“Not Like Us”: The Mainline’s Immigration Problem

Dan Romero

Although it was years ago, the encounter remains etched in my memory. This colleague is a Euro- American leader in the progressive Christian movement, someone I have respected and admired for decades. His social activist credentials are second to none; he has demonstrated a commitment to the Latino community throughout his ministry.

But when it came to embracing Latinos and Latinas within the same institutional denominational community, there were some “buts.”

Church Racism and Double Standards

Across the 30-plus years of my ordained ministry, I have encountered, much to my disappointment, barriers, double standards, stereotypes and considerable racism targeted at the emerging Latino community. Though I can only speak from my experience in the United Church of Christ, I suspect that others from the ecumenical mainline tradition have witnessed similar dynamics. When a person tells me, “But they’re not like you,” I don’t take it as a compliment. The statement is basically communicating: “You are not like the others, you are more like us,” and therefore more acceptable.

For an otherwise progressive denomination like the UCC, which has championed the cause of diversity and inclusivity for decades, it strikes me as duplicitous to have to put an asterisk on “inclusivity.” Now that the “them” are emerging in greater numbers and seeking a place at the table, we’ve discovered that indeed “they aren’t exactly like us.” Perhaps there was an unwritten requirement that Latinos be sufficiently assimilated into mainline belief and liturgy before they would be included.

The fact is, the Latino community has never been a “natural fit” for the U.S. mainline churches. While Latin Americans in general come from very deep spiritual roots, the overwhelming Roman Catholic influence among them has caused many in the U.S. Protestant community to dismiss Latinos since “they’re all Catholics anyway.” This has made it easy to avoid taking the community seriously as potential newcomers or members in the overall picture of U.S. mainline Protestant growth. The presence of the Pentecostal church in Latin America creates another barrier for mainliners who are uncomfortable with more emotional expressions of the faith. The intellectual style of our faith has been a dominant force in many of our denominations where a certain level of education is expected.

One might argue that traditional Catholicism and Pentecostalism presided on a continent whose people have suffered such oppression and poverty. Though acknowledging the reality of poverty, the Pentecostals and Catholic hierarchy did not customarily deal directly with the systemic causes of poverty and its stranglehold on the population. Rather, they found common ground in an eschatology that offers “a better place” later.

That was the case until liberation theology, Latino style, emerged in the 1970s and ’80s, offering a new methodology for those in the pews who were wilting from waiting for better days and eager to connect faith and action.

The theology of liberation offered many U.S. Latino and white Christians an anchor for social activism. It became respectable to include liberation themes in seminary studies. Many white liberals joined in to champion causes of just immigration reform, support farm workers, oppose the inequities of economic globalization, and back the unionization efforts of the emerging Latino labor force in the U.S. Liberation theology was the inspiration.

The Winds of Liberation

During this same period, however, overseas Christian communities who had related to mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. attempted to break free of the dependency that had defined their relationships. Christians abroad who were reclaiming their indigenous roots started asserting their own authority.

“Partnership” was the new definition of these global relationships. Important global partnerships were established and nurtured in Latin America with mainline U.S. Protestants; these partnerships helped North Americans better understand actual living conditions in Latin America. U.S. support for corrupt dictatorships was unmasked, and religious communities in the U.S. rose up in indignation. These global partnerships opened a new chapter in the relationship between U.S. Latinos and mainline Protestants.

The experience revealed something else as well – how much easier and more comfortable it was for mainline Christians in this country to partner with brother and sister Christians in Latin America than to integrate these same Latinos into the family of the mainline church in the United States. In the 1980s and ’90s, I attended many an international ecumenical gathering in Latin America where main- line Protestants joined in the spirited worship, tried to speak Spanish, and committed themselves to the justice issues of the day (they might even have participated in an altar call!). Though these encounters were driven by good intentions and a common mission agenda, they were often carried along only by the spiritual highs of the moment, rituals that masked real differences among us.

Those differences become evident when church leaders propose issues and policies that compel the sharing of deeper scriptural and theological understandings and the spiritual commitments that inform both Latinos and Euro-American main- line Protestants. Those differences emerge not in forums where there are common agendas, but in institutional settings where church leaders plan the development of new congregations; where church members examine biblical interpretations of ordination and ministry; and where the role of women, the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender

(GLBT) persons in ministry become topics of discomfort or avoidance.

The inclusion of GLBT persons in ministry, along with the recent denominational decisions regarding equality in marriage for gay and lesbian couples, has stirred the already complex pot of emotions not only for Latinos but for Anglo mainliners as well. This is precisely the time to discuss these issues rather than run from them. Euro-American clergy and lay people are often reluctant to speak up for fear of offending Latino colleagues or because they are un- able to articulate a sound basis for their decisions if they are uncertain themselves of their biblical or theological understanding.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

“But they’re not like you” summarizes a comfort zone that the dominant mainline Protestant community has carved out for itself. To sit at the table with those who are “like us” is easy. But taking the easy road discredits God’s gift of diversity and blocks opportunities for genuine relationship-building and mutual transformation.

Building community and relationships among different cultural groups does happen now at various levels. As I indicated, the ecumenical mainline denominations have been active in issues important to Latinos – immigration, economic globalization, farm-worker conditions, worker justice and education. When focused on issues of common concern,

Euro-Americans and Latinos have linked arms and shared many an abrazo (hug) with each other. This is one level of relationship. These abrazos are not necessarily transformative. The relationship remains paternalistic if Latinos are considered objects of mission. Paternalistic dynamics that existed with overseas Christians for centuries – but which are subsiding abroad – continue to exist here. Where is the partnership? How does one move to genuine partnership?

As much as Latinos are eager to be partners in mission with mainline church folks, they are often still treated as a “social justice” issue of the church, not true participants in setting mission agendas.

Admittedly, there are examples in the mainline churches where Latino leaders rise through the

ranks and take their place in the hierarchy of their respective denominations. These leaders have done much to further the cause of Latino ministry in their various settings.

But when you compare the leadership shifts in the secular world with those in the church, the church lags far behind in sharing leadership with the large Latino constituency emerging in our communities.

For the sake of the gospel, the present beckons us to a moment of sharing life together in order to respond to the enormous demographic shifts taking place among us. In our multicultural world, our faith demands that we discover each other anew. We continue to dance around the uncomfortable issues, yet it is precisely by tackling those issues honestly, with awareness of history and with theological sensitivity, that we will build these relation- ships. And transformation can occur. We believe God can transform all of us through constructive dialogue and interchange.

Tacos and Theology

But we must also believe that the spirituality of “the other” has something to offer us, something we can embrace as our own. Attending a periodic fiesta, eating a few tacos and enchiladas, moving and clapping at an occasional multicultural worship experience just isn’t going to do it. Acting upon stereotypes and disrespecting the integrity of other faith communities is a recipe for disaster and shallowness. Expecting the Latino community to “be like us” be- fore they are fully embraced as partners in mission will deny the mainline churches access to one of the fastest growing, most dynamic, and potent agents for God’s mission in the world.

In a new book, The Post-American World, journalist Fareed Zakaria says U.S. immigrant history and identity represent America’s great strength. “(The U.S.) remains the most open, flexible society in the world, able to absorb other people, cultures, ideas, goods and services. The country thrives on the hunger and energy of the poor immigrants …. When you compare this dynamism with the closed and hierarchical nations that were once superpowers, you sense that the United States is different and may not fall into the trap of becoming rich and fat and lazy.”

However, he says, it appears we “are losing faith in such ideas.”

“We have become suspicious of trade, openness, immigration and investment because now it’s not Americans going abroad but foreigners coming to America. Just as the world is opening up, we are closing down.”

I know many a congregation that would rather close its doors to the changing world around it than find ways to reach out and extend God’s love and hope to others who are … ”not like us.” Jesus reached out precisely to those “not like him” in order to build God’s kingdom. We can do no less.

The Rev. Dan Romero, a Los Angeles native, has been a United Church of Christ minister nearly 40 years. Now retired, he has served as general secretary for the Mission Program of the United Church Board for World Ministries, and, most recently, was conference minister for the Southern California-Nevada Conference. He is also an attorney who currently works in the area of immigration law. He is the author of Our Futures Inextricably Linked: A Vision of Pluralism, published by the United Church Board of Homeland Ministries.