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Interview with Ricardo Franco on the Latino Protestant Congregation Project

A conversation with researcher Ricardo L. Franco on the Latino Protestant Congregations project.

In this edited conversation, Ricardo L. Franco shares what he is learning from the Latino Protestant Congregations project. He is an ordained Presbyterian pastor who is completing doctoral studies at Boston University School of Theology. He has worked extensively with Latino Protestant congregations in the U.S. and Central America. His area of research is on Latino Protestant immigrant spirituality and Mesoamerican religion.

You are one of the researchers who has been working for the last two years on the Latino Protestant Congregations (LPC) Project. Could you briefly describe what this project is about?

The LPC is a nationwide study of Latino Protestant congregations (mainline, Pentecostal, and evangelical) with particular attention to practices of worship, dynamics of leadership, and models of community engagement. We have been collecting data through participant observation, semi-formal interviews, and demographic research in congregations from Oakland, Calif., to Lawrence, Mass. The project is focused on congregations rather than individual stories and experiences, yet congregational life is always a tapestry in which the experiences and stories of individuals and families are interwoven and where issues of identity, class, race, migratory status, and gender play significant roles. Since the nature of this study is overwhelmingly complex, we are using a variety of approaches and methodologies from related fields such as practical theology, liturgical studies, congregational studies, cultural studies, and socioeconomic analysis, to name just a few.

What motivated you to join the LPC project team? 

As someone who has been involved in pastoral ministry in Latino Protestant congregations for the past 15 years, I was captivated by the seriousness of this study. Too often you hear essentialist generalizations about the lived religious experience that takes place in these congregations from persons who have not taken the time to immerse themselves in the symbolic religious worlds of Latino Protestant churches. Instead of permitting the actuality of what happens to suggest theoretical approaches and models for the interpretation of the religious/spiritual practices of these communities, people with good intentions but with poor analytical imagination tend to perpetuate cultural stereotypes about Latinos in general and about Latino spirituality as festive, family-oriented, and emotive. I joined the LPC because I am convinced that as Latino Protestant congregations keep multiplying across the country we need to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the rich texture embedded in the mosaic of Latino Protestant religion.

Could you tell us a little bit about the churches you have been visiting and observing during these years?

Latino Protestant congregations in the U.S. are variegated in terms of size, location, socioeconomic status, demographics, ethno-racial background, religious/denominational affiliation, and levels of acculturation. There are megachurches with thousands of members attending multimillion-dollar facilities in urban centers while there are also congregations with no more than 30 people congregated in living rooms or storefronts in urban neighborhoods or rural areas. The national background of members is also diverse; remember that there are more than 20 countries in Latin America plus almost two dozen islands in the Caribbean. I have been studying one congregation in Rhode Island and two in Massachusetts.

Still Waters is the Caribbean group of a Latino congregation that houses three ethnically oriented ministries in the city of Providence, R.I. [Names of the churches and of all persons in the study have been changed]. In this multiethnic church, one ministry caters to Central Americans from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The second ministerio targets indigenous people from the Maya K’iche’ region in Guatemala, and the third group comprises primarily immigrants from the Dominican Republic. This Caribbean group self-identifies as Pentecostals even though the sign on the building says that this is a Methodist church. There are around 50 members in Still Waters: 30 youth and children and 20 adults. Still Waters has a neighborhood-based ministry outreach, and the central focus of their vision is the restoration of families. This congregation displays a rich liturgy through which its members are enabled to grapple with the socioeconomic conditions of their location.   

A second church is The Harvest. This congregation of around 500 members has ministered for more than 20 years under the leadership of a Pentecostal Guatemalan-Puerto Rican couple. The vision of this group has prioritized the construction of a multipurpose building with capacity for 1500 and the development of the membership with three foundations of ministry: prayer, hierarchy-unity, and financial giving. Its ministry strategy gravitates around gender- and age-defined cell groups for spiritual growth and fundraising. The Harvest provides its members with communal experiences of worship and a symbolic biblical worldview through which they can assert their identities and disregard public discourses that portray their legal status as a threat to national security.

Congregation León de Judá is perhaps the largest, most diverse, most financially solvent, and most socially engaged Latino Protestant congregation in Massachusetts. With a membership of more than a thousand Latinos from Central and South America and the Caribbean, CLJ reaches Latinos from the greater Boston area with worship services in English and Spanish and with an array of social services and ministries design to serve the first and second generations of Latino immigrants. CLJ has decided to emphasize a spirituality that addresses socioeconomic realities while maintaining a strong emphasis on personal piety, theological orthodoxy, and evangelical Pentecostal liturgy. This congregation offers an important model of urban ministry with a variety of community-oriented spirituality mostly overlooked by field studies.

I know the LPC Project is not finished yet, but what have you learned so far from your research?

One of the many things that I have learned in this study  is the importance of national background or country of origin in shaping the religious interpretation that Latino Protestants make of their immigration experience. The congregations I studied comprise mainly first-generation immigrants from Central and South America and the Dominican Republic. Scholars have been studying this new wave of Latino immigrants who started arriving in the 1970s and who today represent around 20% percent of the Latino population in the U.S.  What I found so fascinating is that the religious interpretation these “other Latinos” make of their experience differs considerably from those of the three historically and numerically major Latino immigrant communities in the U.S.: Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban.

Whereas these traditional immigrant communities have built theoretical frameworks around biblical metaphors such as borders/mestizaje, diaspora, and exile in order to construe their immigrant experiences, Latino Protestants from Central and South America and the Dominican Republic do not see themselves primarily as people crossing international borders or living in exile. Instead they see themselves a people called by God to leave their homelands and to come to a new Promised Land in the same way Abraham and his family did. They believe that, as carriers of God’s blessing, they are called to pray for and to bring blessings to this country and to contribute so that the U.S. might come back to the spiritual roots and the Judeo-Christian values on which it was founded.

At this point in your research project, and considering your extensive experience with Latino churches in the U.S., is there any advice or words of wisdom you’d like to share with leaders and churches interested in working with Latino/Hispanic communities?

I believe that this is an exciting time to work with all immigrant communities, not just Latinos. As theologians, scholars, pastors, educators, and social advocates who are committed to the cross-cultural nature of the Christian gospel, we should dedicate ourselves to bring to light new knowledge about the rich religious and spiritual assets carried by these communities in order to counter the current public discourse of fear of the unknown and hatred of the different. Those of us working among Latino communities need to remember that the polyphonic worship scene that John envisioned in the book of Revelation will not be completed unless the voices of our hermanas y hermanos are heard not just in worship but in all the richness of their culture, traditions, and struggles.