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Close-Up: Growing Hispanic/Latino presence changes church


Close Up: Growing Hispanic/Latino Presence Changes Church

By Linda Green

A United Methodist News Service and feature

The small congregation of Agape Memorial United Methodist Church is on the leading edge of a quiet revolution transforming not only the denomination but U.S. society as well.

Photo of a Hispanic family (daughter, mother, son, father).
Hispanic/Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau
The 140-member Dallas church is the product of a Hispanic/Latino congregation merging with a dwindling Anglo one. Based in a neighborhood that is heavily Mexican, the congregation reaches out to the community in a variety of ways, such as through an after-school program that it offers in partnership with an elementary school.

The change in Agape’s congregation is mirrored throughout the denomination, which saw a nearly 30 percent increase in Hispanic/Latino membership between 1996 and 2001. Hispanic/Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The growth has implications in every aspect of society in the United States,” says the Rev. Cristian de la Rosa, Agape’s pastor and former director of continuing education and course of study at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

The church’s response to that boom is a concern for Hispanic/Latino United Methodist leaders, de la Rosa says. Many feel that the denomination, despite what it has done, “is very behind. We are doing more than we were doing 10 years ago, but the population doubled and we need to be doing twice as much.”

The United Methodist Church signaled the importance of ministry with Hispanic/Latinos in 1992, when its top legislative assembly implemented the National Plan for Hispanic Ministry.

Although the plan is “the best thing I’ve seen,” de la Rosa says that in addition to tools, resources and information, “the church needs a commitment that goes beyond a year at a time or four years at a time. It means a commitment that goes beyond a generation.

“For the United Methodist Church, we cannot really look at doing relevant ministry or being a relevant church without being in ministry with the Hispanic community,” she says. “If we choose not too, we will be an irrelevant denomination.”

Increased immigration boosted the Hispanic/Latino population during the 1990s and into the current decade. Many are coming to the United States for better jobs, to join other family members, to receive health care and to escape political oppression, says the Rev. Justo Gonzales, a United Methodist theologian.

Today, Hispanic/Latinos are the largest U.S. minority, with 38.8 million people or 13 percent of the population. In contrast, blacks number 36.1 million, or 12.7 percent of all U.S. residents.

In the United Methodist Church, Hispanic/Latinos account for 51,871 members (in a total U.S. membership of about 8.4 million), 357 congregations and 506 clergy. Two of the denomination’s bishops are Hispanic/Latino.

Photo of a rosary looped across an open Bible.
A report in USA Today states that although Hispanics are leaving their traditional Catholicism and joining other churches, the fastest-growing religion of a large portion “is no religion at all.”
A report in USA Today states that although Hispanic/Latinos are leaving their traditional Catholicism and joining other churches, the fastest-growing religion of a large portion “is no religion at all.” “The reality is that 40 percent are non-churched or have no affiliation,” says the Rev. Jose Palos, pastor of La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio and past national coordinator of the Hispanic plan.

A pilot project is under way in San Antonio to determine what attracts Hispanic/Latinos to the United Methodist Church.

Palos believes the United Methodist Church has a gospel-centered, holistic message that makes sense them. “We need to have more passion for that,” he says. “It cannot be budgeted or programmed. It has to come from the heart.”

Gonzales emphasizes that the church must be a welcoming center for new arrivals to the community. Beyond offering Spanish-language worship, that means helping people adjust to new surroundings, learn English, acquire a driver’s license, and find housing and jobs, he says.

“When people arrive into a new community, they are looking for new ties,” he says. “The question is, (are) they going to be church related?”

Gresham (Ore.) United Methodist Church discovered a mission field outside its doors after realizing that the local Hispanic/Latino population grew from 2,069 in 1990 to 10,732 in 2000. The church is reaching out through vacation Bible school, worship services, Saturday children’s play, English-language classes and immigration seminars.

Next spring, the denomination’s 2004 General Conference will consider continuing the Hispanic plan. Through the plan, the denomination has chartered 90 new churches or missions, organized 140 new faith communities, created 15 Sunday school extension ministries and trained 250 lay missioners.

Palos and others say more must be done. “In a few years or in our children’s lifetime, this will be a more varied country than it is now,” he says. “We need to think ahead because we cannot afford not to do anything.”

Green is a news writer for United Methodist News Service.

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