Of Hispanic Americans and Reformed Theology
God orchestrating the presence of Hispanic nations in the US for his own glory.
By T.E. Alex Villasana, North Georgia Presbytery
At the end of this particular leg of his journey, the Messenger’s heart was heavy. It was not only the physical demands of the trip – which were much more less than previous eras, due to advance in road construction technologies – but what he saw in this place, the cultural center of the ancient world.
By all accounts, he understood that the inhabitants of this great city were very religious; a people very sensitive to spiritual pursuits. They were also very taxing pupils, always looking for new things to learn, and discuss.
And then, as always, the Advocate fulfilled his promise, giving the Messenger the exact words to use, so he could proclaim the eternal truths he was commissioned with. He opened his mouth, and said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”
The dimmed lights made the recognition process more difficult. As they brought the plates, my sense of smell started to work before I was able to see what was on them.
Once all the examples of Turkish cuisine were in our table, I turned to one of our hosts and asked, “What about this one… what is it?” With the pleasure that comes from explaining one’s culture to an outsider, Tarkan elaborated: “Well, this is…” One by one, Tarkan’s explanations confirmed those feelings I had since we arrived at this restaurant. People from Middle East not only look a whole lot like Mexican people… their food also looks, and tastes, like Mexican food! The amazing thing was that we were two different cultures, having a friendly exchange here in the US. Somehow, this entire situation sounded familiar to me – the encounter of two different cultures facilitated by the socio-economical development of a third one. Yes, this evening at a Turkish restaurant in Houston, at the beginning of the XXI century, transported me back to the beginning of the apostolic era. And possibly due to the fact that we were here to enjoy a musical performance, I had the feeling of being part of a great orchestration of historical events: the Moors conquest of the Iberian Peninsula… the Spaniard Empire tacking over Mesoamerica… Christian missionaries coming to Mexico… my own conversion in a Presbyterian summer camp… moving to the US to work as a software engineer… becoming a Teaching Elder… meeting Tarkan and his band… and now, enjoying this great time learning about Middle Eastern cultures.
As Acts 17 reminds us, God has been at work ordaining the events in human history, like a great composer considering every single part of his master opus.
If every single piece of man’s cultural makeup has been ordained by God, and if he is calling unto himself people from every nation, tribe, and tongue – which I’m sure includes Hispanic Americans – then I should look back in history, understand how God has put together a particular culture, and then make the connection with the Gospel.
When I applied this process to my own culture, I came to realize that Hispanic culture is not that far apart from Reformed Theology. As a matter of fact, I found many very important similarities. The main purpose of this article is to explain, very briefly, some of those similarities. A second purpose would be to issue a challenge to the Presbyterian Church in America to come to the realization that we, as part of the Universal Church, are very well equipped to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to Hispanic Americans. The Lord has brought the nations to us, and he is allowing us to participate in this glorious anthem he has been writing through the ages. Do you hear the music?
Ayudate, que yo te ayudare – Help yourself, that I will help you
Long before the fist ships arrived to the Americas, this continent was striving with spiritual sensitive cultures. They expressed their feelings toward the spiritual realm in their art, science, politics, and daily life. There was also a component of spiritual fervency in the way the Europeans interacted with those in the New World.
One of the first questions we tackled during our history class in Mexico was “How was it possible for a force of less than 400 men to conquest the mighty Aztec Empire?” The explanation is very simple: the arrival of Cortez and his crew resembles an ancient Aztec prophecy of a visit of one of their deities. The spiritual awareness of the Aztecs was their major liability. After seeing their empire collapsing, their conclusion was that their trust in their religion, and their gods, had spelled the doom of their way of life. Yep, the gods were somewhere out there, but they were not particularly kindling to get involved in the daily life of their subjects.
If we put all these components together –two cultures with an incredible religious background, a war that reduced a great culture to ashes, and a sense of betrayal- then we have the basic spiritual background of Hispanic Americans .
Over the stream of many years, Hispanic nations have suffered abuses by those with higher powers. Many nations, like the US, England, Spain, and France, had at one point in time or another, in some way or another, flexed their military and economy muscles against Hispanic nations.
The Reformed connection.
With this entire luggage, it is easy to understand why the saying that entitles this section is very popular among Hispanics. Yes, there is a God, but I better get all my bases covered. That is the basic mentality. The very good news about this is that, when talking to Hispanic Americans, you would not have to work really hard to convince them that God exists. Accepting the fact that God is Jehovah, the Almighty, is not a real challenge. But we should not stop there. We need to continue and express that the Lord is also Emmanuel… God with us! Our hearers need to know that the same God that cannot be contained by creation, has in fact invaded human history, working salvation for his people, and now is offering it freely to those he’s called his.
What refreshing, liberating, and invigorating news! God has descended, becoming one of us, thus proving his love for his people. And now, he calls us his friends.
After centuries of abuses and disappointments, these are Good News, in deed.
Stronger than blood.
Years of abuse and disappointments will strengthen family links in any culture. That is what has happened in the Hispanic context. The importance that we give to family life is, probably, the most evident hallmark of our culture for outsiders. It is the need for a sense of security and belonging that Hispanic family bonds are extended beyond blood lines.
You can have a glimpse of how important family tides are for us, if you listen carefuly to the words used by Hispanic males when talking to someone they just met. Words like primo, compa, bro are not uncommonly used in an attempt to establish that sense of security and belonging we long for.
Because of such a high value is given to family, any external factor that threatens it is faced with very strong opposition. Decisions that are very simple, or of no consequence, in another culture, reach the level of human drama in the Hipanic context. Changing the place of residency, wether moving from one side of town to another or going to another place looking for job opportunities, or changing religious alenaces, are not small issues for the Hispanic family.
Once the family environment has been established, each member of the family unit will follow the standards set in place by the family leader. This leader could be the father, the mother, or even one of the grandparents. Each family unit has a leader, who is not necessarily the most outspoken person in the unit. One of the functions of the family leaders is to be a gatekeeper, approving who is considered part of the family outside blood lines. Obtaining the favor of the leader will facilitate the penetration of the Gospel to the whole family.
The person, or persons, in the family providing for the physical needs of all the rest in that particular family, will have a hard time understanding the need for “religion”. Investing any kind of resources in gatherings that, according to their first impression, would contribute nothing to the strengthen of the family structure is hard to understand for them. This is particularly true if this kind of religious commitment calls for gatherings on their day off. They would rather rest all day long, or they may look for an additional source of income.
The Reformed connection.
When presenting the Gospel to Hispanic Americans, we need to remember how important relationships are for them. And not any kind of relationships, but those based on trust.
This kind of relationships are not build easily or quickly. The good news is that they are neither build on language. Try to identify a way to serve that will be perceived as a blessing for the whole family. Show them some of the benefits of belonging to the Covenantal community. Through your service, show them the love of Christ, and earn the trust needed to share the Gospel verbally. But, please, avoid paternalism and do not create any dependancy between you and the people you are serving.
Show them the many examples where the salvation of an individual is presented in the family context.
The reality of God's promises being for them, their children, and those who are far away will make them feel at home.