Monday, January 22, 2024

The Spirit of Latino Churches: How Compassion and Community Keep Congregations Vibrant

By Colleen Hill | Hartford Institute for Religion Research

 

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The future is Latino – and the nation’s places of worship are starting to reflect this truth.

According to 2020 U.S. Census figures research supported by EPIC (Exploring Pandemic Impact on Congregations) and FACT’s (Faith Communities Today) most recent ‘Latino Congregations’ report, one in four American children now traces their heritage to Latin America and Spain. On average, children and teens make up almost a third of regular church attendees. Compare that to just 22.5% in congregations overall, where older participants tend to outnumber younger ones. Many congregations are losing older members, while younger ones have stopped their attendance all together. With younger participants tending to be a greater percentage in Latino congregations, it is no surprise that the care, creativity, and compassion found in these congregations never runs out. 

One of these congregations that uses compassion and care to their advantage is Christ Lutheran Church in Denver, Colorado. Although they are not one of the larger congregations in Denver, Christ Lutheran has a unique Latino community that keeps coming back for more. 

 “We strive for a message that would continue to be something people need to hear each week,” says the Rev. Paul Biedenbender, who has been pastor of Christ Lutheran for 18 years, “I look for what it is that people are going to look for in a service, (which is typically) quality teaching and preaching.” 

Christ Lutheran Church caters to its majority Latino audience by providing two services on Sundays, one in English and one in Spanish. Given the wide range of national and ethnic backgrounds among Latinos, their congregations reflect diverse cultural traditions, histories, and inter-ethnic dynamics. Some are recent immigrants adjusting to life in the U.S., while others represent long-established communities predating the country’s founding.  

Christ Lutheran’s compassion was tested when its reputation for serving the local Latino community led groups of Venezuelan migrants to seek help from the church. What made these migrants choose Christ Lutheran? Word of mouth.  

‘Servicios De La Raza,’ is a Colorado organization that helps the diverse and changing needs of Spanish-speaking Coloradans. When Venezuelan migrant workers came to Colorado, Servicios De La Raza told migrants that Christ Lutheran would be able to find them a job and a home.  

“I was torn a little bit thinking- maybe I should call that place (Servicio De La Raza) and tell them that we don’t do that,” Biedenbender says. “But, at the same time, nobody has ever thrown a fit or called us liars, it has always been a great experience and I do not want to cut off that flow of people coming to us. 

Lizardy-Hajbi

Rev. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, PhD, is assistant professor of Leadership and Formation and faculty director of the Office of Professional Formation at Iliff School of Theology. In her report on Latino congregations provides an initial summary of the state of these churches in the U.S., drawing on results from the 2020 Faith Communities Today Survey and the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations National Research Project. 

“Because nearly two-thirds (65.2%) of majority Latino congregations are located in larger cities (either in older residential areas or suburbs), there is a greater opportunity for these congregations to serve as places of support and resourcing for newer migrants arriving in larger cities,” Lizardy-Hajbi  says. “In contrast, only one-third of non-Latino congregations are located in these same areas of large cities.” 

Instead of pointing fingers away, Christ Lutheran Church has welcomed so many Venezuelan migrants into their services.  

“We’ve had twenty children baptized, we’ve had three different events where we’ve invited the migrants that come, for anyone interested in baptism,” says Biedenbender.  

Latino congregations exude a vibrant spirit that often contrasts their stodgier counterparts. With younger demographics and fewer senior members on average, there is no shortage of energy and engagement driving the Latino faithful. According to the FACT and EPIC Latino report, participants connect readily beyond pews through social media and community activism alike at rates outpacing other groups. Fueling this lively momentum, over a third of Latino leaders – whether full time or part-time – hold jobs outside their spiritual guidance roles. And yet one in five shepherd their impassioned flocks without pay, exemplifying both selfless dedication and the more informal, relationship-based infrastructure common to Latino churches. 

“Majority (of) Latino congregations are more likely to agree more strongly than other congregations that they are good at incorporating new people into the congregation,” says Lizardy-Hajbi.  

Extending invitations to these migrants is not the only way that Christ Lutheran Church pays it forward. Biedenbender says it is all about encouraging personal responsibility, partnership, and serving.  

“As easy as it could have been to be unpaid Uber drivers for migrants that have a million things to figure out in a short period of time, we haven’t fallen into that trap, but encouraged people to figure it out,” Biedenbender says.  

Latino congregations tend to prioritize fostering meaningful bonds between members, both in-person and increasingly through online forums, rather than relying on more formal programming, exemplifying an admirable communal zeal that seems to come naturally to the Latino community of believers. This encouragement that Christ Lutheran Church offers comes from handing out phone numbers for other helpful resources, regularly making lunches to pass out to families, and encouraging these migrants to navigate solutions and allow them to feel capable of success.