Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Welcome or …well, come …?

Within the last few months the Episcopal Church’s outreach to Hispanics has become more than subliminal. A new ad featuring a Latino family was broadcast in Time Square with the now iconic words….The Episcopal Church Welcomes you…in Spanish. As a Latino Episcopalian I could not have been happier, yet, I must also acknowledge a bit of frustration at times with our church of diversity and welcome for all….

Two episodes in the last couple of months, which are not at all isolated instances, bring to attention a question which Episcopalians need to answer with clarity; Do the letters in our signs spell what we truly mean? Is it a hearty welcome or the half hearted call for people to… well, come…we need more people in the pews kind of thing?

The first of these was, of all places, at a denominational conference for Latino ministers and lay people in the Episcopal Church. I will say that the organizers are people I admire, beloved people with a great sense of mission; they put a lot of effort into the conference, which was well attended and organized. The music and liturgies were reflective of the diverse cultures of Latino Episcopalians.

It is also true that, as the conference unfolded I caught myself wondering if the conference was for Latinos or vaguely about them. Though there were plenty of Latino clergy and strong lay people on hand, only at the opening service were any featured in key roles.

A healing service held the second day of the conference was led by a very spiritual, well intentioned, Spanish speaking Anglo clergywoman…the healing prayers were read from a screen or a little piece of paper in the prayer minister’s hands. Mayhem nearly ensued when one of the prayers ministers was “slain in the Spirit”. Looking around the room, at Latino clergy, for whom these kinds of services are often second nature, I began to wonder about the wisdom of the choice. As the week unfolded, it appeared that, most of the Latinos who were featured in the sessions I attended, spoke better English than Spanish, and; to end on a salsa note, the closing Eucharist was led by two young, very nice, articulate Anglo clergywomen who spoke Spanish almost as fluent as the native speakers which filled the room. The sermon was in English with Spanish translation available.

I could not help asking myself uncomfortable questions even as I enjoyed time with colleagues, new and old friends; Is this just an oversight? Are these really the Latinos in the Episcopal Church? Are the more visible ones those that non- Latino Episcopalians are comfortable with? Is there a bit of sanitizing of our image? Are we indulging on a bit of wishful thinking about how we think we could or should be? Predictably, these and similar questions were echoed by others attending the meeting and its sessions

The second moment was at an annual event held in our city. For the last couple of years our parish has been invited to participate in a Las Posadas service at our cathedral. This year, despite the good efforts of many it was not as well organized, but beyond that it felt rather odd! Just imagine, Latino Episcopalians invited to a traditional Hispanic devotion, where; the “Mexican” food was delicious but hardly authentic, the event itself devoid of any element which could remotely be associated with either the original festival, Latino spirituality or the immigrant experience…. Huh?

Imagine inviting an Anglo family for a traditional American Thanksgiving and then serving them Chinese food, or black beans and rice with guacamole or chimichurri sauce and no pumpkin pie; Delicious to be sure, good intentions maybe but open to a diverse array of interpretations and questions.

What is our message then? ….Welcome… or well, come… to our stuff? These do not have equivalent meanings despite having all the same letters!!! Welcome and inclusion mean a lot more than just asking or allowing people to be present in our events or churches. It also means allowing them the space and room to be and to speak from their own culture and context!

Latino Episcopalians have their own voices!!! Sometimes they will sound a bit loud, may have unfamiliar and heavy accents, liturgies may run a little longer, with more spontaneity or chaos depending on your perspective! Healing services in Latino parishes are seldom neatly scripted or predictable…nor do they feature read prayers…ever! Advent services are joyful, full of devotion and song, spontaneous, seem less orderly at times, but are seldom haphazard.

Someone encountering Latino Episcopalians for the first time would not have learned these things from either of the events I experienced! Sorry to break the mood, with no offense intended ….that just will not do! The perception that we would be relegated to being silent guests at a function, will never work for Latinos, no matter what the words in our signs seem to spell or how nice the commercial ads look! There is much we feel we have to contribute to the conversation, life and spirituality of the Episcopal Church.

We Episcopalians have to be clear about what we want and about what we mean!! If what we want and need are people to populate our conferences, come to our services and be at our things we are doing a good job of conveying that message! If what we want to convey is welcome and inclusion, methinks we have a lot of work to do….



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