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)