About ten years ago I was given the chance to work at the national offices of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville, Kentucky. I had never lived outside of Puerto Rico and had only experienced church as a Presbyterian in the context of the island. Coming over to the United States provided unique opportunities and challenges. I had to navigate a language other than Spanish. I had to live in a place where I became a minority. I had to deal with a different culture (or cultures). It was fascinating and terrifying at the same time.
The same thing applied to my experience of church. I worshiped in churches that spoke Spanish and were monocultural, for the most part. The church I began to go to, Beechmont Presbyterian Church, was mostly English-speaking, but had a Latino group and a South Sudanese group as important components of ministry. I was looking for a Latino church because I wanted to learn how Latino ministry develops in the United States. But this mix was new to me.
Worship, at that time, was separate: English-language service and then Spanish service, with the Arabic worship service happening in another part of the building. At least once a month all the groups combined and tried to do worship in two or sometimes three different languages. For someone that did not live in this diversity, it was an opportunity to learn, to get out of comfort zones, to struggle, to surrender, and to recognize that the same Spirit connects and unites us all. It was also a time to recognize the things that we can learn from each other as we live, move, and worship in this multicultural context. I share these lessons humbly, as a way to invite and challenge others to engage in this ministry of interconnection and welcoming.
Worship as Sacred Time (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
Many studies suggest that there are variances in the way different cultures experience time. Some cultures are linear: they divide the day into sections of time—one hour for this, one hour for that. Others have a circular sense of time. They live in the moment and do not leave that moment until they feel that it is time to move on.
One of the things that we can learn from Latino churches and from other cultures as well is that worship can happen in circular time. This means that we are flexible with time: we take the time needed for the Spirit to move us to worship, to sing, and to pray. One example of this is the time for prayer. I have seen different approaches to the “prayers of the people.” Some use written prayers. Other ask people to stand in place to pray. But in circular time the church takes time to listen and to pray together. Time is respected, but it does not become a constraint against the movement of the Spirit. The interesting thing is that when, for the sake of time, we try to cut short the time for the “prayers of the people” the church misses it, so this has been one of the gifts that we have received. Time with God is precious. It should not be hurried. It should be treasured as an opportunity to be with the One who has given us time in the first place.
Worship as a Sense of Home (Galatians 3:26)
One of the values that all Latino cultures share is familismo: the centrality of family in the life of people. The Latino family is a support system for all members. This includes extended family: grandparents; uncles; aunts; first, second, and third cousins. This family value can be imposed on other institutions, and being a family can be an important role for the church. Church, especially for those in the diaspora of the United States, becomes family and home: that support system that allows you to feel the safety net of love, of companionship, and of identity. When someone walks into a Latino church, he or she is immediately addressed as hermano or hermana—brother or sister. And those words are said with a sincerity that says, “Welcome home.”
How do you create a sense of home through worship? In Latino churches, welcoming others is a very important practice during worship. Sometimes a song of welcome accompanies the act of greeting. The passing of the peace is another time where people intentionally take time to talk to each other. Milestones are celebrated with a sense of communal success. Worship spills over to meals, providing a time to share from what God has given as an offering. All of this creates a safe and loving space where all feel welcomed and loved, where all feel that they can share who they are and what their needs are, and where everyone feels like they belong. They are familia (family) and they have found their hogar (home).
Worship as Fiesta (Psalm 150:4)
One of the most important moments of worship happens at the table. The table invites us to come together and to give thanks for Christ’s sacrificial love.
The table is also an important part of Latino culture. It’s a place for meeting, for community, and for celebration. There is laughter and shared stories. There is an investment of the heart and of the soul, and a sense of joy and enjoyment. The Latino church brings all of these elements to worship. Belting is the way to sing. Sermons are preached with an invitation to vocal response. Music and praying provoke movement, and worship is not just an exercise of the mind but also involves the body. As Justo Gonzalez shares in his book ¡Alabadle! Hispanic Christian Worship, worship is “a celebration of the mighty deeds of God. It is a get-together of the family of God” (Abingdon, 1996, p. 20).
The church that I mentioned at the beginning has moved from separate groups to doing bilingual and sometimes trilingual worship services. Sometimes it is a “holy mess.” We sing in Spanish and English at the same time. Sometimes we sing in Arabic. Sometimes one group understands the jokes that the other group does not get. If a sermon mentions Oprah, it gets translated to Spanish and it mentions Cristina. But something has happened in this “holy mess.” The notions of time, of home, and of fiesta have changed for all groups and cultures involved. And we have learned from each other in wonderful and loving ways.
We are still learning, but by the grace of God we are striving to be the church that God wants us to be: a church that loves its time with God and with one another, a church where all those who are homeless find familia, and a church where there is fiesta and joy in everything we do and say.