¡Justicia! - in English

How Latina and Latino Christian leaders are reshaping the church's understanding of social justice.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño
Bishop Minerva Carcaño 

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ALTHOUGH FOURTH in his high school class, Juan Martínez was never encouraged to take an AP exam or think about college. Like many other Latinos in California during the 1970s, it was assumed he would become a farm worker.

But Martínez, now vice president for diversity and international ministries at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., had a different calling; he continued his education and became a Mennonite Brethren pastor. He’s now earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in theology, but Martínez still credits his father, also a pastor, for teaching him how to minister in the Latino community.

As a child, Martínez watched his father help families broken by immigration raids, support manual laborers facing exploitation, and march with other leaders in Kettleman City, Calif., to protest an enormous toxic waste dump that was created without informing the migrant workers who lived nearby. Yet Martínez’s father never considered his work “social justice,” a term he associated with churches that downplayed morality and personal salvation. For his father, said Martínez, addressing injustice against his congregation was simply “part of the daily life of the church.”

Like his father, Martínez’s ministry as a Latino pastor has involved dealing with the realities of his congregation, including the plight of migrants. But unlike his father, Martínez does not mind the label “social justice” because he believes the church exists for both community transformation and personal conversion.

 “You cannot be a Latino pastor and not address the undocumented, not address the school system, not address salaries in urban or rural environments,” said Martínez. “It hits you in the face every day and we have to address the consequences.” What’s starting to change, Martínez explained, is that a new generation of Latino and Latina leaders are using “social justice vocabulary” to call attention to the problems facing their communities.

“I think this thing is growing”

In 2011, President Barack Obama surveyed the crowd of pastors gathered at the 10th annual National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast. “I have to say,” said President Obama, who had attended the gathering two years earlier, “I think this thing is growing.”

President Obama was right; the U.S. Latino population—currently 17 percent of the total U.S. population—continues to grow and is expected to double by 2060. And with more than 80 percent of U.S. Latinos identifying as Christian, Latino and Latina leaders are reshaping the landscape of U.S. Christianity.

For clues about what this new religious landscape might look like, consider the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC), one of the fastest-growing Latino organizations, headed by Rev. Gabriel Salguero, which made 2015 headlines by becoming the first evangelical entity to officially oppose the death penalty and which continues to lead on other issues as well. Or Esperanza, the network of Latino congregations that started the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and has invested $13 million into strengthening Latino communities by building houses, providing job-training, offering legal assistance for low-income immigrants, and launching an AIDS-awareness program. Or the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, whose vision statement says it is out to replace the “media-exacerbated image of angry white evangelicals” with “a convicted yet compassionate multiethnic kingdom culture community committed to sharing truth with love.”

But Latino and Latina Christian leadership extends well beyond Latino organizations. And these leaders are clear: Faith and social justice are inextricably linked. “We are called to make the world a more just place,” said Los Angeles Bishop Minerva Carcaño, the first Latina to become a bishop of the United Methodist Church, and an advocate for immigrants. Recalling her own experience growing up in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest areas in the U.S., Carcaño says she feels called to open the door for others.

Anthony Suárez-Abraham, who was the first Latino director of the Office for Peace and Justice in the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, agrees. “The work of justice for Christians is not an optional aspect of faith but precisely an expression of it,” said Suárez-Abraham. To illustrate how Latino leadership might change U.S. Christianity, he pointed to the example of Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America. “Akin to Pope Francis offering a non-European perspective to the papacy, Latino and Hispanic Christian leadership will enhance justice movements,” Suárez-Abraham said.

A bottom-up approach to social justice

“The issues of social justice—defined through an African-American lens, a Latino lens, an East Asian lens—are not the same,” said Juan Martínez. In other words, as Latino Christians redefine the U.S. Christian landscape, they’re also redefining how Christians understand the biblical call to social justice.

Hosffman Ospino, assistant professor of Hispanic ministry at Jesuit-run Boston College, put it this way: “Latinos don’t have to imagine poverty. Latinos don’t need to imagine being an undocumented immigrant because very likely an uncle or a friend or a neighbor has experienced it,” he said. Thus, unlike their Euro-American counterparts, Latino Catholic leaders often focus their justice work on the grassroots level, said Ospino, who recently conducted a national study of Catholic parishes with Latino ministries. “These are people who are helping neighborhoods, advocating for young people involved in gangs, helping those who are hungry,” he said.

Gastón Espinosa, a professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College specializing in U.S. Latino religions, also identified a bottom-up approach to social justice as a distinguishing feature of Latino congregations. “They work on creating solutions where they are at—in the middle of often poverty-stricken communities—with whatever human resources and capital they can harness,” he said. “There can be no effective long-term solutions in the inner city without making sure Latino faith leaders are invited to the table to discuss the pressing social justice issues.”

Although poverty and migrant issues have an undeniable impact in their communities, Latino Christian leaders are increasingly emphasizing the necessity for a grassroots approach to a variety of issues affecting first, second, and third generation Latinos—and society as a whole—including access to education, racial reconciliation, fair wages, and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color.

Not least among these issues is climate change. A 2014 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 73 percent of Latino Catholics said they were concerned about climate change, compared to 43 percent of white mainline Protestants, 53 percent of white Catholics, and 35 percent of white evangelicals. Likewise, Latino Catholics are three times more likely than white Catholics to believe they’ll be personally impacted by climate change.

This is not surprising, said Father Roberto Mena, a spokesperson for Catholic Climate Covenant. He explained that people with roots in Latin America know their regions “are suffering the consequences of climate change and the destruction of nature.” And with extreme weather and issues such as mega-mining, mono-agriculture, and water rights threatening ways of life in places such as Argentina, Peru, and Brazil, the importance of ecological justice is hard for Latinos to ignore.

According to Laudato Si’, the encyclical on integral ecology Pope Francis released earlier this year, this firsthand experience of the effects of ecological devastation is precisely what’s been forgotten in current conversations about the environment. People in positions of power have not prioritized issues of ecological devastation, explained Pope Francis, because these leaders are “located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.” With more leadership from Latino Christians, it seems likely that the church will make climate change and other ecological concerns a higher priority.

No more ‘grin and bear it’

The median age of Latinos and Latinas in the U.S. is 27—considerably younger than the overall national median. For some denominations, especially those led by Anglos nearing retirement age, the possibility of an influx of youthful energy sounds promising. “Organizations or movements are giving a platform to Latinos,” said Fuller’s Juan Martínez. “But at the same time, those movements will only have a future if Latinos fill the ranks.”

Yet if churches in the U.S. are hoping to welcome young Latinos and Latinas into their congregations, Latino leaders believe churches must make room for Latino leadership. “We want to see people that look like us—and understand our bilingual, bicultural realities—speaking for us, leading us, and paving the way,” said Florida pastor Elizabeth Ríos, founder of the Center for Emerging Female Leadership, who serves on the NaLEC board.

For Rev. Anthony Guillén, officer for Latino/Hispanic ministries for the Episcopal Church, training and educating young Latinos and Latinas is the next step in developing a steady stream of bicultural leaders who can speak to “el pueblo” about their needs while also articulating the call to social justice to church and political representatives.

Guillén knows firsthand that this hasn’t always happened. Growing up in Texas in the 1950s, Guillén faced challenges that could have prevented him from being a leader. After being spanked for “speaking Spanish in the playground” (saying “ay” instead of “ouch” when a classmate fell on him), he learned not to make waves and just tried to fit in. “My father was trying to protect us, and whenever an injustice would happen at school, we were told ‘aguántate,’ (grin and bear it). Don’t respond to your teacher, don’t fight back if a kids hits you, just take it.”

He lived this way for 30 years, until he went to Mexico as a missionary. “I learned another history than the one I was taught in Texas,” Guillén recalled. “When I came back to the States, I found my voice because I felt more confident of who I was as a Mexican-American; I no longer felt ashamed that my last name was ‘Guillén.’”

Guillén realized he had to learn to be a leader who spoke out on behalf of injustice, including injustice facing the Latino community in the U.S. “If, as a priest, I was a role model and people saw me staying quiet and ‘aguantándome,’ then I was perpetuating the problem,” he explained. “I wanted to show people that we have a right to speak up and work with the system and make this country a better place.”

So Guillén started speaking up when minority opinions were being ignored at meetings or when pastors from Latin America did not feel represented in a worship service at a pastors’ conference. This sparked a dialogue in the church and encouraged other groups whose culture and experiences had been overlooked to ask for change too.

Since then, says Guillén, different Episcopal ministries have gathered to discuss common goals and unique challenges at biennial conferences, which included workshops on mission and advocacy evangelism and social justice. He sees great potential for new Latino Christian leaders. “In the past, there were too few of us,” he said. “Today we are more intentional in training others to have a voice to speak clearly about the issues.”

A place at the table

Elizabeth Ríos pointed out that non-Latino Christians can offer concrete support to build new Latino leadership in the church. Her advice to non-Latino Christians is simple: “Find leaders, find a Latino organization that is doing something you admire, and send them resources—either money or volunteers,” she said.

Bishop Carcaño believes there is a clear call for Latino Christians in the U.S.: Answer Jesus’ call to help all people by cultivating their God-given gifts. “It is our responsibility to be a voice for justice,” she said, “and to be able to sit at the table with others.”

Maria-Pia Negro Chin is a bilingual multimedia journalist who freelances in New York. 

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