Voices: Church in America: A perspective from a first-generation Hispanic

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If God could speak Spanish in Geneva, Ala., in 1995 when I was 7-years old, then why couldn’t we hear him?

Next door a year later in North Carolina, our physical and spiritual ears welcomed the promise in the song “Jesus me ama esto lo se.” “Jesus loves me, this I know.”Although my parents had access to that same song of salvation in Nicaragua, they had not responded yet. Why was the Holy Spirit so much more effective in North Carolina than in Alabama? For this first-generation Hispanic-American and first-generation Christian, it comes down to one word: community.

When I first arrived in Alabama, I did not speak a word of English. I was placed in the third grade and remember crying all day in a room of American kids who did not speak Spanish. My sister and I were the only Hispanics in the school, and there was no ESL teacher to help us cross the language barrier.

Every day, I would look out the classroom window wanting to escape from a place I felt I didn’t belong.

Going home from school felt like being set free from a scary place full of stress and uncertainty.

By the time we moved to North Carolina, I spoke basic English, and my new school had a larger population of Hispanic students.

My family and I also began attending church for the very first time.

The church became our community

Church for us was not only the place where we worshiped, but it also was the place where we socialized, laughed and cried—all in our own native language.

I felt like I did not belong to “American” society, but church provided a sense of belonging and identity.

Our Hispanic churches also became the place where we obtained important information that was not accessible to us because of the language barrier. The church provided information about housing, social services, immigration services and job opportunities.

Church also represented a bridge uniting different segments of the population. Through the church, I was able to worship with Anglo-Americans, African-Americas and even other Latinos different than me.

Cultural challenges are an ongoing opportunity

The difficult part in this integration has been the experience of cultural marginalization and the feeling of being a second-class Christian within the American church.

Let me clearly acknowledge that the churches had plenty of saints who wanted to minister to and with us. They just didn’t know how, and we struggled to explain ourselves to them.

I think this phenomenon was due to the fact that the Anglo community was not ready to assimilate the rapid growth of Hispanic new-believers. Fortunately, that feeling faded away as we—Hispanics and Anglos—found opportunities to worship, fellowship and serve together.

This situation is not a new one. In Acts 6:1, we are told, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”

The growth of our Hispanic population presented great challenges to American society, but it also presented a great opportunity for local churches to love their neighbor and share the gospel.

It’s incredible when you re-read this history in Acts 6 and see the solution when two clashing cultures really wanted to be one in Christ. (Hint: The Hebrew majority listened to the pain of the Greek Jews and turned oversite of the disputed ministry to the minority.)

Most of our Hispanic churches did not have a nice, well-equipped and adequate place of worship. Very often, we were left using a gym, fellowship hall or a classroom from the Anglo church. This also prevented us from having service on Sunday morning, leaving Saturday and Sunday afternoon as our only options.

However, we learned that God is not bound to a place or time. We discovered that Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons in gyms, fellowship halls or classrooms are also great times and places of worship acceptable to God where lives are transformed.

The role of Christian faith in my life

Faith became part of my life when I was 9 years old. My faith has been crucial in assimilating American society and to succeed in life. My faith in God gave me the real identity I needed and the hope of a promising future, not necessarily the American dream but the kingdom dream: a dream of justice, love and the belief that nothing is impossible.

My faith and the faith of my family helped us to pursue education, knowing that as children of God we have access to God’s blessings like anybody in this world, regardless of ethnicity or race.

Because of my faith, my entire family—a first-generation Hispanic family—was able to achieve higher education, following the example of our patriarch, my father Dr. Pablo Juarez.

A very important element in my faith development is the fact that the church provided me and my family the opportunity to worship God in our own native language—Spanish.

I remember my father saying he was not able to seek God in Geneva, Ala., because there were no Spanish-speaking churches.

Looking back, God led our family to be part of the solution as we have engaged in planting churches among Spanish speakers. He also has integrated us with Anglos and all other ethnic groups making up the rainbow spectrum of the redeemed.

Blessings of being multi-cultural

Knowing God in my own language and Hispanic perspective gave me the opportunity to know God from Hispanic, African-American and Anglo-American perspectives. And I have the opportunity to understand the Bible from both the Spanish and English perspectives.

Most Christians understand we earth-bound believers are the hands and feet of Christ. We also need never to forget we are the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural voice and heart of his good news.

Luis Juarez is a doctoral student of education administration at the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Belton and currently serves at Baptist University of the Américas in student affairs, ministry engagement and church relations. He also has been a youth and college pastor for 12 years and is married to Cesia Juarez, an MBA student at Dallas Baptist University.

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