The increase of the Latino population in the US is a trend that shows no sign of slowing. According to some projections, it will soon be more numerous than most Hispanic nations. American Christians who realize the cross-cultural, missional opportunity this presents right in their own neighborhoods may wonder how best to start serving. This article clears up a few misconceptions and offers a few suggestions that can help Americans begin to minister effectively among Latino communities.
- “Se habla español.” It would be easy to think that the only way to reach Latinos is by speaking Spanish. While this is especially true with first generation immigrants, second and third generation Latinos are primarily English-speaking. Speaking Spanish will help you talk with parents and grandparents, but school-aged children will often speak more English than Spanish.
- “All Latinos eat tacos.” There are some 20 countries in Latin America, each with its own customs and traditions. From Mexico to the jungles of Ecuador to the tip of Argentina where you can see penguins, Latinos eat a tremendous variety of foods. In Argentina, a typical lunch is a steak with french fries; black pepper is about the hottest spice you will find. While Latin America is united by a common language, there are variations of vocabulary and accent. Think about the English-speaking countries of the world: Would you say an American is the same as a Brit or an Australian? Do all Americans eat vegemite sandwiches?
- “Do they use the King James Bible?” Believe it or not, the KJV does not exist in Latin America. There is a Spanish translation that was completed around the same time as the KJV, the Reina-Valera. Since every translation is unique, many of the classic phrases, sayings, and thoughts are also different for many Latinos.
- “All immigrants are illegals.” While illegal immigration is a very emotional and debated issue, many immigrants are here legally. In fact, the first Latinos in the US did not cross over the border—the border crossed over them when large parts of the US Southwest were acquired from Mexico. The concerns for racial profiling are very real: just because someone “looks foreign,” it does not mean that they might be in the US illegally.
- “These illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes.” Even if someone is here in the US without proper documents, they do pay taxes: if they spend money, they are paying taxes. They pay sales tax, which funds many local state and community programs. They pay the same taxes as everyone on gas, tobacco and alcohol. Their rent or house payment pays property and local taxes. If they are using a falsified Social Security number, they are paying Federal taxes. The only person who would not pay any taxes would be a person who is paid in cash and spends no money at all for food, gasoline, rent, or utilities.
- “Know your community.” Find out where the Latinos in your community are from. You can meet them at the Home Depot, the 7-11’s near their neighborhoods, and at school. Once you identify where they are from, you can drop the “Latino” and begin to call them Mexican, Guatemalan, or Uruguayan. Study their country of origin—you’ll be amazed at how they will open up if you know something about their homeland.
- “Latinos will love you if you help their children.” Children are very valued in Latino families, and anything you can do to help their children will open doors. We began an after-school tutoring program at an elementary school in Memphis, TN. After a month or so, we took a Saturday to visit the kids. Once we identified ourselves as the tutors, doors were opened wide, and we were seated in the best seat in the house. The moms would bring out all the schoolwork, and we had an opportunity to go over it with them. We reached various families for Jesus through tutoring.
- “Help with language learning and citizenship issues.” Since many first generation immigrants do not speak English, any help you can provide with language learning will be appreciated. In fact, if you want to learn Spanish, you might be able to barter some English lessons for some in Spanish. Filling out the most basic forms at times is a challenge. Offering classes to help someone prepare to take the US citizenship test might meet a significant need. The test is given orally, so speaking and listening are important skills that you can help with.
- “Be a good neighbor.” According to Luke 10.36-27, Jesus defines “neighbor” as a person in need of mercy. The command is clear: “Love you neighbor as yourself.” It is more helpful to view the immigrant as a neighbor rather than as an enemy. Most immigrants I know are just trying to provide the best life they can for their families. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently announced some changes to their deportation policy. Deportation of immigrant families with sick children, who are escaping domestic or national violence, or children who have been raised in the US can now be postponed or even canceled. The emphasis is on deporting those immigrants with criminal violations, not civil ones.
- “Remember that God is concerned about aliens and foreigners.” Grab a concordance or do an online search for alien or foreigner (depending on the translation). You will be amazed at the number of times God tells the Israelites to be kind and merciful to the immigrants in their country. One of the primary reasons God wanted the Israelites to be kind to the immigrants was because they, too, had been immigrants in Egypt. In an agrarian context, it is a severe disadvantage not to be a land owner. Since most ancient immigrants were not landholders, they had to live off what they could glean from the fields (see the Book of Ruth).
With immigration reform at the forefront of the political races, it is time for God’s people to view immigration through a biblical worldview. Yes, we are to obey the laws of the land, but only if they are consistent with God’s teaching. This means that, as Christians, we do not practice abortion or same-sex marriage, even though our state might permit them.
Let me suggest a twist on a popular worship song, “Listen to our Hearts.” Rather than asking God to listen to our hearts, let’s focus more on listening to God’s heart. I am convinced that God wants his people to be neighbors to Latino immigrants, for we, too, were once immigrants in this land.
Jim and Kathryn Holway have been involved with ministry to Spanish-speaking people since 1983, when they moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Twelve years and three kids later, they moved back to the States. In 1999, they moved to Memphis to start a congregation to meet the needs of the growing Latino community in the Mid-South. After 6 years, they moved to Miami to focus on church planting and maturing among the Latinos in South Florida and throughout Latin America. Jim currently serves as the Field Coordinator for Latin American Mission Project in Miami (LAMP-Miami), and the Sunset Church in Miami is his sponsoring congregation. He can be contacted at.