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Close Up: Growing Hispanic/Latino presence changes church

9/4/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

"Close Up" is a monthly UMNS and feature on issues and trends. Sidebars - UMNS stories #428-30 - and art are available with this report.

A Report By Linda Green*

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.

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. Those Census Bureau figures don't include an estimated 4 million undocumented Hispanics. 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.

The United Methodist Church is one of the few denominations with a fully developed plan to address Hispanic/Latino concerns, Gonzales says. However, while the church has them on the radar, it has not decided whether it will work toward assimilation or allow Hispanic/Latinos to keep their own identity within the denomination, he says.

Other cultural tensions are pinpointed in "Called to Joy," a roadmap for a Hispanic/Latino theological education initiative from the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. "Understandably, persons from European dissent fear that their customs and traditions may disappear or be diluted ... or that the growing number of Hispanic/Latino (people) will deprive them of some of the hard-fought gains they have made in recent decades, and marginalize them even more than they are at present."

Avoiding pitting populations against one another is important, and building coalitions is the solution, Gonzales says.

Issues of identity are evident in the very language used to describe Hispanic/Latinos. The term "Hispanic" denotes people from many nationalities and backgrounds - Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and those from Latin American countries. "Hispanic/Latino" is more acceptable because many identify with Latino cultures or Latin American countries, says the Rev. Jose Palos, pastor of La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio.

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," Palos says.

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 to 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?"

Churches do not see the mission opportunities in their neighborhoods, says Palos, a past director of the denomination's Hispanic plan. "Annual conferences, from the top down, need to be intentional in reaching out (and should) be evangelistic-minded.

"The biggest mistake churches make is thinking of Hispanics as a way of bailing out a dying church," he says.

De la Rosa agrees that many congregations make that mistake. "They finally convince themselves to try to do something with the Hispanic community because they do not want to die as a congregation. But when they reach that point, it is too late, and most of the time, it does not work."

In reaching out, the church should learn about the community and resources available through the Hispanic plan, she says. It also should be welcoming, overcome stereotypes and avoid isolating itself from the neighborhood.

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 congregation is reaching out through vacation Bible school, worship services, Saturday children's play, English-as-a-second-language classes and immigration seminars.

Next spring, the denomination's 2004 General Conference will consider continuing the Hispanic plan. As of mid-1999, the denomination had chartered 64 new Hispanic/Latino churches in 30 annual conferences, started 208 fellowships and 839 outreach ministries, and revitalized 63 congregations.

"The bottom line is that there has been significant growth," Palos says. However, he and others say more must be done. "The annual conferences that have been slow to respond to the plan are ones with the most Hispanics in them," he adds.

"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."
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*Green is a news writer for United Methodist News Service.

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