Worship as Fiesta: Hispanic traditions provide a fresh perspective

We're not all alike.

When you open a pea pod, the peas look alike. It's difficult to tell one pea from another. Not so with people. Although to some folks all Hispanics may "look alike," we are as different from each other as one Anglo is from another. Not only are Mexicans different from each other, but Mexicans are different from Cubans, who are different from Puerto Ricans, who are different from Guatemalans.

The same variety is evident in Hispanic liturgy and worship styles. So it's impossible to define Hispanic liturgy in singular terms.

Hispanic worship takes on the particular flavor of the Hispanic ethnic community that dominates the membership of any given congregation. Historically, Hispanic congregations in North America tended to be Mexican American, or Cuban American, or Puerto Rican, or Guatemalan, to name a few. With the passing of time, such churches became more blended. Except in some specific geographic locations, North American Hispanic congregations today tend to be a mixture of nationalities. Differences between them are more often a question of denominationalism than of nationality.

How Hispanic Churches Are Alike

In his opening chapter in iAIabadle! Hispanic Christian Worship, Gonzalez contends that much of worship in the Hispanic context is determined by three factors: (1) the worshipers' country of origin and cultural background; (2) the intergenerational makeup of Hispanic churches; and (3) denominational affiliation. "Hispanic worship has many faces according to the various combinations of these three factors" (p. 12). Yet even given how these factors interrelate to produce a new hybrid, "one senses a commonality that somehow holds these various strands together. [These churches] have their own particular flavor in worship" (p. 13), something that qualifies their worship as being Hispanic. This flavor can be described in some of the following ways:

•Latino or Hispanic worship is in and of itself a fiesta, a celebration.

"It is a celebation of the mighty deeds of God. It is a get-together of the family of God" (p. 20). We celebrate God in each other's presence. Worship for Hispanics is always a celebration of what God has done and is doing and is going to do. We come to the house of God expecting that God will make himself known and felt among his people.

•Hispanic worship is participatory.

Members take an active role in the service by sharing their testimonies, dedicating special music to God's glory, requesting prayers, and taking the offering (even if there are deacons present). The singing and clapping that are characteristic of many Hispanic worship services are also an expression of this need for congregational participation.

•Hispanic worship requires a preacher who can do narrative preaching.

Our thinking patterns tend to require a narration, a discourse of events and happenings, rather than a three-point, logical, linear sermon. We expect the pastor to tell a story—his story, the story of Scripture—in language that is clear and practical, present and relational.

•Hispanic worship is emotional.

Doctrinal sermons, if preached, must touch the hearts, not just the heads of the congregation. They must call first for a heart response, not an intellectual "Amen!"

•Hispanic worship is rhythmic.

All worship to some degree has rhythm and tempo. Nevertheless, we Hispanics just seem to move a little bit more when we worship. Even those who are brought up on what might be considered seco (dry) worship, when given the opportunity find their toes tapping, their hands clapping, and their bodies swaying. Whether you are visiting Buenas Nuevas Christian Reformed Church in Miami, Florida; or San Juan de los Lagos Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, you will find handclapping and movement a part of the worship experience. It would seem that much of what today we call "contemporary worship" is nothing more than what Hispanics have been doing for decades.

How Hispanic Churches Differ from Each Other

In spite of these commonalities that I have mentioned, there are also factors that make worship different in one Hispanic church from that in another. The remainder of iAIabadle! devotes one chapter each by different authors to several different traditions.

The Roman Catholic Experience

Hispanic worship in the Roman Catholic expression tends to make more use of liturgical forms, symbols, and rituals. Catholic worship still relies heavily on the use of written liturgies, responsive readings, processionals, and the weekly celebration of the Eucharist. The musicians may play mariachi-style music (if Mexican American), as they do at the San Juan de los Lagos Church in San Antonio, but there are enough elements held in common with all Roman Catholic churches to identify this Hispanic experience as being traditional Roman Catholic. The symbols of rituals found in the Bible and in the Catholic experience have been mesticized (mixed) as they have come into contact with an indigenous culture in America, and even with the African cultures found in parts of the Americas. Form plays an important role in Hispanic Catholic worship.

The Baptist Experience

Many of the forms found in early Baptist churches tend to repeat themselves today in Hispanic Baptist congregations, as described in the chapter written by Miguel Darino, a colleague of mine from the American Baptist convention. Elements such as deep spiritual fervor, evangelistic preaching, invitation to the altar, and kneeling have been brought into Hispanic worship—and are maintained even in churches where revival worship is no longer effective.

Hispanic worship in the Baptist context tended to imitate the North American and European models and did not reflect a true contextualization into the Hispanic situation until the 1960s. At that time, according to Darino, Hispanics started returning to their cultural roots. As a result worship became more reflective of the Hispanic community. For example, drums and guitars replaced the piano and organ.

This transformation continues as the Hispanic Baptist churches receive people from different countries in Central and South America. Their hymnals may still reflect translations of hymns from a century ago, but the Hispanic Baptist may then go home and listen to "his or her 'real' music. It is the latter that finds an echo in the soul" (p. 83). Darino contends that true Hispanic music is not "taken to church" because of a fear of not being American, of not being Anglo enough. The Anglo tradition among Baptists has been deemed sacred while everything else is profane. Hispanic Baptists have no common worship pattern and struggle between the old and the new in their search for something authentically Hispanic and authentically Baptist.

The Pentecostal Experience

Many of us are familiar with the characteristics of Pentecostal worship because of its predominance on the Christian TV stations of North America. Much of what we see on these weekly programs is typical of what happens in Hispanic Pentecostal churches as well. Faith healings, "the Blessing," and glossalalia are a part of most Hispanic Pentecostal churches. Worship in these churches tends to be even more lively than in other Hispanic settings.

Hispanic Pentecostal worship seems to have its stronghold in the cities among the poorest of the poor. Often these storefront churches are equipped with homemade benches and flourescent lighting and livened up with blight colors—blues, yellows and reds.

Hispanic Pentecostal worship is usually nonconfessional and "nonliturgi-cal." Anyone showing a sign of leadership is given the opportunity to demonstrate that giftedness in worship and even from the pulpit. Worship appears to be spontaneous and "as the Spirit leads." The pastor may have a sense of direction, but as people exercise their gifts in worship, the service may go off in a direction different from where the pastor intended it to go. Songs will be sung almost exclusively from Himnos de gloria y triunfo.

Oftentimes looking towards the coming of the Lord, Pentecostal churches may overlook the impoverished situation in which many of their members exist on a day-by-day basis and make no attempt to change the "here and now." There are better things to come, and the worship experience looks forward to that day when Christ will come again for his church.

The Reformed Experience

Lastly we look at the Reformed faith as it shows itself among Hispanics today. I can speak most clearly from my experience among the Christian ReformedHispanic churches in the United States.

The early Hispanic Christian Reformed Churches reflected the tradition of the Dutch American founders of these congregations. For example, in a Grand Rapids congregation, the organ was used and Anglo hymns were translated into Spanish. The Hispanicity of the worshipers was only visible at rare moments when visitors came from churches in Mexico. After the worship service came the fiesta—the guitars would come out as the people sang choruses, laughed, and clapped.

But in the last five years worship in this church has become more participatory and lively. The emphasis is on praise and celebration, tempered with a sermon that reflects the Reformed interpretation of Scriptures.

The same scenario took place at the Good Samaritan Church in Miami. Born out of a similar refugee situation in the same era, this church has gradually changed and transformed as people from fifteen different Central American and South American cultures have joined the original Cuban members.

In these churches, the sermons are Reformed interpretations of the Scripture as before, but in a context of worship that is more Hispanic than North American (Anglo). Reformed Christians tend to be more confessional than other denominations. Our Hispanic congregations may hold minimally to the truths of the Heidelberg Catechism and may confess the Apostles' Creed, although both of these elements remind many Hispanics of the Roman Catholic Church and are therefore avoided. Bulletins are still printed with an order of worship, but the services themselves seem to be more alegre (alive or happy) than before, and the participation of members much more inclusive.

Worship from the Heart

Different worship styles among Hispanics in different denominations. All adding a flavor that is undeniably Hispanic. God is a God of diversity as well as a God of unity. As Hispanics, we would feel comfortable visiting churches of different denominations because there is something intangibly Hispanic in their worship even though their forms may be somewhat different than ours. It's like the use of cilantro in Hispanic cooking—whether Mexican, Cuban, or Costa Rican. It's subtly there, ever-present.

Whether Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal or Reformed, Hispanics worship from the heart. In the midst of our diversity, we have a singular concept that worship is a celebration of God by a congregated people, "to God's glory and honor."

Reformed Worship 43 © March 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.