioned almost undercover for many years, hidden for the most part from the eyes of mainstream society. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, writer Octavio Paz calls the “masks” that Mexicans and other Latinos wear in society “a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible.” The image of Latinos in mainstream U.S. society is as unfocused as our ability to agree on what we will call them—Latino or Hispanic, Chicano or Boricua. The name we choose for Latinos tells us more about ourselves us than it does about them.

Pentecostals, too, are unknown, even suspect to many. People don’t know what to make of their unknown tongues, miracles, or outlandish holy roller ways. Pentecostals from Aimee Semple McPherson to Pat Robertson are partly to blame for this—with a striving to be in this world but not of it that sometimes borders on the bizarre and sensational. Most Pentecostals, however, deserve more down-to-earth reputations. By preaching that everyone has a right to enter into direct contact with God regardless of their education, race, or class, Pentecostals have become the fastest growing Christian movement in the world today.

To be a Latino Pentecostal, then, is a double whammy. In a highly polarized society, they don’t fit into the predetermined camps racially, culturally, or spiritually. Politically, this has made Latino Pentecostals a focus for those on both the left and the right who seek to claim them as their own. Liberals see a church made up largely of non-white, urban poor people and assume its members must be progressive like themselves. Conservatives jump upon the idea that because most Latino evangelicals are pro-family, anti-abortion, and tend to support the war in Iraq, they must be conservatives.

Despite all this label-slinging, Latino Pentecostals are not quite as passive as some might think. Instead, they have been quietly challenging assumptions and crossing borders for generations, often defining themselves in unexpected ways.

Though not necessary political, the following aspects of Latino Pentecostals nevertheless have a political impact, transcending our current political and social categories and opening a path to social change.

The mixed racial and cultural composition of the Latino family—a blend of Native American, European, and African peoples—has challenged the racial standards of mainstream society since its very beginnings in America. Latino Pente­costals challenge the stereotypes that all Latinos are Catholics and, conversely, that all conservative evangelicals are white.

Latinos participated in the birth of the Pentecostal movement in the United States. The most outrageous thing about the Azusa Street Revival, which oc­curred in Los Angeles in 1906, wasn’t the speaking in tongues or claims of miracles. It was the fact that people of different races had come together to worship. Early Pentecostals claimed this multiracial unity as the most significant proof of the Holy Spirit among them.

Pentecostals believe the gift of the Holy Spirit is equally bestowed on all, and among Latino Pentecostals these spiritual gifts have at times challenged church authority. This faith in God’s unique calling has led to new expressions of spiritual life and even moved beyond the church, making Latino Pentecostals models of autonomy, self-initiative, and entrepreneurship in the barrio.

Latino Pentecostals defy simplistic political labels, given that they can be—often at the same time—conservative evangelicals, members of Spanish-speaking immigrant families, and part of a lower economic class. Latino Pentecostals are ushering in the hope of a new unity in America by blurring the lines between liberal and conservative—making it very hard to claim such a thing as a “Latino vote.”

Latino Pentecostals and other Latino Protestants (many of whom self-identify as evangelical, born again, or charismatic) provided George Bush’s largest gain in the 2004 election, according to a Pew Forum study, moving from 33 percent support in 2000 to 64 percent four years later. But many Latinos felt exploited and abandoned by the Republican Party in last year’s immigration debate, and that might well show up in the ballot box this year.

Latino Pentecostals transcend as­sumptions and easy categories. They may support tougher laws to combat gangs in their neighborhoods but welcome the gangbanger into their churches without demonizing him. They may support family members serving in the military but question the American incursions into sovereign countries that put the lives of their loved ones at risk. They may feel that their jobs are vulnerable due to immigration and other consequences of globalization but still see immigrants as brothers and sisters who through hard work have the right to earn a better life for themselves and their families.

The primary motivation of many Latino Pentecostals is to spread the gospel, a calling that doesn’t always fit in with the status quo—nor should it.

Latino Pentecostals have created their own spiritual and political space that transcends the cookie-cutter assumptions of both left and right. In many ways they are part of the growing movement of Christians who are redefining the political, theological, and social categories of previous generations and forging new ways to be faithful.

Aaron McCarroll Gallegos is producer for The United Church of Canada’s Emerging Spirit campaign and the WonderCafe.ca Web site.

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