Published on June 10, 2020 by Douglas A. Sweeney  
Guards at US Mexican Border
United States Army soldiers and Mexican soldiers guarding the international border (International Street) at Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). // Wikimedia Commons

The following post is from a talk Dr. Douglas A. Sweeney gave last year in Chicago at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In it, Dean Sweeney was addressing a predominantly white, evangelical audience, and was trying to speak prophetically among them about the need to work together with brothers and sisters of color on matters of racial justice. We think that in light of the continued racial injustice and deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, this post would serve just as well here in Birmingham today. This is Part II of a three-part series. You can read Part I here.

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?...if you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers…Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!  (James 2:1-13)

Bloody racial and ethnic conflict has resurfaced yet again in America in recent years, captivating the media and calling down a storm of digital comments by people from nearly all walks of life. The violent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, the Charleston nine, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Heather Heyer, and several thousand others continue to break many hearts. According to the Washington Post, 996 people were shot and killed by police last year in the United States alone, only 400 of whom are known to be white. And according to the Officers Down Memorial Page on the web, 148 police died last year in the line of duty, many in the context of racial unrest. In the midst of all this tragedy, controversies rage over Black Lives Matter, “take a knee” protests, immigration reform, the treatment of undocumented workers and their children, and other, similar happenings, many of which have also led to violent altercations. And, of course, I am only scratching the surface of the hateful ethnic conflicts that are shaking our society today.

Where does all this hatred come from, many white Christians ask? How did we get to be stuck in such harmful patterns of violence? Is there no way out of this culture of ethnic conflict? Why can’t we get along, moving past the racial problems that have vexed us for so long?

I would like to say two things in response to such questions. First, we can get along, and our churches can play a role in improving race relations in our country and beyond. And second, this will be much harder than many people assume. There’s a lot of heavy history in the challenges we face. It weighs upon us all, whether we feel it now or not—and it won’t go away by wishful thinking. The more we learn about this burden, the better we’ll be able to improve upon the past, seeking justice, love, and peace for the whole people of God, indeed the whole of our society. As we come to know the stories of those different from ourselves, we can grow not merely in our sympathy for them, but in our aptitude for dealing more responsibly, fairly, and effectively with them and the challenges we all face together. So in the time that remains, I want to tell you some of their stories, looking mainly at the early years of white evangelical relations with black Americans, then saying a few words about the history of Latinos and Latinas in this country before concluding with some practical application. (If time permitted, we would also treat the history of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others in the struggle for racial justice. But for now, let’s start with the stories that have played the biggest part in shaping the national conversation on our topic.)

Latinos, Latinas, and Their White Christian Neighbors

The history of Latinos is a rather different story, though, of course, it also includes a lot of white Christian prejudice and unjust treatment. Most of us recall that from the late fifteenth century to the early nineteenth century, the Spanish and the Portuguese conquered and then colonized the Indigenous people of what is now Latin America, spreading Roman Catholicism by the power of the sword. “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” seeking a maritime route to what he called the “East Indies.” He took a Hebrew interpreter, just in case the natives really were the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. On Oct. 12, he rowed ashore an island in the Bahamas, named it after Jesus (San Salvador, “holy savior”), planted a cross and a flag and claimed its land for Catholic Spain. In the decades that followed, Hernan Cortés , Francisco Pizarro, and thousands more conquistadores appropriated the land and natural riches of the Caribbean, Central and South America, “Christianizing” the continent with ruthless efficiency. In 1552, Bartolomé de Las Casas, the first priest ordained in the Western hemisphere, released an exposé of this European pillaging, The Destruction of the Indies, excoriating his fellows: “Now, in God’s name, you who read this, consider what kind of actions are these which surpass every conceivable cruelty and injustice, and whether it is accurate to call such Christians devils and whether it would be any worse to allocate the Indians to devils from hell rather than to allocate them to the kind of Christians who are in the Indies.”

There were some honest efforts at Christian missions in Latin America in the early modern period, although many of them, of course, remain quite controversial. In fact, as early as the mid-sixteenth century there were missions in the present-day U.S.  Spanish missionaries toiled in what is now the southeast from the 1560s, winning thousands of new converts to Catholicism. In 1598, 400 Spanish settlers moved to present-day New Mexico with eight Franciscan missionaries. They settled near El Paso, planting churches and the largest and most durable Spanish outpost in what is now America. And in the eighteenth century, Franciscans like Junípero Serra spread the gospel on the country’s west coast. In 1769, Serra founded California’s first Christian congregation, called Mission San Diego, the first of 21 Franciscan missions in the state. Still, non-monastic missions proved rare in such places before the twentieth century. As late as 1836, only two secular priests lived and ministered in Texas. As late as 1840, there were none in California. And in 1846, there were none in Arizona.

What few of us recall is that most of what is now the southwestern U.S. was sparsely-settled Mexican land in early nineteenth century—and that whites moved in from the eastern U.S. and took these holdings by a combination of force and public money. In 1821, the nation of Mexico was born after a decade-long war of independence from Spain. Its Texan citizens rebelled in the mid-1830s, giving birth to the Republic of Texas in 1836. And in the name of what was then called “manifest destiny,” James K. Polk, then the U.S. president, annexed this new Republic in 1845, moved troops to the region, and responded to the skirmishes provoked by their presence with an all-out war on the Mexicans. Polk won this nasty conflict in 1848, which resulted in the cession to his government by Mexico most of what we now call the southwestern states—55% of the territory originally claimed by Mexico, a swath of land equivalent in size to Western Europe—for $18 million. In the wake of all this fighting, more Anglos settled in the southwestern territory, subjugating its natives and Latinos as they went and contributing to a culture of despair in the region. As Moises Sandoval has written in On the Move: A History of the Hispanic Church in the United States, “The people felt that no matter what they did, they would remain on the periphery of the economic, political, and social systems.”

Migration has characterized the lives of many Latinos in the wake of these disruptions, as those displaced by warfare and general exploitation have moved in search of work and a stable way of life. The California Gold Rush of 1849 moved thousands more people to the west in short order. By 1850, “the golden state” had 380,000 people, 15% Hispanic. But only 1% of migrants to that state would be Hispanic during the next half century, as whites made it difficult for other groups to settle. And from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, Hispanic migration fluctuated rather wildly with the needs of white Americans for low-wage workers. Their migration to the southwest spiked in the 1880s when new, federal immigration laws curtailed the number of Chinese and Japanese migrants. (Perhaps this is the place to point out that Chinese neighborhoods all over the western states were destroyed in this period, as the fear of “Yellow Peril” led to anti-Asian violence—such as the L.A. Chinese massacre of 1871, the largest mass lynching in all of U.S. history—and the exploitation of the “coolies” and other Asians, such as Japanese and Korean farm workers in Hawaii, California, and elsewhere. Asians, too, have suffered under white Christian prejudice in this country for a long time. Their stories have received less attention than those of most other ethnic groups—but they deserve a broader hearing.) In 1898, during the Spanish American War, many Cubans moved to Florida and many Puerto Ricans moved across the eastern states. The Mexican Revolution broke in 1910, eventually causing more casualties than the U.S. Civil War (more than a million people died). Many were displaced and, from 1910 until 1925, the U.S. admitted 660,000 Mexicans--while 300,000 more moved here illegally. During the 1930s (America’s Great Depression), our Mexican population fell by more than a quarter million, as many were deported to save jobs and money for whites. But in 1942 (during World War II), the State Department struck a deal by which seasonal workers, usually known as braceros, would be brought back from Mexico. From 1942 until 1964, 5.2 million Mexicans labored as braceros, leading to further undocumented movement across the border, which, in turn, led to Operation Wetback, a joint arrangement of Mexico and the U.S. Immigration Service (the INS) according to which hundreds of thousands of people were deported.

Protestant missions to Latinos commenced in fits and starts, but then accelerated during the twentieth century. In 1833, the Rev. Sumner Bacon, a Cumberland Presbyterian, took Spanish Bibles to Texas as an official colporteur of the American Bible Society; and David Ayres, a Methodist, did much the same thing. In 1852, Melinda Rankin, a Presbyterian, moved to Brownsville, Texas, started a Spanish school for girls, and eventually became the first female missionary to work south of the border, doing similar work in Mexico. In the mid-1850s, Ambrosio Gonzáles, called the first Protestant convert on formerly Mexican land, became a Methodist class leader in New Mexico. In 1853, Benigno Cárdenas, an erstwhile Roman Catholic priest, became the first Hispanic Protestant ordained in the southwest. And other Protestant evangelists appeared hither and yon throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. (Juan Martinez of Fuller has published a book about the rise of Hispanic Protestantism during the nineteenth century. “According to the reports of the Protestant churches,” he summarizes, “in 1900 there were 5,572 active members in 149 Latino congregations in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California.”) But then in 1906, Protestant missions to Latinos gained speed rather quickly as a result of the Azusa Street Revival. Hispanics such as Rosa and Abundio López, and Susie and Brigidio [Brig-ee-dgee-o] Pérez José de Jesús Váldez, became active participants in that California Pentecost and energetic, Spanish-speaking evangelists. In 1911, Vernon McCombs, an evangelical missionary serving in Peru, became the leader of the northern Methodist L.A. Latin Mission, helping found nearly 70 Mexican missions in California over the next ten years. In 1918, Alice Luce began the first Spanish-speaking Assemblies of God church in L.A. And in the decades that followed, charismatic and Pentecostal evangelicalism, especially, spread throughout the Latin American world.

Hispanic civil rights work went without support from most white evangelicals, though it did receive support from some mainliners and Catholics. In the late 1930s, Catholic Emma Tenayuca led the massive, highly-publicized pecan shellers’ strike in and around San Antonio. During the 1940s, the fledgling League of United Latin American Citizens, founded in 1929 by Latin World War I veterans, won important state-court battles guaranteeing integration of Hispanic young people into the white public schools. In 1962, the Catholic layman César Chávez (with the help of Dolores Huerta) founded the now-famous United Farm Workers of America to fight for labor rights on behalf of migrant workers. In the mid-1960s, the Hart Celler Act, which capped Latino immigration, as well as the U.S. Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and President Johnson’s War on Poverty, initiated mainly to put an end to Jim Crow, also spurred the Mexican-American Movimiento, a movement for Chicano civil rights in this country. In 1967, a former Pentecostal preacher, Reies López Tijerina, led an armed raid on the Tierra Amarilla (New Mexico) courthouse, hoping to free imprisoned Hispanics seeking the restoration of lands that were “swindled,” as they said, in the Mexican-American War. And beginning in the 80s, many faith-based groups started the “sanctuary movement,” revived in recent years, offering shelter from officials for undocumented immigrants.

Though white evangelicals helped with almost none of this, we have been involved in recent evangelistic and church work with Latin American friends. During the 1980s, in fact, roughly 60,000 Hispanic Catholics per year became Protestant—at an accelerating rate. By 2000, nine and a half million claimed to be Protestant (out of 35 million Hispanic Christians altogether), and more than three-fourths of these were Pentecostal or Charismatic. In 2001, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez and other evangelicals gave birth to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), building on earlier work by state-wide and regional Latin groups, most notably the Alliance of Evangelical Ministries (A.M.E.N.), founded in 1992 and led by Dr. Jesse Miranda, an evangelical statesman. The NHCLC has 16 million members in over 40,000 churches. It has ties to the National Association of Evangelicals, but the history of Latinos and Latinas in the world of white evangelical leadership has left it operating on its own. White Christians have improved in interpersonal work with Hispanics. Many evangelical churches and schools have reached out to Hispanics. The Evangelical Free Church has done much better than most. But we have miles to go, as Robert Frost once wrote, before we sleep.

Part III will be published on Friday, June 12. Watch the entire talk here: