Juan Francisco Martínez has a rich and unusual heritage. His ancestors arrived in North America during the eighteenth century, and much of his lineage can be traced to the same community in south Texas. In succeeding generations, his family belonged to three different countries while residing in the same place: His great-great-great-grandfather was born there under Spanish rule; his great-great-grandfather after Mexico won its independence from Spain; and his great-grandfather after Texas was annexed by the United States.
Martínez is also a sixth-generation Protestant by virtue of his greatgreat-grandmother, who became a believer at the beginning of the twentieth century. Martínez’s parents were migrant workers who had a strong call to ministry. They attended Rio Grande Bible Institute (RGBI), a small Spanishlanguage school in south Texas, and spent much of their ministry among migrant workers in Texas and central California. At age fifteen, Juan felt a call to the ministry. He attended RGBI too and began pastoring at age nineteen, later completing PhD studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He’s been a pastor, church planter, educator, and seminary administrator. For the last fourteen years, Martínez has taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, serving as a professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership. In 2015, he was named vice president for diversity and international studies. He has authored or coauthored several books, most notably, Walk with the People: Latino Ministry in the United States (2008), Churches, Cultures and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities (2011), and Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective (2012). Grace and Peace Magazine met with Martínez in his office at Fuller to ask him about Hispanic ministry and what we can learn from our Hispanic brothers and sisters about our faith.
G&P: THE MOST RECENT U.S. CENSUS REPORTS THAT THE LATINO/HISPANIC POPULATION IS THE LARGEST MINORITY GROUP IN THE UNITED STATES. THIS POPULATION IS COMPLEX AND DIVERSE. CAN YOU DESCRIBE SOME OF ITS PARTICULAR FEATURES?
MARTÍNEZ: “Hispanic” encompasses many different national histories and linguistic backgrounds. The term comes from Hispania and signified someone descended from a Spanish background, because most of South America was ruled by Spain. During the nineteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to emphasize that South Americans were Latin-based like France. So he spoke of Latin Americans, or Latinos. Both terms come into play when we talk about people here in the United States, with political and social connotations often surrounding which one is used. Dissertations and books have been published arguing which is correct. At Fuller, we use both.
Most American Hispanics or Latinos first identify with their parents’ countries of origin. They call themselves Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, or Cubans. While some are immigrants, others are not. If they have long-term roots in the United States, they may be Texano, or Hispanic espano in northern New Mexico. Some have indigenous ancestry.
Generally speaking, the majority of Hispanics are Catholic and have a strong sense of faith. We value the extended family, as opposed to the common Anglo model of the nuclear family. In almost all other aspects, Hispanic communities are similar to other American communities.
G&P: WHAT ADAPTIVE CHANGES MUST DENOMINATIONS MAKE TO WELCOME HISPANICS/LATINOS INTO THEIR FELLOWSHIPS?
MARTÍNEZ: We have to understand that the United States is much richer, more diverse than many of us recognize. We must recognize that migrants are, and have historically been, contributors to this country’s economic and social well-being.
First of all, we can build hospitality. We need to develop relationships and start asking questions. Who are these people? Ethnic communities tend to share certain commonalities and common histories. We need to learn what these are and not assume we know because we have a certain sense of what Hispanics are like. Where are they from? They may not be from Latin America. They may be from East L.A. or Chicago. How do I get to know them? We get to know our Hispanic neighbors the same way we get to know any other neighbors. Only then can we start thinking, How would we do ministry among those people? We need to find ways of helping them to know the love of Jesus Christ. Many of them bring their faith with them, and can probably teach us some things about faith. They often have a strong sense of God’s presence in their lives. However, that understanding may not be biblically based. They may need help understanding what that means.
G&P: YOU HAVE DONE A LOT OF WORK IN PROTESTANT AND LATINO THEOLOGY. WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT BEING CHRISTIAN AND LATINO?
MARTÍNEZ: One aspect, which is not unique to Latinos but is common to people of the Global South, is an attentiveness to the spiritual. We have a sense that there are spiritual powers—principalities and powers, to use Pauline language—that Western Christians don’t often think about. That may be to the wrong kinds of spiritual things. But nonetheless, I want to understand that God is present in my life and to live in light of his presence.
G&P: IN WHAT WAYS CAN THE LATINO EXPRESSION OF FAITH ENRICH PEOPLE FROM THE DOMINANT CULTURE? WHAT GIFTS AND GRACES CAN WE LEARN FROM OUR HISPANIC BROTHERS AND SISTERS ABOUT OUR FAITH?
MARTÍNEZ: Latino Protestant churches do mission from below. If you look at how the Global South is doing mission, it’s often with little money. They don’t need a large budget, a lot of equipment, and a lot of trained people to do mission. Mission is done from below, often from poverty, from need. Because we have training and a budget, we often assume that we are the ones called to do mission—and we are. But we do mission from above, from the center, from richness. Sometimes, we distort the gospel because of that. Latino Protestants do mission from the periphery, from poverty, where you have to depend on God because you have no resources other than God’s presence and the power of his Spirit that ignites people to do mission. That is crucial. God has called even the poor, the marginalized, the undocumented, the uneducated to do mission. Many of us only think of those people as recipients of mission. In God’s call, they are agents of mission in the world.
G&P: IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT, HOW DO YOU SEE THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN THEOLOGY CONSIDERED IN THE UNITED STATES AND IN LATIN AMERICA? HOW CAN EACH OF THESE CONVERSATION PARTNERS STRENGTHEN THE OTHER?
MARTÍNEZ: Sometimes, Western theology is a mental or linguistic exercise. If we can say all the right things about God, somehow we know God. Theology becomes finding the right words. If we look at some of the confessions of the early church, especially the ecumenical councils, people fought to use the correct word. In fact, many of the Western confessions of faith are about weaving together and expressing the right combination of words. In the majority of the world—Latino culture in particular—theology is about experiencing God, how God is real in my life. So I’m not as concerned about the right words as I am about the right experience and how that experience transforms my life.
Sometimes in the Global South, experience is not framed in proper doctrine. That’s something the North can bring to the conversation. But many times, a doctrinal conversation from the North has no spiritual life. There is no experiential reality, either of the good news of the power of the Holy Spirit or the good news of transformation, of profound change in light of the Holy Spirit. Some of us bring the Word but need to hear the Spirit. Some of us bring the Spirit but need the framing of the Word. We need to bring the two together. We need solid, biblically framed doctrine lived in the power of the Holy Spirit: Spirit and Word.
G&P: CONGREGATIONS SEEKING TO BECOME MORE CULTURALLY DIVERSE OFTEN TRY TO SPONSOR A HISPANIC WORK OR CONGREGATION. WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO CONGREGATIONS FROM THE DOMINANT CULTURE THAT DESIRE TO REACH OUT TO HISPANIC BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS?
MARTÍNEZ: Don’t think that because you have the money, you should control the agenda. Most churches in the Western world have more money, more resources, more things than the Hispanic congregations they partner with. That creates a power differential. It’s easy to assume, then, that there is a spiritual differential as well. Because we have more money, we must have more spiritual power; we must be better prepared to do ministry among them.
Yet many times, that Hispanic congregation has a greater sense of God’s power in their lives and a better idea of how to reach their own community. Part of the challenge is recognizing that we both bring gifts to the table that need to be acknowledged. If we don’t acknowledge both sets, we fall into the trap of assuming that one is more important than the other. We praise the Lord that you have more budget, more trained people, and more resources. But the Latino community brings a clearer sense of how to minister to the community, a network of connections that make ministry easier, a clearer sense of the felt needs of the community.
Power differentials often create co-dependency. The community providing the resources feels good because they are helping the poor. The poor feel good because they have access to resources. Later, the co-dependency becomes a cofrustration as those with money tire of giving to those who rely on the gift. That has been a long-term problem, particularly in the Latino community in the United States.
GOD HAS CALLED EVEN THE POOR, THE MARGINALIZED, THE UNDOCUMENTED, THE UNEDUCATED TO DO MISSION.
G&P: WHY ARE ETHNIC-SPECIFIC CONGREGATIONS IMPORTANT TO THE WORK OF HISPANIC/LATINO MINISTRY?
MARTÍNEZ: It is easier for me to share the gospel with someone who is like me linguistically, socially, and culturally. The gospel most easily spreads in ethnic-specific environments. We need to recognize the inherent value of that reality. We also have to recognize the power differentials where, for example, a Latin congregation provides someone without a formal education opportunities for leadership.
G&P: THE GREATEST CHALLENGE THAT MANY DENOMINATIONS FACE IN TERMS OF PASTORAL LEADERSHIP IS GROWING THEIR OWN LEADERS. WHAT SUGGESTIONS DO YOU HAVE FOR DEVELOPING HISPANIC/LATINO LEADERS?
MARTÍNEZ: In Latino churches, leaders often start serving before they are trained. I preached my first sermon when I was fifteen. I was already part of a pastoral team when I started Bible school, barely out of high school. There are multiple stories like this—people from the congregation who had a sense of call. That call was confirmed through their service, through how God used them. We need to identify those who are already doing ministry and find ways of preparing them to be effective.
One of the challenges is that some of these people already have families. Some are bi-vocational. They may not speak English well. Some don’t have a lot of formal education. The traditional model of seminary gets complicated because without a strong academic base, they may not see ministry as something that requires academic preparation.
In growing Latino churches today, the leaders don’t usually fit the stereotype of successful ministers, especially in Anglo-American churches. So we need to rethink where we look for ministers. They’re often going to be people who are not well educated, who may not have all the polish we normally look for in a minister. Yet they have a clear sense of God’s call in their lives, demonstrated in how God has used them. We don’t have to change the people; we have to change our models of preparing people for ministry so they can be more effective.
G&P: IN WHAT WAYS IS IMMIGRATION IMPACTING THE HISPANIC/LATINO CHURCH, AND HOW MUST HISPANIC/LATINO CHURCHES ADAPT TO MEET THIS CHALLENGE?
MARTÍNEZ: Migration is a global phenomenon, not just an American one. The specifics of Latino migration stand out here in the United States because of the political debates. Sometimes we get caught in complicated conversations. I was with some folks who had a desire to reach out to Latinos, but also a strong anti-immigrant bent. I only half-jokingly said, “It looks like you want to baptize Latinos before you deport them.” Sometimes our politics focus on the laws: They’re undocumented. They shouldn’t be here. But our Christian faith says: You should care about them. You should want to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.
Read the Bible through the lens of migration. It’s often the migrant who is most open to God. Abraham is asked to leave his land; when he leaves is when he gets to know God better. The people of Israel actually learn more about God in exile. In the Pauline and Petrine letters, believers are often called pilgrims, exiles. God seems to work through migrants. How is today’s global migration in the United States, particularly the Hispanic migration, part of what God is doing in the world?
G&P: WHAT ARE THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN CONSIDERING MINISTRY TO SECOND- AND THIRD-GENERATION DESCENDANTS OF HISPANIC IMMIGRANTS?
MARTÍNEZ: One thing to remember is that the United States is a secularizing environment. Hispanics—who, as immigrants, had a strong sense of God’s power and presence— tend to become, along with their children and grandchildren, secularized over time. How do we preserve the spiritual vitality of those second and third generations?
Another challenge is not putting second- and thirdgeneration Americans of Hispanic descent into the immigrant box. “I know how to minister to immigrants,” we say, “so I can minister to Hispanics.” However, many were born here. Their parents were born here. Their grandparents may have been born here. They’ve been here a long time.
Third, are we attentive to the cultural schizophrenia of those who are bilingual and multicultural? One of my favorite bumper stickers says, “Bilingual schizophrenics hear twice as many voices.” Many second-, third-, and multigeneration descendants of immigrants, Hispanics in particular, inhabit multiple cultures. I speak English with an American accent; I can inhabit this space. But I’m also Hispanic, and I enjoy speaking Spanish and being in the Hispanic culture. That creates a kind of schizophrenia. I’m supposed to act this way here, and that way there. How am I supposed to act in church? Hispanic or Anglo? Which one guides my understanding of what the gospel looks like? Many times that will depend on where I first heard the gospel: in a Hispanic or an Anglo environment.
As we minister among people who live in multiple cultural identities—what sociologists call polycentric identities—we need to be attentive. Just because I speak English fluently, can worship in English, and understand the cultural cues of worshiping in English, may not mean that’s where I want to worship. Or even if my Spanish is stronger, I may not want to worship in Spanish. It can be difficult ministering where the multiplicity of options complicates the church community I want to be part of. Where can I express my faith most effectively?
G&P: SOMETIMES, DOMINANT-CULTURE MODELS OF PLANTING CHURCHES CAN BE FOREIGN AND UNHELPFUL IN PLANTING NEW HISPANIC/LATINO CHURCHES. WHAT SUGGESTIONS DO YOU HAVE FOR PLANTING CHURCHES AMONG HISPANIC/LATINO COMMUNITIES?
MARTÍNEZ: People tend to have presuppositions about what a church is supposed to look like. We need to be careful not to bring the parameters, the expectations, the rules of white, suburban church planting to Latino or other ethnic communities. Be attentive to the communities. Think about what kind of churches thrive in this environment. Churches are going to look like the people who form them.
G&P: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ADJUDICATORY LEADERS (I.E., DISTRICT SUPERINTENDENTS) WHO WANT TO HELP THEIR HISPANIC/LATINO PASTORS COPE WITH MINISTRY IN A PREDOMINANTLY WHITE DENOMINATION?
MARTÍNEZ: Leaders bridge the gap between both sides. A good leader is well connected, and understands what a culture looks like, how it functions, and how it does not function. How does the Hispanic culture function? How do we connect with it so that we hear, understand, and learn from each other?
Good denominational leaders recognize their responsibility to understand intercultural church life, what it looks like, and how to meet the needs of both cultures. They are interpreters, and the only way to interpret is to understand first, and then help others understand.
G&P: HOW DO YOU SEE PASTORS (BOTH SPANISH- AND ENGLISH-SPEAKING) USING YOUR BOOK WALK WITH THE PEOPLE: LATINO MINISTRY IN THE UNITED STATES?
MARTÍNEZ: Walk with the People was written for pastors and lay leaders to recognize the kinds of issues that are important in Latino ministry, that history and cultural formation matter, that what we’ve done in the past needs to be reanalyzed. The Church of the Nazarene has an almost one-hundredyear history of working among Hispanics in the United States. How has that history shaped, framed, and sometimes deformed what we think about ministry?
Walk with the People is a book that invites. I wrote it in English and Spanish and had it published simultaneously in both languages so that people can read it from either side and talk together about the challenges of doing not only Latinospecific ministry, but also ministry that crosses bridges. I could see pastors reading the book together. I could see a group of people wanting to start a Hispanic ministry reading the book as a framework. I could see Hispanic pastors, especially migrant pastors, reading the book to understand the U.S. Hispanic reality that is different from the reality in Latin America. As different groups read it, they learn a common vocabulary so they can talk to each other about how to do ministry together.
This article is part of a series, accompanying videos here.
JUAN FRANCISCO MARTÍNEZ serves as professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary.