Many of the ministers here experienced conversion. Sometimes that conversion was from a secular background. Sometimes they described it as a conversion from Catholic upbringing to Protestant or Pentecostal identity. But it was almost always connected to their migration journeys as well.
It was the way that they experienced God’s deliverance or redemption or help in the midst of that process, or the way that they experienced new community within a church family when they arrived in what for them was an alien landscape.
In that sense as well, their preaching always resonated with the lived experiences of their first-generation congregations. Because of the recency of migration in North Carolina, these were first-generation pastors preaching to first-generation adults and their children -- some of whom were native, born in the United States, some of whom were in the situation of DACA recipients.
All of them were still closely connected to this migration experience. For instance, some of them had dramatic stories of God delivering them -- sometimes from ICE, sometimes miraculously allowing them to come into the United States against all odds.
When they preached about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, there was also this echo of the alienation that they had experienced as a result of migration -- the importance of knowing and being known by Christ in a situation in which they felt themselves entirely unknown, in which some of them were denying themselves, using different names.
Church was a place where they could use their real names and they could be known for who they were. There was significant preaching about the role of the community of the church, God regathering God’s people in this new place, and that was a strong factor in their preaching.
But along with that, there was also a lot of moralistic preaching, in terms of behavior and sexual ethics, all of these kinds of things.
The way in which I understood that connecting with this experience of migration is when you’re forming a new community in a new place -- and we see this in Scripture as well, throughout the Hebrew Bible -- one of the first things God does is to provide new laws and moral codes to hold together these people that have just come together.
We think monolithically, sometimes, of a Hispanic church. [But] for instance, Iglesia Agua Viva, in which I did most of my participant observation, had members of seven different nationalities. And even from the seven different countries of origin, some were from urban centers and some were from the countryside, and they had had different experiences and different levels of education.
You have just this wild diversity within a church that from the outside just looks like, “Oh, they’re all speaking Spanish.” Right, but aside from that, so much diversity.
Gerardo Marti writes about the danger of “ethnoracial essentialization” -- that sometimes we paint with too broad a brushstroke and we lose sight of the variety that exists within these communities.
F&L: One of the phrases I noticed is that you describe both the preachers and the congregation as “recovering from wounds.” What do you mean by recovering from wounds?
TM: I owe gratitude to Mary McClintock Fulkerson, who identifies this in “Places of Redemption.”
I focus on the wounds of migration. Again, they’re going to connect with some of these preaching themes, because the wound is alienation. The wound is loss of family. In some cases, the wound is a physical one.
There are several preachers in here -- one is a paraplegic who was injured because he was thrust into this adult migrant worker world at far too young an age. One young man came to the United States because a family member was wounded in an agricultural operation and they were just looking for someone else to fill his spot.
There’s this woundedness, and there are stories of dramatic healing that both inform faith and sometimes authorize ministry.
But the key here is not just the woundedness; Fulkerson talks about these wounds being the site of theological discernment and thinking. So these wounds became places where they were not just damaged by the wound but ultimately they experienced the healing of God in some way.
Sometimes this was physical healing. Sometimes it addressed the social needs in their lives. It always incorporated some spiritual dimension. But it was because their wounds had been healed that they were then able to go into ministry and speak to these particular wounds that they understood.
Again, it was this close connection between the lived experiences of the preachers and the lived experiences of the hearers that made such a powerful dynamic in this preaching.
F&L: You sort of touched on this, but in what ways is the vocational discernment of these preachers particular to their experience in community?
TM: Some of the literature that talks about vocational discernment really centers a predominantly white, graduate school experience.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that or that people don’t experience calls in those ways. But there’s almost this sense of ennui, this, “I’m not doing what I should be doing with my life; I’m looking for meaning; perhaps God is calling me to ministry” that becomes the spark in that direction.
Whereas for some of these ministers, it was much more tangible and much more rooted in lived experience and even exigency. For one minister: “I’ve experienced dramatic healing, and now they’re inviting me to share my testimony. And as I share my testimony about this dramatic healing, I begin to take on the role of a preacher; I can seriously imagine this vocation for myself.”
For another: “I’ve been dramatically delivered from deportation, and this becomes my platform to begin sharing a story.”
For others -- and this was really interesting -- in many of these churches, because pastors are very rarely full time in first-generation immigrant congregations, they are transient to a much greater degree.
I mean, they really are, many of them, itinerant ministers. If their secular job requires a move or if it falls through and they have to find another job, that congregation is looking for a new pastor.
Many ministers from the very beginning start to train their laypeople in pastoral functions. One minister talked about being thrown in the fire. His minister, as soon as he converted him, began teaching him how to preach, along with a few others in the congregation.
They took preaching classes the way that others might take Sunday school classes or Bible studies. Then suddenly when the preacher was gone, moved out of state, the congregation kind of looked at him, and they said, “Well, it’s got to be you. You’ve got the most experience preaching.”
Which was terrifying for him, and I imagine it would be terrifying for most of us. But there’s nowhere else to turn. There’s no pipeline of well-educated ministers who have already discerned this to be their vocation.
Now, I would say that this is becoming more and more the case, not just for first-gen immigrant Hispanic and Latinx churches, but this is happening more and more in lots of churches. So the need for churches to really think about being spaces of vocational discernment for future members -- both their own and for wider networks -- is important.
F&L: Are the ministers worried about the future of the Hispanic/Latinx church as the second and third generations mature?
TM: It depends. I think that many of them see their own ministry largely as being to the first generation and their families -- because in the United States, there has been continuous migration. It’s not just one wave. It is an ongoing wave.
But the other thing is, when you look at the growth of the Hispanic population of the United States from 2000 to 2015, only 25% of that is due to continued migration.
Seventy-five percent of that growth reflects a native-born population. So all of [the pastors] were aware, and all of them dealt with the tension of trying to make sure that they were a place where first-generation people could put down roots and grow in faith, but also where they were continuing to be relevant and meet the needs of Generation 1.5 and Generation 2. This was a challenge for them.
Iglesia Agua Viva had its main services in Spanish, but it conducted all of its youth and children’s Sunday school and ministry activities in English. Because as children went to school, they became more familiar with English and more comfortable communicating in English, although then those same youth would get up and lead worship in Spanish.
All of them also understood that the church was going to change moving forward. So part of investing in youth was investing in people who, because of their bicultural and bilingual formation, would have that similarly close connection to congregants that they as preachers had to Generation 1 congregants.
You might consider it as new wineskins and new wine as they were moving forward, but with the same spirit of ministry.
They were less concerned that future generations carried the same culture that they did from their countries of origin and more concerned that they carried this culture of Christian faith in which they’d been formed in a congregation.
From the very beginning, churches aren’t trying to specifically make a community of faith Hispanic in a particular way or Latinx in a particular way. They’re trying to form Christian faith in a particular way while still honoring and giving space for these expressions that more closely reflect Hispanic and Latinx origins.
F&L: As we close, I usually ask people, is there anything I didn’t ask about that you would want to add?
TM: There is a feeling that Latin American liberation theology and the tenets of Latin American liberation theology are -- or should be -- present in this preaching.
I went in, having read much Latin American liberation theology, expecting to find some of it. I did not find it in large part, except among those preachers who had had the benefit of study in Anglo theological schools.
But I think that one of the distinctions here is even though the preaching might be traditional in many ways, it is also still really liberative within these contexts -- spiritually liberative, but also liberative in terms of giving Hispanic and Latinx congregants a place to appear and to be valued in the sight of one another and in the sight of God.
That in and of itself is an act of resistance for a population that is experiencing vulnerability and marginalization in many ways. There’s a chapter here specifically about female preachers in this context.
There is much liberative work being done by these preachers, even when they’re preaching in somewhat traditional ways. I mean, just standing in the pulpit in some of these places is liberative, and naming the worth of women both within the congregation and in the role of preacher and minster.
I think that there’s this balance that preaching and ministry can be liberative, even if it is not always liberative according to certain ideals, that there are many ways in which it can be liberative and life giving.