May 2007

Christian Stewardship in the Hispanic Community

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

The Episcopal Church in Latin America is not widely known. It has a muted presence because of its small size, making many people here in the United States think that Hispanics only belong to the Roman Catholic or Pentecostal faiths.

The reality is that there exists a vibrant, though small, Hispanic community of Episcopalians in Latin America. This is my own particular case; I come from an Episcopalian family in the Dominican Republic. Since my childhood I have heard the priest talk about stewardship, especially during the traditional two months of the year that focus on teaching this commitment.

Stewardship is perhaps most famous for its three “T’s” — time, talent, and treasure. We often focus on “treasure” and how to bring in more to benefit our church. In my youth no one talked about tithing. This was a term used by our evangelical brothers, not by good Episcopalians. We only talked about filling out our pledge card. Many in my church dutifully contributed the amount written on their pledge card for a month or two, and then, well, it was just forgotten.

A false assumption
In Latin America the majority of the Roman Catholic churches obtain their funds from diverse sources, with little expectation that the parishioners will provide anything more than a charitable token. This has created the false assumption that has been sustained and generalized until today, that the church is wealthy and doesn’t need the financial support of the people.

When Hispanics come to the United States and arrive at the doors of the Episcopal Church, there is immediately a collision between the vision of the Church in Latin America, and the vision held by the Anglo community in the United States. The Anglo community has lived the system of supporting the church through pledges, taking care of the building, and all the other tasks required to manage a church. Sometimes this has become so internalized in the Episcopal Church in the US that some churches even become isolated and rather exclusive in the neighborhood where they have existed since their founding.

For Hispanics, everything is the opposite. The Hispanic community in Latin America has never had to sustain their churches economically. There is always the feeling that the church itself is rich, no matter the denomination, and that the building where the church is located belongs to everyone, so there is no need to give it support. Would we therefore call Hispanics indolent or irresponsible?

Neither would be a true characterization. Hispanics are very responsible and they are not indolent. In addition to never learning that their “treasure” was really needed, participation in the church consisted of hearing the service, not participating actively.

Because of this perhaps they were not aware of what was happening at the center of the church; they didn’t know about issues such as building maintenance and its costs, or the church budget. The feeling has always been that these issues are the exclusive domain of the priest.

Resources are limited
So what happens when Hispanics incorporate into the local Episcopal Church here in the United States? They have heard talk of stewardship, and may have knowledge about this topic. However, when it comes to sharing the third “T” of stewardship — their treasure — the reality is that as immigrants and as Hispanics they don’t have the resources to contribute. They probably have work that is poorly paid, and in the worst case, suffer abuses at work because they don’t have legal documents. This is the reality Hispanic immigrants confront, in addition to never really feeling it was their responsibility to contribute financially to the church.

On a personal level Hispanic immigrants earn little, and with this small sum they sustain their family here and send funds back home to help those who remain — be it children, parents or other family members. For this reason they cannot help sustain their local church, even if they wanted to.

Hispanic Episcopalians in the United States accept with approval the other 2 “T’s” of stewardship. They are willing and able to participate in providing time and talent to the church where they now belong.

The talents of the Hispanic community are rich and diverse, encompassing broad areas such as music — where the Hispanic influence can inject new energy into the service — the culinary arts, and celebrations.

Normally the Hispanic community is very generous with their time. There is a desire to serve God and only the confines of work impede Hispanics from coming to the church to help. Often Hispanics will come with all the family, children included, to attend to a church responsibility, or will leave work for a short time to come and help. There is a general understanding that the time dedicated to the church is not given to the priest or to the other members. It is done especially in service to God.

When the bishop’s committee or the vestry can assimilate the contributions that the Hispanic community is able to make in stewardship toward the church they gain a fortune of incalculable value.

In terms of contributing to the growth of the treasure of the church, it’s possible that the church will have to wait for a greater contribution from the Hispanic community with the second generation of Hispanic immigrants. As this younger generation grows up, has fewer economic responsibilities back home, and retains the dedication and willingness to help shown by the first generation, the Episcopal Church can expect a greater financial contribution from the Hispanic community.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Joel Almonó is the associate at Grace Church in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he works with the growing Hispanic community. Until late 2006, he served La Mision el Santo Nino Jesus in St. Paul, Minnesota

This article is part of the May 2007 Vestry Papers issue on Stewardship