Episcopal Church: Appointment of a presiding bishop puts Latino Episcopalians in the spotlight

In the U.S., Latino Episcopal clergy say their congregations are flourishing. ALEJA HERTZLER-MCCAIN, of Religion News Service, reports…

Hyattsville, Maryland

“We are not an outreach project. We are the church,” Bishop Daniel GP Gutiérrez of the Diocese of Pennsylvania told an audience of Latino Episcopalians as he delivered a keynote address at the 2018 Nuevo Amanecer Conference in Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Six years later, Gutiérrez is one of five nominees to succeed Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. In the elections, scheduled for June 26 during the General Convention, the House of Bishops will choose a new presiding bishop who will lead the denomination for a nine-year term.

Acolytes lead the procession to begin a service on Sunday evening, May 19, 2024, at San Mateo Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Maryland. PHOTO: RNS photo/Aleja Hertzler-McCain.

If Gutiérrez is elected, he could become the most prominent Latino leader of a U.S. religious group.

Descended from New Mexican Hispanos and great-grandparents who emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, Gutiérrez, who previously worked in politics in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was raised Catholic, as were 65 percent of U.S. Latinos.

Bishop Daniel GP Gutiérrez of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. PHOTO: Courtesy of photo

“We are not an outreach project. We are the church.”

– Episcopal Bishop Daniel GP Gutiérrez of the Diocese of Pennsylvania

But despite the Episcopal Church’s liturgical similarities with the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church is among the least racially diverse religious groups in the U.S., according to a 2014 Pew study, with whites making up 90 percent of the denomination. In 2014, only two percent of the denomination was Latino.

That number likely changed in the ensuing decade, especially as the Catholic Church suffered major membership losses. Among U.S. Latinos, 23 percent are former Catholics — but only nine percent of U.S. Latinos report switching to Protestantism, while 20 percent of U.S. Latinos who have left their childhood religion have dropped out, according to Pew data from 2022. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church, like other major Protestant churches, is experiencing a decline in overall membership.

Regardless of the large numbers, Latino Episcopal clergy say their congregations are flourishing.

In Hyattsville, Maryland, where a scratchy güira over a cumbia beat provided energetic worship music, about 400 people attended three different Spanish services on Pentecost Sunday (May 19) at St Matthew’s/San Mateo Episcopal Church.

Rev. Vidal Rivas said that while San Mateo has not yet reached pre-pandemic Sunday attendance, the more than 1,000 registered parishioners keep the church “very alive and very strong.”

Rivas, who told Religion News Service, “I love to work,” keeps himself and his congregation constantly moving with parish groups, special celebrations, service work, a radio station and community organizing and collaborations.

Angela Rivas, center right, and fellow musicians perform during Sunday evening service at San Mateo Episcopal Church on May 19, 2024 in Hyattsville, Maryland. PHOTO: RNS photo/Aleja Hertzler-McCain.

Calling Jesus “an immigrant from heaven” during the 5 p.m. service, Rivas told RNS that San Mateo emphasizes solidarity, regularly hosting several dozen newly arrived immigrants in the church basement, participating in marches for immigrant rights and to fight for rent stabilization.

Rivas’ wife, Angela, who is as intense as he is in ministry, says her husband’s dedication to meeting people’s needs and his openness have played a key role in San Mateo’s growth.

“He doesn’t care if they come to him from other churches for funerals. He preaches anyway and from there the people stay.”

Rev. Santiago “Santi” Rodriguez, associate rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, said Latinos often find the Episcopal Church when they “don’t quite understand what that church was” for help with a baptism, funeral or material need. .

“And then they were welcomed, cared for, loved, and over time they were invited to participate in a service as part of the larger community, and they immediately felt at home,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, a former Jesuit, said Latinos also find the church when they seek “more inclusive, intentionally affirming communities.”

“They felt they needed confirmation, to hear that they are God’s beloved children, that they are loved and accepted as they are, and they are always challenged to grow in their faith and seek and be affirmed in a relationship with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit,” Rodriguez said.

Angela Rivas, who, like many other Latinos interviewed, had previously been Catholic, said she enjoyed becoming an Episcopalian because “they let you be yourself with your flaws.” They don’t forbid you to take communion,” adding that she also notices that she has more opportunities to work for the church. (According to a 2015 Pew survey, only 21 percent of Latin American Catholics receive communion at every Mass they attend.)

According to a 2023 PRRI survey, the top reason unaffiliated Latinos gave for leaving their faith was no longer believing in the religion’s teachings — but nearly the same number (58 percent) cited “negative teachings about or treatment of gays and lesbians’.

Rev. Vidal Rivas preaches at San Mateo Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Maryland on May 19, 2024. PHOTO: RNS photo/Aleja Hertzler-McCain.

For Rev. Yuriria “Yuri” Rodriguez, currently serving at the Church of the Nativity in Indianapolis, becoming an Episcopalian “brought an empowerment that I didn’t experience when I was a child.”

When she came to an Episcopal church to apply for a music director position without much prior knowledge of the church, she saw a woman preaching and a Pride flag outside the church. Rodriguez said, “I thought, ‘This is my place. I’ve always wanted to be in a place like this.’” (Yuri and Santi Rodriguez are not related.)

The Rev. Alejandra “Ale” Trillos, the rector of Saint Paul San Pablo Episcopal Church in Salinas, California, said that after studying political science before her ordination, the Episcopal Church’s transparency about money and its election of bishops impressed made her.

Rivas, who began his ministry as a Catholic priest in El Salvador, became an Episcopal priest after a dispute with former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who later became the first Catholic cardinal to be laicized for sexually abusing children and adults.

Rivas said McCarrick had accused him of being “like a communist” and tried to take him back to El Salvador, which Rivas left after targeted violent attacks. The archdiocese said this at the time The Washington Post that the transfer was routine.

Determined to continue serving D.C.’s Salvadoran community, which rallied behind him by protesting outside archdiocesan offices and organizing letter-writing campaigns, Rivas left the Catholic Church, underwent the process of becoming an Episcopal priest and married Angela.

But despite finding a home in the Episcopal Church, Latino clergy said there are multiple barriers to full participation and belonging.

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For Trillos, finding financial aid was a major barrier to ordination because, as an immigrant from Colombia, she was an international student.

Trillos and Rivas also said their communities are struggling with a lack of resources.

Even when San Mateo hosted dozens of immigrants and hundreds of parishioners at a time, the church had only two restrooms. Due to San Mateo’s immigration work, an ecumenical group of churches intervened to add four additional toilets and bathing facilities to the bathrooms.

Rivas also spoke about the hostility of English-speaking communities, explaining that he began working in San Mateo after the growth of Latino communities in two previous churches was seen as “a threat.”

“What San Mateo does is always extraordinary,” Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of Washington told RNS. “They have been instrumental in providing the first stop for respite and support” for newly arrived immigrants.

Budde regretted that the diocese, although subsidizing the municipality on its way to self-sufficiency, was unable to assist financially with the bathroom renovation.

“Spanish-speaking congregations have been an important priority of our diocese since the 1970s,” says Budde.

Rev. Vidal Rivas, right, leads the congregation of San Mateo Episcopal Church in prayer for graduate Leonardo Escobar during Sunday evening service on May 19, 2024 in Hyattsville, Maryland. PHOTO: RNS photo/Aleja Hertzler-McCain.

Although historically the English- and Spanish-speaking communities in Saint Paul San Pablo had not communicated with each other, Trillos said the communities have now made a commitment to become one, hiring her for her bicultural skills and providing several bilingual services per year to organize.

Trillos said a major challenge for Latino Episcopalians is that “we unfortunately have very few callings” to meet the needs of the community.

Yuri Rodriguez said many of the Episcopal Church’s Latino ministries, which first began in 1970, were founded as missions, “a concept with a power dynamic.”

“The power dynamic means that those who have the resources are in charge, and those who receive or need the resources are very passive,” said Rodriguez, explaining that the power dynamic creates inequality.

In San Mateo, where parishioners spoke highly of the welcoming and helping spirit of their own community, community members were unaware of Gutiérrez’s nomination, although they expressed enthusiasm for the idea of ​​a national leadership representing them .

Leonardo Escobar, who celebrated his graduation during the 5 p.m. service, said he learned the importance of Christian unity growing up in San Mateo.

“I always say I am a Christian,” he said, explaining that he does not have a strong episcopal identity.

Yuri Rodriguez said that “Latinos are not currently fully participating in the entire polity of the Episcopal Church” because the current system “keeps knowledge, education and formation for Latinos on the margins.”

She said the next frontier for Latino ministries in the Episcopal Church, which she described as still “an elite church,” is creating greater unity and identification with the broader church.

Gutiérrez and the Rev. Anthony Guillén, director of ethnic ministries for the Episcopal Church and a missionary for Latino/Hispanic ministries, declined to comment on the article through their representatives. Amanda Skofstad, the church’s senior public affairs officer, said headquarters could not comment on stories about the election and that the candidates had agreed not to give media interviews.

For Santi Rodriguez, Curry’s leadership of the church, as a Black man, brought with him a lived experience that has allowed him to “lovingly identify some of the areas in which we as a church need to grow.”

Moving forward, Rodriguez said, “I hope that we will continue to be intentional about welcoming Latinos and people of color because we need their gifts, their voices and their talents and that they will be partners in discernment, collaboration and ministry. .”

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