In 2008, a meeting was convened in San Antonio, Texas with the expressed purpose of evaluating the Episcopal Church and how it could reach out to the burgeoning Hispanic community. It included a group of priests, but in a twist, also two Hispanic marketing professionals.
That’s why the resulting report featured marketing terms like a SWOT analysis (assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and was able to analyze the U.S. Hispanic demographic the church was so keen on drawing in. The report was also something else for the Latino/Hispanic ministries within the Episcopal Church: A blueprint which helped make Latinos its fastest growing demographic in the last three years.
“It’s been a challenge but it’s so exciting,” says Anthony Guillen, 59, a missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries, based in Los Angeles. “In the church we don’t talk about marketing and targeting, we talk about evangelizing. But I’m going to use marketing language and I’m not going to apologize for it. The church is doing itself a disservice if it’s not thinking in terms of marketing.”
Guillen says Nevada, Oregon and Washington D.C. have seen particularly impressive growth. Episcopalians in Nevada doubled in the last three years while Oregon saw their number of congregations triple.
The July 2009 report entitled, “The Episcopal Church’s Strategic Vision for Reaching Latinos/Hispanics” crystallized two things the participants already believed to be true. Namely, that there was an opportunity to reach out to non-immigrant Hispanics and that many U.S. Latinos are looking for something more when it comes to religion.
“The Hispanic community is younger – it’s no longer predominantly immigrant,” says Father Richard J. Aguilar of Miami, who was also at the meeting in San Antonio. “We wanted to look at what a Hispanic is – many are young, educated and working.”
Aguilar identifies with Latinos who come to the Episcopal Church because it offers something different. As a teenager he came because of what the church could offer, which to him meant basketball and ice cream. He says he later found its theology and liturgy and has been involved for over 40 years.
“Hispanics in the U.S. are adventurous and open-minded and value education,” Aguilar says. “They’re here to work. Here to find a better life. The theology of the Episcopal Church is open and people are free to think. At our core we value education and have excellent schools.”
A reason many within the church give for its appeal to Latinos is the diversity and inclusiveness within it. “Clergy can marry and we have women clergy,” Aguilar says. “We are the very best about what is historic about the Christian church but also the best about what the church is becoming.”
Aguilar, who spent time with and honored DREAMers in a north Miami café called Moca Lounge last week, says his church is welcoming to immigrant Latinos and undocumented immigrants who may not receive similar treatment across the country.
“Sadly we live in a time of xenophobia because of the economic recession and because the country has been at war for so long,” he says. “Because of our ethos and our core values we are hospitable. It’s very authentic. It’s literally come as you are.”
Many within the Episcopal church say this ‘come as you are’ mentality extends to the gay community. According to the Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2007, 70 percent of Episcopalians accept homosexuality, the highest percentage among all mainline protestant denominations.
Daniel Velez Rivera, an openly gay priest who started a Hispanic ministry in an existing “Anglo-church” says he has lived this inclusiveness firsthand.
“People got to know me as a person and as a priest,” he says. “Afterwards they found out. We might have had two people out of 100 leave but we brought in gays and lesbians and their friends. God made me this way, but my mission is not to be the gay priest — just a priest in the community. People get it.”
Hosffman Ospino, an assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, says there is no doubt that Latinos are ripe for the picking by Christian denominations because they are yearning for something they feel they aren’t getting from the Roman Catholic Church.
“Other Christian denominations are aggressively reaching out to Latinos, particularly in urban settings,” Ospino says, noting that close to 50 percent of all Catholics are Hispanic.
He says the Episcopalian church may be succeeding in fostering a deeper sense of community than the Catholic Church is at the moment.
“Latinos who come to the U.S. are searching for community,” he says. “Church is culturally a place where you go and encounter the community but when the Catholic Church does not provide this it gives the opportunity for other groups.”
Ospino says that 70 percent of all Latinos arriving in the U.S. are Roman Catholic. Yet, by the second generation the number is 60 percent and by the third generation Catholic identification drops to 50 percent or less. “Unless churches find a way to speak the language of this generation, not Spanish but their cultural language, they will risk losing them,” he says.
Símon Bautista, a Washington D.C. priest overseeing a burgeoning congregation, agrees.
“People who come here leave behind their culture, family and possessions,” he says. “Some come here legally but others are undocumented. The way our communities are structured allow people to regain their sense of community and empowers them to feel they can be who they are.”
Bautista says besides fast-growing congregations in his D.C. area, northern Virgina and Massachusetts have also seen impressive organic growth.
Karla Fernandez, the owner and founder of Texas-based K. Fernandez and Associates, was one of the two Latina marketing professionals at the San Antonio meeting, which started it all. While she calls herself a cradle Episcopalian, she says her family converted because her grandmother was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1930’s because she divorced her husband.
Fernandez uses a marketing anecdote to explain the draw of her church compared to more rigid churches
“The church is attractive because it embraces diversity,” she says. “Think about what Apple did. The iMac, the iPod, the iPhone. They made it about you. In our church you can be who you are.”
Fernandez also explained why the church appeals to women.
“What I have come across with women, Latinas, is they feel very empowered,” she says. “The Catholic Church is so male-dominated that they can feel marginalized and relegated to certain duties. That’s not the case here. Women can serve as everything and you do not have that male-female severe line in the sand. So they say, ‘the church means so much to me but it means more to me when I can be welcomed throughout.’”
Anthony Guillen, the L.A. priest who has been behind so much of the push for Latino/Hispanic ministries, says he is increasingly using social media as a way of reaching more Latinos. In fact, in April, he and Fernandez and his whole communications team headed to the Hispanicize marketing and social media conference in Miami. In October, he is interested in attending the Latinos in Social Media conference in Houston.
But he says while the Latino growth is immensely satisfying, it’s the foundation of the Episcopal Church which will continue to fuel growth and success.
“When you reaffirm our baptismal covenant you say you will respect the dignity of every human being,” he says, recalling what a bishop once told him, perhaps prophetically.
“In this church there will be no outcast.”