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Good News from the Hispanic Church:

The community-serving activities of Hispanic Protestant churches

by Amy Sherman

Books and Culture, 1 July 2004

We've heard it many times now: Hispanics are America's majority minority. Newspapers have reported the spectacular growth in the numbers of Hispanics living in the United States, especially in nontraditional locations. We've learned that from 1990 to 2000, the Hispanic population swelled 300 percent in Georgia, 278 percent in Tennessee, and 117 percent in Indiana. National Geographic recently noted that Alaska is now celebrating Cinco de Mayo and that Grand Island, Nebraska (Nebraska?) boasts a Spanish-language radio station. According to the business magazines, corporate America is increasingly underwriting Spanish-language advertising while firms puzzle out how to communicate effectively to the 17 different Hispanic subcultures now represented in the United States. Political pundits speculate about the impact of Hispanic voters and policymakers argue about immigration. We've been regaled with stories of Hispanic superstars like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez (who seems to have appeared on more magazine covers than anyone since Jackie Kennedy). What we haven't heard very much about is the Hispanic church.

Two recent studies shed some light on this subject. Interim findings from the three-year investigation, "Hispanic Churches in American Public Life" (HCAPL), funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, offer some counterintuitive insights about Hispanic Christians' political opinions and activities. And the Hudson Institute's Faith in Communities initiative, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, has conducted a year-long study revealing much about the community-serving activities of Hispanic Protestant churches. Neither of these studies provides exhaustive information, but they do offer some intriguing snapshots—welcome indeed when a subject of such importance has been so conspicuously under-reported.

Religious Hispanics in the Public Square

Gaston Espinoza, a Latino studies scholar at Northwestern University, oversaw the HCAPL project. Its study of over 2,000 Hispanics was the largest bilingual survey in U.S. history on Latino religion and politics.

Fully 93 percent surveyed identified themselves as Christians: 70 percent Catholic, 23 percent Protestant. Increasingly, they are religious conservatives. Evangelical Protestantism is growing among second- and third-generation immigrants, and more and more Hispanic Catholics are referring to themselves as "born again." This religious conservatism is associated with social conservatism on such issues as abortion and homosexuality. Hispanics are strong supporters of prayer in schools, and over half believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the public schools.

Some observers, says Espinoza, too quickly assume that such positions mean that "Latinos are lock-stock-and-barrel with the Republican party." Instead, the HCAPL findings revealed that Hispanics more often vote Democratic. A startling 73 percent of Hispanic evangelicals voted for Bill Clinton in the 1996 election. Democratic hopefuls shouldn't take Hispanics for granted, though—fully 37 percent of those interviewed labeled themselves "independents" when asked their party affiliation. And Hispanics are enthusiastic supporters of school vouchers and of George W. Bush's faith-based initiative.

In short, Latinos occupy an intriguing "in-between" space on the political spectrum. This space, Espinoza asserts, "may enable Latinos to help transform the liberal-conservative, black-white, and Republican-Democratic divide that has dominated American politics for the last half century by forcing both parties to change and adapt to the growing needs of our increasingly diverse and multicultural society."

Addressing Social Needs

As the Latino population has grown, so have the number of studies pointing out the challenges facing Hispanics in America. Poverty is perhaps the greatest. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Hispanic poverty rate surpassed that of African-Americans in the mid-1990s. In addition, Hispanics are more likely than other ethnic groups to lack medical insurance. Roughly a third of all Hispanic students fail to complete high school—about four times the rate of whites and twice that of blacks. Hispanics complete college less often than do whites or blacks.

While these problems are well-documented, less well-known are the efforts of Hispanics of faith to meet these challenges. Far from being unaware of or unengaged in the life of their communities, many Hispanic congregations are reaching out to try to make a difference. The Hispanic church in America is a vibrant source of life, celebration, and service.

Throughout late 2002 and early 2003, the Hudson Institute's Faith in Communities program conducted a survey of 468 Hispanic Protestant church pastors across the nation. The survey focused on the community-serving activities of their congregations. We found that an impressive 73 percent of Hispanic congregations offered social service programs for community residents. These included some 49 different types of services, ranging from short-term relief programs (e.g., food or clothing assistance) to longer-term, relational ministries (e.g., mentoring, tutoring, ESL, counseling, substance abuse recovery programs) to community development initiatives (e.g., affordable housing development, health care, church-sponsored schools). The most common social programs offered were counseling and food assistance (see Table below).

The percentage of Hispanic congregations reporting engagement in social services appears similar to that of African American churches involved in community outreach, if we compare the Hudson survey findings with those of leading black church researcher Andrew Billingsley. (We have to use some caution in making the comparison, since questions in the two studies were not worded exactly the same.) Billingsley, who surveyed hundreds of black churches through a series of regional sub-samples for his 1999 book, Mighty Like a River: The Black Church and Social Reform, found that between 66 percent and 75 percent of African-American churches operate at least one community serving program.1

The comparability in the level of outreach by Hispanic and black churches is intriguing because of the perception that exists that African American congregations are more active. Key gatekeepers in the Hispanic Protestant community say that this erroneous perception exists for two reasons.

Our church is gradually learning what it is to share the sorrows of the inner-city neighborhood we have adopted. Had we not begun to build friendships in that neighborhood, we would not have known that the woman who sought our aid through Community Assessment was one source of the neighborhood's ruination. Those who give are obliged, like physicians, to "first do no harm." Churches do need to accept a greater role in caring for the needy. But they must do so according to the timeless wisdom of their own rich traditions, not by the tenets of contemporary benevolence – many of which have harmed, rather than helped, the poor.

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