In Search of Growth

By Kirk Petersen

If you ask any American what comes to mind when you say Latino religion, the response will almost certainly be Catholic and not Episcopalian.

But the link between Latins and Romans is not as strong as it once was, and the shift is accelerating. In 2006, Pew Research found that 70 percent of American Latinos were Roman Catholic. Just six years later, that number had dropped to 57 percent. Nearly one in four Hispanic Americans are now former Catholics.

But while the pope’s share of the Hispanic pie is in decline, the pie is growing dramatically. In 2012, Nielsen found that the Hispanic population was expected to grow 167 percent between 2010 and 2050 — compared with 42 percent for the population as a whole, and 1 percent for white non-Hispanics.

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Little wonder, then, that the Episcopal Church sees America’s Latino population as an important opportunity for growth. The church has had a Hispanic missioner since 1971, and in 2005 the Rev. Canon Anthony Guillén became the fourth person in that role.

From his base in Los Angeles, Guillén also heads the six-person Ethnic Ministries group, which includes missioners for black, Asian-American, and indigenous outreach.

Historically, “we have not done a very good job of raising vocations amongst the members of Latino congregations,” Guillén said. “Most of our Latino clergy in this country were imported from Latin America. … They were successful in building a Spanish ministry, but they built it in Spanish,” because their English was limited.

That model is no longer sufficient, Guillén said, because today “two-thirds of us are bilingual and bicultural.”

Despite the current debates, the biggest driver of the Latino population is not immigration, but rather birthrates. One of four babies born in the United States is Hispanic.

“Unlike their counterparts in the white and black populations, they still value their parents’ and grandparents’ religious traditions,” Guillén said. “Even if they don’t go to church, we don’t have to talk to them about the existence of God; we can talk to them about belonging to a community of faith.”

Nearly half of the Episcopal clergy who are involved in Hispanic ministry are Anglos, Guillén said. He summarized their concerns as “I believe I would be more successful if I understood the culture of Latinos, and understood their spirituality, and understood their values. And I don’t know that part.”

To address that, he’s launched a series of intensive nine-day courses in cooperation with seminaries, so seminarians can earn academic credit if they attend. The first met in June, and another in October at Bexley Seabury Seminary in Chicago.

Among other things, the course dives deeply into traditional Latino religious traditions, and examines the difference between immigrant/first generation Latinos and American-born, multigenerational Latinos, who require more of a bicultural, bilingual, or English-dominant ministry.

Every two years since 2002, the Episcopal Church has teamed with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to offer a four-day conference called Nuevo Amanecer, or New Dawn. The event features networking, leadership training, and workshops, and provides an opportunity for participants to share best practices.

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