When I worked in the Diocese of Texas, I had the privilege of working with Bishop Leo Alard. He was very helpful to me as I tried to understand how the Episcopal Church could reach out to Hispanics. While not all Hispanics are Roman Catholics, a common misunderstanding, most have been exposed to the Church in a Sacramental and Liturgical form. This gives the Episcopal Church an advantage in reaching out to Spanish speakers.
I helped several congregations initiate Hispanic ministry while in Texas and then in 2005, I became Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas that had a substantial and growing Hispanic membership. The Cathedral had done this ministry for almost 30 years and it had the largest Hispanic membership in our Diocese. Over the years, I have been asked by congregational leaders if they should consider starting work among Hispanics and especially the large and growing immigrant population of Spanish speakers in the U.S.
If you are asking this question, it might help you to know the models of ministry that seem to be working and the implications for starting Hispanic work. Of course, a diocese could begin a new church plant aimed at Hispanics, but few dioceses have the financial resources and the leadership to do so. Most Hispanic ministry, therefore, begins when a present English speaking congregation decides to reach out to their Hispanic neighbors. I see three models of successful Hispanic Ministry started by present existing congregations. The critical issue is to decide early on which model the host congregation intends. Each model takes a different set of strategies.
1. The Mother/Daughter Model: In this strategy, the mother congregation begins a Spanish Service. The intention is to build up a strong worshipping Hispanic community and when it matures to launch it as a new, potentially self-supporting, mission Church. The most successful model I know is Santa Maria Virgen in Houston. Fr. Uriel Osanaya leads this vibrant church. Started by Epiphany Church in West Houston, the congregation established its own identity and style. Under Uriel’s leadership, they determined that they should become a separate congregation and relocated, with Diocesan assistance, to a separate location.
2. The Transitional Model: Here a typically Anglo congregation located in a transitioning community launches a Spanish Service with the intention that the Spanish speaking members will over time become the majority members. St. Matthew, Bellaire, Texas became San Mateo in the early 90s and is one of the largest Hispanic congregations in TEC. In this model, the host members give the Spanish service a priority place in Sunday worship and see to the steady development of Hispanic leaders for the Vestry and other ministries. As part of this transition, a critical step is when a Spanish speaking, bi-lingual, or Hispanic Priest is called as Rector.
3. The Multi-cultural Model: Here a mostly Anglo congregation begins a service in English with the intention of being a bi-lingual congregation. This is the model at the Cathedral which remains the Diocese of Dallas’ most successful Hispanic work. The long -term expectation is that with the growth of second and third generation Hispanic Leaders and greater cultural sensitivity among the Anglo members a multi-cultural community can emerge with blended worship. Since most second and third generation Hispanics speak English, this creates the possibility of a bi-lingual and bi-cultural worship service. My Canon Pastor for Hispanic work, Fr. Tony Munoz, helped revitalize the ministry to new immigrants and grew the 12:30 service at the Cathedral. Being a person from Northern Mexico, he has a talent for reaching this group. We learned not to refer to our Hispanic congregation and our Anglo congregation, but rather to our English and Spanish speakers. Trying to be “One Congregation” is full of challenges, but it also has great rewards.
I strongly recommend that parish leaders consider these three models and choose which one is appropriate for their situation. Each model requires a special set of strategies. When Church leaders are not sure what they are setting out to do, confusion and conflict can occur between the two diverse groups. Even when leaders are clear, tensions can and do occur. Here are some other things to remember when considering Hispanic work.
1. The creation of a Spanish service is not a solution to an English speaking congregation in decline or in crisis. If it draws Hispanics, it will create an additional set of issues and challenges for the English leadership. For example, the average income of Hispanic Families in Texas is half that of Anglo and African-American families. The needs of immigrants are very different from those of the dominant culture and they will require additional programs, staff, and resources that stressed congregations simply do not have.
2. ESL classes (English as a second language) make a great starting place to connect to Spanish speakers. Hispanic immigrants are eager to learn the English language and expect their children to do so.
3. English speaking leaders will have difficulty identifying Hispanic leadership because leadership is culturally defined. I have often heard English speaking Vestry members say that they would have more Hispanic Vestry members but “they” do not seem to have any leaders in the Spanish speaking group. Imagine a church where there are 20 remaining Anglo members and 500 Spanish speakers attending and yet the Vestry is made up of 90% English speakers. This was the situation at San Mateo until the Bishop intervened.
4. Not all Hispanics are alike although English speakers tend to group and treat them this way. At the Cathedral, we had over 12 different nationalities represented in our Spanish speakers.
5. Of those from Mexico, family is the dominant social group. You will not need a nursery. You will need knowledge of immigration laws and have a strong connection to social services. The needs of an immigrant population are more basic and less complex than those of the majority culture, but they are none-the-less challenging.
6. Hispanics with a Roman Catholic background will generally not understanding “congregation” in the same way as English speaking folks. They are most familiar with fees for services – the reason most Mexicans are not married in the Church. They are not accustomed to pledging. They are familiar with attending mass, but not with attending a parish meeting. Undocumented folks will be reluctant to sign on to membership forms or sometimes even to list their address.
7. TEC has an office for Hispanic Ministry in New York with excellent resources to assist a congregation in developing Hispanic work.
Of course, the main reason for starting Hispanic ministry is the Great Commission to make disciples, but this will have to be supported with the Great Commandment to love one another. My life and ministry was greatly enriched by the Spanish speaking members of the Cathedral. While there were cultural and language differences which were personally challenging, Hispanics are mostly loving, hard-working, family oriented people, who as Pope Francis said, primarily want a better world for their children.
The opportunities and potential for TEC in Hispanic Ministry is tremendous. Bishop Alard often said that “the border between Texas and Mexico was once 50 miles North of Laredo, and now it is 50 miles south of the Oklahoma border.” Today we may want to move that line considerably farther north.