As you may or may not know, I work in a unique ministry setting in that I pastor in a bilingual district with both English and Spanish churches. Being a 2nd generation Hispanic who pastors a predominantly 1st generation church has its pros and cons. One of the positives is seeing the explosive growth that happens in many 1st generation churches up close. One of the potential negatives, however, is that there is usually a high turnover in people as they come and go back to their country of origin. For some immigrants, they follow the job market and may not stay in one place very long. As a result, the next year may give you a totally different set of church leaders than the previous one.
Those cons are not problems that frustrate me. I do have real frustrations that I face, though – real ones that keep me up at night. Three of the biggest ones are the following.
1) It’s frustrating that 2nd generation pastors risk being pigeonholed.
When I was studying at Southern Adventist University, all of the Theology majors were assigned a church where they would intern (in order to gain practical field experience). We were invited to give our top 3 choices to the Religion Department. Being that I had always gone to a Spanish church as a kid but felt more comfortable expressing myself in English, I put down three English-speaking churches. However, when the assignments came back, I had been assigned to a local Spanish church.
When people see a Spanish-looking name, it’s easy to assign a preconceived idea onto that person and fit them into a particular category, especially in a manner that is rigid and exclusive: pigeonholing. In the case of my undergrad, I didn’t fight it and actually ended up enjoying my time at the church. However, the principle behind it was what has always bothered me.
What many people don’t realize is that 2nd generation people straddle the line between two cultures: their parents’ home culture and the culture in the country which they grew up. They are members of neither and both at the same time. Not too many people realize that. Because of this, when people hear the name Nelson Fernandez and know I’m Dominican/Salvadorian, they usually just lump me as Dominican and assume I’m from there (when I’ve never been) and completely ignore the fact that I’m also half-Salvadorian.
Why does Pandora play ads for me in Spanish when I have no Spanish music on my station? Racism. No, just joking. I don’t know what weird metric Pandora uses, but I have no interest in listening to Daddy Yankee. Sorry.
I usually hear nationalistic sayings like, “Like it is back in our home country” tossed around in 1st generation churches. However, for the 2nd Generation, this is our country. We don’t know of any other. So when someone sees my name and picture, I fear being stereotyped. I fear being assigned to play a particular role because society doesn’t understand the gray areas that occur within and between cultures, nor do they understand the idiosyncrasies that 2nd generation people live with.
To frame this discussion another way, can Whites only pastor White churches? Can Blacks only pastor Black churches? Can Asians only pastor Asian churches? If you pigeonhole pastors, yes. And that bothers me.
2) It’s frustrating that sometimes language is used as a barrier to be maintained, not an obstacle to overcome.
I have a great pastor friend who came to do an event at my Spanish church. We visited the homes of many people and ate a lot of great food. In conversation with the families, we would usually talk in Spanish to the parents and the kids. However, when the kids started speaking English to me, I would respond in English because that was the language that they felt better expressing themselves in.
However, my friend said, “I’m making a rule that you can only speak in Spanish.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because this is the Greenville Spanish Seventh-day Adventist church and you are their pastor.”
I wasn’t offended by what he said, but I did think to myself, “Yeah, but their kids speak English and so do I. I’m their pastor too.”
Many 2nd Generation people struggle with speaking their parents’ native tongue as fluently as they do. In some cases, while they can be understood by their parents and peers, they are embarrassed to speak publicly. This is especially pronounced when they fumble words in public and native speakers make a big deal about it or publicly shame them.
What’s the difference between this and when some people insist that everyone speak only English since this is the United States? Aren’t these two sides of the same ethnocentric coin?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a blessing and an advantage to speak multiple languages fluently. Being bilingual is a huge asset, personally and professionally. However, I’m convinced that my job as a pastor is not to teach kids to speak their parent’s language; my job is to help connect people to Jesus in their language of preference. This brings me to my third point.
3) It’s frustrating that the church is sometimes used as the preserver of cultural norms rather than the challenger of them.
Historically speaking, the church throughout the ages has always been at its most dangerous when it was used to elevate one culture above another. Time and time again, the tendency has been to preserve the culture in which it finds itself, instead of seeking to understand how God could be using a new group to teach the old group something about itself.
- First century Christianity sought to preserve Jewish norms rather than adopting and embracing new Jewish believers.
- When Constantinople fell and the Roman Empire was on the ropes, Catholicism was seen as the preserver of Western social norms in the face of attacks form barbarians in the North and Islam in the East.
- In the new world, the Spanish Inquisition made sure that the new lands conquered by Spain would adopt the cultural norms that existed back in Spain. Goodbye Inca, Aztec, and Taino cultures.
- Whites in the South used Christianity to preserve the social norm of intrinsic, systematic racism.
See a pattern?
In the same conversation that I mentioned a little while ago, my same friend and I continued our conversation. He said, “In 10 years, you won’t have a Spanish church because all the kids will grow up and no one will be able to be leaders in the Spanish church from them.”
Personally, I don’t see that as a problem; I see it as an opportunity to start a new kind of church. Since when was the church meant to always stay the same? When we say that we want young people to be church, is there really a hidden cultural agenda there?
When we say we want young people in our church, do we really mean that? Or do we actually mean that we want prototypes of ourselves to preserve our values?
In conversation, my wife said the following:
The church is there to meet the needs of the community. For example, if the community is mostly 1st generation and needs a solely Spanish-speaking church, then it should have one. But as families change with each generation, and the community is made up of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th generation bilingual Hispanics, why wouldn’t the church change to meet the language needs of its community?
Christianity was meant to challenge culturally held values and assumptions and point them back to Biblical values, not blindly embrace them. Why? In questioning the values that we hold, we may realize that some of them are actually cultural values rather than Biblical ones and should be changed.
If you don’t believe that there are socially held norms that are antithetical to the Bible, I invite you to check out the following post:
Culture goes deeper than many of us realize. We spend so much time and fighting over the superficial issues while ignoring the real issues that run much deeper.
We would be well-served if we took time to examine our own hearts and cultures and see where we have room to be changed into God’s image. In all of this, I want to say that I still love my culture. However, Biblically speaking, it’s always important to remember that our primary allegiance is not to a language, a political party, or a national flag. We may be 1st, 2nd, or even 16th generation immigrants, but we are all sojourners on this earth.
We should all be longing for a better country–a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16) and remember that our present affiliations are only temporary.
What’s been your experience? Share!