What They Bring
by M. Daniel Carroll Rodas
Christian faith is vibrant among the US Hispanic immigrant population, which now numbers in the millions. The first and most obvious indication of the presence of Hispanic Christians is the increase in attendees in churches on a Sunday morning. Masses in parishes around the country are burgeoning with recent arrivals from south of the border (a little more than two-thirds of first-generation Hispanic immigrants are Catholic). Estimates place the number of Hispanic Protestant congregations of all stripes in the United States in the many thousands. Mainline denominations, but especially evangelical and Pentecostal denominations and independent groups, have seen new churches sprout up everywhere. These congregations meet in basements and fellowship halls of existing Anglo churches, in storefronts, and in homes; some have acquired their own facilities. Church size can range from small assemblies of a few dozen worshipers to those where thousands gather together. Associations of pastors and leaders have organized, such as the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. The National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast is now an annual event in Washington, DC.
The Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations see this explosion in the number of churches and church-goers as an unprecedented opportunity for all kinds of pastoral and caring ministries. It has also led to the establishment of training institutions all over the country. The Catholic Church, Protestant denominations, and several seminaries have begun programs at various educational levels to help meet the need for equipped laity and pastors for this burgeoning Christian body. In the past two decades the number of Hispanic persons with graduate theological degrees has been on the rise. There are now professional organizations for Hispanic theologians, such as ACTHUS (Academy of Catholic Theologians of the United States) and AETH (Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana), and several academic theological journals. Publishing houses of a breadth of persuasions have begun to publish works in English by these theologians or have incorporated a Spanish wing (sometimes by acquiring Latin American publishers). One could also mention the proliferation of recording labels for gospel singers of all styles of music, glossy magazines with various target audiences, youth conventions and rallies, and seminars for pastors and lay people focusing on a wide variety of topics of interest.
Many immigrants are brothers and sisters in Christ, and this fact should engender respect and attention in those of the majority culture who claim to love and follow Jesus.
All of these are elements of a fast-growing Christian Hispanic culture that is as multifaceted and diverse in its beliefs and activities as that of the majority Christian culture—albeit with its own distinctive flavor. This phenomenon is not just something to be aware of or to be considered simply a new target for outreach; it contains perspectives that have much to teach majority culture Christians and their churches about life with God. Both Christian cultures have much to learn from each other.
In speaking of Hispanic immigration, therefore, one must be aware that with this movement of millions have come countless believers and that many others are coming to faith after they arrive in the United States. For the Christian, Hispanic immigration can no longer be conceived as an anonymous mass of people or reduced to arguments over statistics. Many immigrants are brothers and sisters in Christ, and this fact should engender respect and attention in those of the majority culture who claim to love and follow Jesus.
The "Browning" of Christianity
This spiritual and ecclesiological appreciation of Hispanic immigration can be broadened still further by placing it within the context of changes in the profile of Christianity at the global level. During the past 100 years, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism of all stripes have experienced explosive growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The greater part of Christians now lives outside North America and Western Europe. Some characterize this movement of Christianity's center of gravity as the "browning" or "globalizing" of the faith.
Philip Jenkins is one who has charted this population shift and its increasing effect on the face of Christianity. In his book The Next Christendom, he describes the vibrant energy of groups from the Southern Hemisphere. Jenkins highlights their belief in the supernatural and healing, fresh worship styles, concern for social justice, and robust commitment to evangelism. This especially typifies evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which are the fastest growing groups. Another trait Jenkins focuses on, which he has developed more fully in a newer work (The New Faces of Christianity), is a strong adherence to the Bible. These believers are overwhelmingly a people of the Book, people who cherish the Scriptures. What often distinguishes them on a Sunday morning is that they carry a Bible under their arm. They gladly memorize passages, devote themselves to biblical study, and try to apply its teachings to all areas of life with the profound conviction of its immediacy and relevance. Of course, these very same characteristics also pertain to many Hispanic churches in the United States, whose members are part of this global phenomenon.
Still another feature of this incarnation of the Christian faith is its missionary spirit. The global South has become a launching pad for a fresh missionary movement, with countries such as Nigeria and South Korea leading the way in commissioning missionaries and establishing missionary training centers and agencies. From its inception, Christianity has been a mobile faith, always on the move, always sending out messengers of the Word into new areas and planting churches on virgin soil. As a result, the demographic, administrative, and educational hub of the Christian faith has shifted progressively over time from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe to the United States, and now to several locations in the South. In the past few decades and still more in the years to come, Berlin, London, New York, Chicago, Wheaton, Colorado Springs, and Los Angeles will give way to Nairobi, Seoul, São Paulo, Guatemala City, and other metropolises in the Two-Thirds World.
What does this seismic shift in Christianity have to do with Hispanic immigration? The answer lies in appreciating the breadth and power of what God is doing in the world today. The zeal of this "next Christendom" finds expression in the many organized efforts on the part of institutions in the South to propagate the faith around the world. At the same time, the spread of this fresh wave of Christianity is occurring by means of the migration of millions of believers to other lands. From this perspective, could what we are witnessing in this country be part of a divinely directed global phenomenon? Is God bringing millions of Hispanics to the United States to revitalize the Christian churches here and to present to those who do not yet believe the opportunity to turn to Christ in their search for a new life? Many Hispanics and pastors sincerely believe that God has led them here for a purpose: to play an important role in a revival of the Christian faith in this country.
In other words, if Christians of the majority culture take a very different look at Hispanic immigration, they will see that something much bigger than they might have imagined is happening. The church of Jesus Christ is growing and being impacted in unexpected ways. This work of God is part of an enormous movement that spans the globe.
Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas) is Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Brazos Press/2nd edition, 2014). He frequently speaks on a biblical framework for the immigration debate.