The Latino challenge for an all-too-White Church

latino-familySnark MeterrealMID.003A week ago our bishop had our clergy and key lay leaders attend a day-long meeting to contemplate evangelism in the Latino community. He received a great deal of push-back, including comments like, “Those just are not our kind of people.” Below is my emotional reaction in this family-fight in defense of my bishop whom I support and love and his vision for us to embrace the message of the signs we place in front of our churches, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”…

I have noticed something: Most people like diversity. As long as the diversity is a lot like us – People in our social class, who tell the same jokes, like the same music and watch the same tv. We like diverse people…as long as they aren’t too diverse. We like Inclusion. But it is always easier to include those who like what we like and look like we look.

Eight months ago I was asked by the Diocese of California to preach in a predominantly Anglo church in a predominantly non-Anglo neighborhood. They asked to be pushed on their racial disconnect. The leaders there previewed the sermon and, for the first time in my life, sent it back asking me to up the level of challenge. They were willing to be pushed. Are we?

Latinos represent a challenge for us. Latinos will be a majority in Arizona by 2020. According to Wikipedia, non-Anglos will be the majority in 13 other states by then as well. And first generation Latinos do not get our jokes or like our church music. Many don’t speak our language.

How will White Christians respond? We can cloister our churches until, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, we are the last Anglo in the neighborhood. We can put the “for sale” sign in the yard and move where people “like us” live. Or we could re-engage to reach those God is bringing our neighborhoods with the Good News and hope of Jesus.

We are not talking about doing what Jesus did and actually, “move into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14. We are just talking about not moving out of it.

There is an obvious question that many of my upwardly mobile friends don’t want to talk about: How can White Christians take seriously the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) to “GO and make disciples of ALL nations,” if we move away from those “nations” to live behind a gate somewhere else? Many of us are aware that the Greek word for “nations” is “ethnay”- literally “Ethic groups.” So we are specifically commanded by Jesus to take the Good News of Jesus to those who do not look like us. God included them in the Great Commission specifically. How can the Church exclude them with our avoidance? How can we exclude them with worship services that are painfully non-welcoming in their mono-ethnicity?

I realize how much easier it is to paint “Welcome” on our sign than to write it upon our hearts. It is easier to make inclusion a slogan than a smile as we stick out our hand and say, “Hi my name is ____ and I want to invite you to worship with me this Sunday.”

Mark DeYmaz wrote a decade ago that the average church is 10x more segregated than the neighborhood it is situated in. Unfortunately, the research also tells us mainline churches, which pride ourselves on “inclusion,” are significantly more mono-ethnic than  evangelical churches.

It is no secret that many of Phoenix’s early suburbs are in serious decline. Manicured grass replaced with dirt and weeds. Trees lined streets are stark and stump laden. Cars that don’t run sit on deflating tires. Apartment screens hang from windows like the flags of defeated nations. The parents who supervise no longer allow their children to play in the streets for fear of the “bad element.” These things are not an accident. They are what happens when leadership leaves. When we pack up and move somewhere “better.” Even as our urban cores are renewed, the poor are being pushed out of the donut hole of poverty that were once inner-cities, for our neighborhoods. Now, dispersed throughout the donut, the poor no longer have easy access to services. The poor, of every ethnicity, need our engagement.

It is our new reality that makes me long for the vision of Zechariah 8 in which “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the…city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” That is a beautiful vision of what our decaying suburban neighborhoods could be once again. A vision of what God wants to do through his people – All of them.

Christians are “foreigners and exiles” in this world. (1 Peter 2:11) How can those who name the name of Jesus, extend anything other than welcome to fellow exiles? (Deuteronomy 10:19)

American culture does not take Christianity seriously. Should it?

One does not need prophetic gifts or the ability to read tea leaves to know that for the Church to be taken seriously by the millennial generation some things will have to change. I have tried to contribute a slightly different voice to this conversation…the voice of one who has spent 30 years working with college and young adult students desiring to reach youth for Jesus. I have NOT jumped on the bandwagon clambering to change the content of the faith. I HAVE said the way forward will be in the way we live that faith out…and that we have a model for that living rooted in our distant past: The followers of Jesus were once a multi-ethnic, multi-economic group.[1] They gathered in seeker INsensitive worship rituals[2] (and went out from the strength of that Acts 2:42 gathered community) and loved the world with their hands, feet, mouths and, often, lives.

What did it look like to the world? Somewhere between 130 and 200 CE an explanation of the Christian faith was offered from anonymous Christian to Diognetus, a tutor to Marcus Aurelius known for being intelligent and fair minded. Read this excerpt[3] describing the Christians Diognetus knew and ask yourself  “Is this what those who know us see?

5 For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs.  2They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.  3This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do.  4Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.  5They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, yet endure everything as foreigners. 6They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring.  7They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.  8It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.”  9They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. 10They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require.  11They love all men, and by all men are persecuted.  12They are unknown, and still they are condemned… 13They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance.  14They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated.  15They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect.  16When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life.  17They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity….

6 To put it simply…Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world…9The soul, when faring badly as to food and drink, grows better; so too Christians, when punished, day by day increase more and more.  10It is to no less a post than this that God has ordered them, and they must not try to evade it.

7Do you not see how they are thrown to wild animals to make them deny the Lord, and how they are not vanquished?  8Do you not see that the more of them are punished, the more do others increase?  9These things do not seem to come from a human power; they are a mighty act of God; they are proofs of his presence.

American culture does not take the Church seriously. Why should it?

Don’t you think the diminished view of the Church in the eyes of young adults has a lot to do with our walk not matching our talk? We whine and moan and wring our hands when we could love and serve and give and pray and love some more.

We can do better. Instead of seeking our own good and the perpetuation of institutions, we could remember, to paraphrase Paul that we are not our own, we were bought with a price.”[4] Why do missionaries fare so well? Probably because the people group sees the sacrifice of someone leaving all to join them and wonders why. I’m pretty sure that a little more Romans 12:1-2 sacrifice would be pretty jarring to the world right about now.[5]


[1] Check out the leadership group in Antioch in Acts 11 and 13

[2] Read Justin Martyr’s 1st Apology from 150 CE

[4] 1 Cor 6:19-20

[5] I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

PhD’s and Prisoners: The weirdest, coolest thing I have ever been a part of

Mike Williams Preaching

Last night a visitor arrived at St. Jude’s. He had found us from our out-of-date website and was looking for a multi-ethnic church for his young family. He has a PhD and a spouse who is learning English. Last night, with lots of us out of town, we still had folks born in Africa, Mexico, Russia, Guatemala, Vietnam, and Cuba. Add in people of European and Native American descent and our little church represented every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

I was tempted to ask our visitor if anyone in his family was doing time. You see, 25% of St. Jude’s adults have a PhD. Another 25% have done or have a family member who is doing prison time. PhD’s and prisoners. That is St. Jude’s in a nutshell.

We are a study in contradictions: liturgical and charismatic, ancient and modern…an ecumenical movement all to ourselves, our preachers come from Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist, Salvation Army and Evangelical backgrounds. We joke that we are Black-catholi-gelical – A place in which you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And that is true, worshiping with us can be uncomfortable. It is also true, though, that we have seen a collection of unlikely and dramatic conversions, unexplainable physical healings, and are the least likely group of people you would ever expect to see in relationship with one another.

St. Jude’s to me is like the church in Antioch in the book of Acts. Everyone wants to be an Acts 2 “Jerusalem” Church. We are an “Antioch” church. You know, the place Jesus’ followers were first called “Christians.” What happened in Antioch that people started calling them “little Christs”? Jesus’ followers showed up in diverse and cosmopolitan Antioch because they were being scattered by persecution. When they got there, for the first time they began to share the Good News to non-Jewish outsiders. (Acts 11:20) They developed a church with a multi-ethnic, multi-social class, multi-economic leadership group that had a heart for their diverse city, all of it, even the people who weren’t like them. It was Antioch that sent missionaries out around the Roman world (12:25-13:3). The Antioch church lived out a vision of God’s love for all being demonstrated by those for whom the name of Jesus was the only tie that bound them. This was radical then. It is still pretty uncommon today. Nearly 60 years after Dr. King called 10 a.m. “the most segregated hour in America,” not much has changed. 90% of American Protestants still attend mono-ethnic church services. Luckily, I get to be a part of this weird and wonderfully different thing.

We have faced, and continue to face, all kinds of obstacles, some of them downright bizarre. We lack the knowledge of what it takes to plant a church. But at the same time our God continues to be living and active in our midst. I marveled last night watching our people lining up for intercessory prayer and anointing during our worship time after Holy Communion. I also marveled how after more than two hours of setting up and tearing down for 75 minutes of worship, our folks still want to figure out how to stay together longer…this time at the local Baskin-Robbins.

We are tiny. We are numerically and financially insignificant. We don’t know what we are doing. I can never figure out how we will still exist in 6 months.

On this, the day after the birth of the church at Pentecost, I wonder if the early church felt the same way. I suspect they did.

Noah's Ark Play

Noah’s Ark Play

Rappelling, Race and Your Role in the Redemption of the World

tumblr_m63xqaWsoc1r4kpnxo1_400A sermon from the Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2) given at the Diocese of California’s “Equipping the Beloved Community.” Topic: “Reaching people who don’t look like us.” 

Today we heard the story of a person literally at the end of ropes in a strange place.

What is it like to be at the end of a rope hanging over the unknown?

I had that experience once. I took students rock climbing and rappelling on the boulders outside of Tombstone, Arizona, site of the gunfight at the OK Corral. A retired Army Special Forces guy named Mike organized the trips to teach spiritual principles through great adventures.

In case the terms are new, “Rock climbing” is going up a rock face, “rappelling” is sliding back down on a rope – you see it on military recruiting commercials. It was spectacularly fun. Afterwards, we went to dinner in town. We assumed we were done for the night, when the guide turned his station wagon back toward the desert and informed us we were going to night rappel.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a little bit afraid of the dark.

Don’t laugh – You are too.

We were led up the back of the 90′ cliff by flashlight. The guides tossed the rope over the edge, looked at me and said, “You first.” Ever the reasonable man, I pointed out that it would make more sense to have a trained person on the ground first. Mike says, “We need them up here. You first.”

There was a sliver of moon, which, in the dry air, lit the top half of the cliff face. An outcropping shielded the bottom from the moonlight, The bottom half was a dark mystery.

When rappelling you are attached to the rope by a metal figure 8. This slows your descent by friction. Placing your hand in the middle of your back with the rope in it acts as a brake and you stop. Moving your hand away from the middle of your back allows the rope to slip through the figure 8 and your hand, and down you go.

I started the descent – nine stories in the dark.

Wanting off the rope as soon as possible I go down fast. Perpendicular to the rock face, I jump out as far out as possible to slide down the rope as fast as possible…

I get below the outcropping blocking the moon. Now in blackness, I slow to a crawl. I am shivering in the warm evening.

“How is it going?” The guide yells down at me.

“Great.” I yell up unconvincingly.


“Sure is dark down here.” I say somewhat pathetically.

“Tell us when you are on the ground.”

I feel the end of the rope in my hand.

“Uhhh, we have a problem. I’m out of rope.”

“Good. Send it back up.”

“You aren’t reading me: No rope, AND no ground either.”

If you have had grief training you know the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression… In the slowest two minutes of my life I journey through them. Mike, leaning over the edge, starts with denial. “That’s impossible. You are on a 90’ cliff with a 100’ rope.”

As you might imagine, I respond with anger. “That’s a nice theory but I am definitely not on the ground.”

“How far away is it?” The guide calls.

“Since you had me rappel into utter darkness, you tell me.” I move to bargaining: “How about you pull me back up?”

“Sorry, we have no way to get you back.”

Now depression sets in…and a little panic. Beads of sweat form on my forehead. “I hope you have some ideas, I’m stuck here.” I say nervously.

“Uhmm, try poking around with your foot some more?”

So there I am, in a dark place, all alone…at the end of my rope.

We have all been in dark places. Felt alone. As Christians, though, we know we are not actually alone, no matter how dark the night. We are, however, surrounded by people for whom “God with us” is not their reality. They are lost and hurting. In dark places. Alone. At the end of their ropes. Some are aware of this. Others not so much.

Look at what Jesus does with someone in that place…

Picture yourself at our Gospel event that long ago evening: A crowd shoehorned into a living room. The yard also jammed with people. In the crowd, you listen to Jesus teach when dust begins to fall from the ceiling of the sod-roofed home. Dirt chunks, grass and sticks fall to the floor in front of you. Heads pop through the hole. The vandals pull out beams, expanding their damage. And then down comes this guy, lowered in front of Jesus.

Jesus, master of the unexpected, sees “their faith” and “looking at the man says, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.'”

When most of us hear the “s” word we cringe. Even in church “sin” makes us fidget in our seats. If you are “conservative” you probably have a mental list of personal behaviors that are “sins,” “progressive” and you probably see systemic evil as “sins.” I propose a more ancient way of defining sin…simply as looking for life apart from God. When considered in that way, it explains both our wandering into individual self-destructive behaviors and participation in systemic evil. We were made to worship the one true and living God. We all wander from our purpose and look for life apart from our maker. Jesus looks at the paralytic and says in effect, “You have a bigger problem than legs that don’t work. You have a heart that is looking for life apart from me. I forgive you.” And, “so that you may know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins, Get up, take your mat and go home.”

And he does.

Imagine the friend’s giddiness. Can you picture them staring through the hole yelling, “I told you so!” to their wobbly-legged friend?

These friends were pretty amazing. They:

-Went as a team, rather than alone.

-Knew that healing is found in a person, rather than a place.

-Cared enough to bring him to Jesus.

-Wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, neither from their friend, the crowd, or even the homeowner. Imagine the conversation to convince the friend. I would guess the paralytic said something like, “I have no intention of being the butt of every joke in town when your scheme doesn’t work.”

-Went to ridiculous lengths to put their friend in front of Jesus: They risked time, energy, potentially their self-respect, and, surely, a good bit of money at Home Depot afterward. They literally got their hands dirty to bring their friend to the Savior.

What about you? Who are you a spiritual friend to? We have friends all around us who need the healing and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ: at your work, school, in your family, surrounding your church.

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to help them see Jesus…willing to get your hands dirty? Jesus saw “their faith.” Do you faith to bring Christ’s healing and salvation to your community?

I don’t know your context. But I have looked at the demographic data for your schools. They are remarkably integrated. Why isn’t your church?

Shouldn’t a church reflect its community? Why is your church mono-ethnic in an integrated neighborhood? Perhaps, as it was for the paralytic, the way into church is blocked? It isn’t always the crowds that keep people away from the Savior.

Mark DeYmaz, in Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church, says the average American church is 10x more segregated than its neighborhood.

Prior to coming to the Diocese I worked in a historically upper middle-class youth ministry in a neighborhood becoming less White by the year. We took our leaders to the high school quad and, while looking at real students, asked “Who on campus isn’t in our ministry and why?” Then leaders picked groups and went and got to know them.

When those kids began to follow Christ we took them to church. A painful thing then began to happen: After worship the young people would say what Luis Acosta said, “Matt, I love that you stalked me for Jesus. I love that you made me come to Bible study and taught me to obey Jesus.’ I love that you are training me to be a Christian leader….but do you have to keep dragging me to these godawful churches.” I was confused: We had gone to Anglo churches, Latino churches, Black churches.  At each the people were nice, the music excellent, the sermon interesting. Luis pointed out the monochrome reality, “Everyone here was (fill in the racial blank). Then he asked, “Why is God the only racist in my life?

I was stunned by the question. It has been more than 50 years since Dr. King said that 10 am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America, and still 92% of American Protestants attend mono-ethnic church services. Your own Julia McCray Goldsmith’s son said to her, “I don’t want to go to church-it’s the only place I go that’s all-White.”

We hang signs that say, “We welcome you.” But what do we do to welcome people who don’t look like us?

I came to the Episcopal Church in part because, in addition to promising Protestant theology with catholic worship, access to the wisdom of the earliest Christians and the hopeful idea that we could agree to pray the same words rather than agree on every theological jot and tittle, we believe in the dignity of those who aren’t like us. Unfortunately, “Welcome” is easier to paint on a sign than to do.

Statistically Evangelical churches are much more integrated than Mainline churches. How is that possible? Perhaps while we were talking about justice, they were talking about Jesus.

How will our children believe us that Christ loves the world and went to the cross for the salvation of humanity if the church looks completely unlike their world? We can do better for our children.

What if everyone here said, “I don’t care what anyone says or thinks of me, the Christian message is true, so the most important thing in the world is the forgiveness and healing found in Christ.” What if out of that conviction each of us engaged in friendships with people who are unlike us? What if we talked to the under-represented about what would need to change in order for them to feel culturally welcomed while spiritually challenged.

Imagine what your world might look like a decade from now if we lived that kind of Biblical welcome…

-Entire neighborhoods walking in the healing and forgiving love of Jesus.

-Not just full churches, but joyful neighborhoods, laughter in the streets and hope in human hearts.

O that we would say what Isaiah said to God so many years ago, “Here am I. Send me.”

…Back to my climbing story: It turned out I was only inches above the ground. Coming down the cliff face I had angled left toward the moonlight. The cliff bottomed into a downward sloping hill. I had moved just far enough toward the moonlight to leave the ground 2” below my outstretched toes. In the end, I had been afraid of a harmless unknown. Isn’t the unknown what we are really afraid of when it comes to opening wide our churches so that others could experience the love, healing, and salvation of Jesus?

Are you willing to take a risk for the Kingdom? As one who is safe on the rope of God’s mercy, are you willing to go, make unchurched friends, and jump with them into God’s unknown?

When we take a risk we never know what God might do.

And, the paralytic that gets healed might just be us.

Illegitimacy: A far bigger “fiscal cliff”


Soon, we are told, we will go over the “fiscal cliff.” When it happens our politicians and corporations will make a beeline to our tv screens and exhort us to do our part: spend money.

No one is talking about it, but we have a much bigger drag on our economy than the fiscal cliff. It drags our nation down every minute of every day. It is children born out of wedlock, what used to be known as “illegitimacy.” 42% of American children are now born out of wedlock. Why is this a problem? Because, generally speaking, 3/4 of children born OUT OF wedlock are born INTO poverty.

I have spent 30 years in youth ministry. Largely this amounts to being a friend and a mentor…sort of an uncle to young people during their critical adolescent period. What I have seen time and time again is that to successfully make the jump to adulthood means making just a few big decisions right. With those few big decisions, people generally end up in a pretty good place. You don’t have to be anywhere close to a perfect person, but for life to go fairly well for most of us, meant three choices:

  1. Don’t do anything in which the worst thing that could happen is for you to like it. (ie. addiction)
  2. Get an education (in something that will get you a  decent paying job)
  3. Get married.

In the absence of someone else to pay the bills, if you don’t make the Big Three major decisions in order, life gets very difficult, very quickly. 

You might ask, “Where is faith in this equation?” Faith is the fourth predictor. My son is in Student Council at a Title IV high school. Of the students whose homes kids go to for events, it is the 1/3 who are church members whose homes are invariably used. That is because they tend to be the ones at the school with homes large enough to use. Their faith gave them a moral framework and supportive relationships to make the Big Three! For me, the Big Three decisions are 2nd, 3rd, and home plate. First base is faith. In baseball if you don’t get on first base nothing else really matters. Yes, someone can have a decent life in the here and now without faith because, as Jesus said, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) People can engage the faith decision anywhere around the Big Three and end up fine. But without the Big Three young people send themselves into poverty and set up their children to continue that dangerous cycle.

We have to help young people know the consequences of their life life choices. Here is a web link to a NJ news article that describes the connection between poverty and out-of-wedlock childbearing: ( It is controversial if you are a progressive, but in my experience, spot on. Helping young people with the other big decision, education, is controversial if you are a conservative and want to cut funding for public education. Isn’t it time we put our young people ahead of our politics?

Amare Stoudemire used to have a non-profit called, “Each one. Teach one.” I have no idea what that organization did. But the idea is right. If every person who reads this blog forwards it to your fb friend list and every one of us mentor one young person of poverty, from today until the day they graduate from college…we will have done far more to help our nation’s future than anything else in our power. So forward this to your friends and then become a Big Brother/Big Sister, a Young Life leader, join Mentor Kids USA or become a volunteer in your church’s youth ministry…find a way to longitudinally follow a young person as a wise aunt or uncle.

It will matter to them. It will change you. And the nation you save may be your own.

Won’t you join me and find a young person to share your life and wisdom with?

Why I introduced more color into my worship…

What I learned from the Black church: If it doesn’t make me want to dance…and shout and speak in unknown tongues and challenge my life it wasn’t church. Church should remind me that, no matter what is in the news or what my problems look like, God is for us not against us. It is the God who lifts up His people we are worshiping.

What I learned from the White church: If it doesn’t make me think and want to know more of God it wasn’t church. I should need a pen to write down something from the Scriptures and have an insight to apply to my life and want to share with friends…it is the God who revealed himself through His word and in the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and homecoming we are worshiping.

What I learned from the Latino church: If it doesn’t make me use my entire body it wasn’t church. I should be called to his sacrifice on my knees with hands outstretched to receive. I should remember that God is both bigger than my brain yet as simple to appropriate as “Take. Eat. This is my body…” It is the God who is unspeakably huge and holy, yet intimately incarnate with us we are worshiping.

I could go to church with people who all look like me. My spiritual life would be infinitely more bland if I did.

Mark DeYmaz of the Mosaic network tells us that 92% of American Protestants worship mono-ethnically. My neighborhood doesn’t look like that, so we started a multi-ethnic church plant several years ago. It is a tiny underfunded experiment in what we call “Black-catholi-gelicalism.” Lots of holy things happen among us every week.

*No disrespect intended toward groups not included. In my neighborhood people under 35 are: 15% African American, 33% Anglo, 55% Latino, 7% all others.