Pentecostalism’s Rise through Hispanic Americans

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Amanda Robbins challenges us to think through the appeal of Pentecostalism within a Hispanic American context. She wonders how the needs of communities register in Bible-reading strategies. See other pieces in our series on the Bible and Race here.

Pentecostalism has been an increasingly popular religion in the United States of America, particularly for its appeal in the growing Hispanic American community. This growth is evident in New York City where Hispanic American Pentecostals makeup one third of the population. As a marginalized people, Hispanic Americans have a history of being disadvantaged socially, an issue that continues to impact their societies, especially in New York[1]. This marginalization fuels their interest and involvement in Pentecostalism due to the churches overall increase in social programming. Many Hispanic Americans are children or grandchildren of immigrants, with family members still living in their native countries. This connection with two “homes”, the United States, New York City and the country from which their Hispanic identification originates, causes feelings of no belonging or no home, which the Pentecostal Church helps to resolve.[2] The current popularity of Pentecostalism in the Hispanic American community of New York City can be partially credited to its empowerment of this population through social programs and its aid in self-identification.

Hispanic Americans use the Bible and the Holy Spirit as a way to liberate themselves from their history of marginalization. In Reading the Bible as Hispanic Americans, Fernando Segovia explains this by describing Hispanic Americas as a people overwhelmed by their sociocultural situation that can identify with people of God in the Bible, who share similar stories of oppression.[3] This concept of barrio theology conceived by Harold Recinos focuses specifically on inner cities and allows Hispanic Americans in New York City to view the Bible as liberating as they “discover a God who sides with the oppressed and works for their liberation, and they see the Kingdom of God as pointing to a world of justice and equality.” This way of interpreting the Bible, gives Hispanic Americans the tools to transcend their oppression and discrimination and give it meaning through God that empowers them to build a world that strives for justice and equality. Much of this discrimination can be seen in the current United States presidential election. Donald Trump when discussing Mexico and Mexican immigrants stated: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” This kind of rhetoric fuels the discrimination and oppression that Hispanic Americans face, and since Trump is a presidential candidate, people all over the world are hearing his hateful speech. For Hispanic Americans, and especially Mexican Americans living in New York City, it could be even harder to navigate through the offensive opinions and influence that Donald Trump has, because he owns nearly twelve buildings and areas within the city. Hispanic Americans can use their Pentecostal faith through the Bible, recognizing the oppressive and discriminatory nature of the city and of people like Donald Trump, and revele in the just nature of their liberating God.

The inequalities that Hispanic Americans have identified from their past, are still relevant today. The national poverty rate for Hispanic Americans ranged as high as 26% in the 2007-2011 U.S Census, nearly double the poverty rate among White American communities.[4]  In New York City, the poverty rate among Hispanic Americans is also at 26%. [5]In his article, Segovia discusses another form of biblical interpretation used by this community, manana theology. This theology takes the Bible and the word of God, and sees its works of liberation and justice in daily life.[6] This interpretation stems from their social location as a marginalized people, and because of this, they cannot interpret the Bible as the “mainstream”[7] or non-oppressed would interpret the text. God is no longer a mystical being, who waits for you in the kingdom of heaven, God is an active guide throughout the lives of the oppressed, continuously working towards justice.

Many Pentecostal churches have started social programming that mean to “alleviate poverty and create economic development” [8] In New York City, a man named Danilo Florian, started a Pentecostal Church in an old foreclosed store that fronted as a drug business.[9] His congregation members transform their faith saying that religion “is not some sober, introspective journey or Sunday chore, but a raucous communal celebration that spills throughout the week.” Church isn’t just service on Sunday, but involves the whole community and continues everyday. This church in particular, helps members find jobs, childcare and other necessities that may be hard for Hispanic Americans that face a language barrier to locate on their own. These programs not only reflect the interpretation of the Bible and God as a leader in helping the oppressed, but they attract Hispanic Americans to Pentecostal churches because of the godly services the churches are providing to the marginalized communities around them.

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Click the picture to watch a PBS: Charlie Rose special on “Pentecostalism in Latino Communities.”

The Bible alone no longer provides Christian communities with a sense of self, but the churches way of “doing” their sacred texts, and taking those teachings and putting them to work is what attracts people and allows religious traditions like Pentecostalism to appeal to Hispanic Americans. “Truth no longer depends on the attention of a receiver who assimilates himself to the great identifying message, It is the result of work…It depends on a will to do.”[10] This idea, is particularly strong among Hispanic Americans, who as we discovered, feel that God walks with them, striving for justice and freedom from oppression in the physical world. God is not just waiting for them in heaven, but he is extremely active in their daily lives “doing” what they believe is Christianity.  When Hispanic Americans can be part of a religious tradition like Pentecostalism that “reflects a worldview in which God is very much part of human existence” they focus more on the transformation of scripture into actions, as de Certeau argues, and less on the literal text itself. Hispanic Americans experience a “loss of identity” through scriptures alone that they relocate by action through Pentecostalism, “being is measure by doing.”

Many Hispanic Americans experience biculturalism because they can identify with two physical locations, peoples and cultures in the world. While this biculturalism can be empowering, it may also lead to a loss of identity or feeling of belonging to one place or people. “On the one hand, we live in two worlds at the same time, operating relatively at ease within each world and able to go in and out of each. On the other hand, we live in neither one of these worlds, unable to call either world home.”[11] Pentecostal churches for many immigrants and their children, provide a sense of home in country that they may feel new to them because it differs culturally from the country in which they were born, similarly the country they were born in is no longer home, and this can cause a loss of identity or sense of self. The church allows Hispanic Americans to find a sense of belonging and “for many immigrants these churches also become their new extended families.”[12]  This is clearly the case in New York City where roughly one in ten New Yorkers identify as Pentecostal, one third of them being Hispanic.[13] Hispanic Americans are able to make a new community among themselves within their church, and are met by other individuals that share a language, in some cases a culture, and of course, a faith.  Church becomes a place not only to worship God, but to share an experience with a community that enables them to feel at home when they otherwise feel alienated. “They tend to understand their faith as linked to a concrete community of people.”[14] Pentecostalism provides that sense of home.

Hispanic Americans lived and continue to live as a marginalized group of people in the United States. Pentecostalism provides a new and unique religious experience that allows this community to serve God while liberating marginalized people and fighting for freedom from oppression through social programs.  Looking at Pentecostalism in New York City today, allows one to see the growth and impact of this denomination in a specific case study. The traditions emphasis on the Holy Spirit and Gods presence in daily life, helps provide Hispanic Americans with a sense of identity when their biculturalism can often lead to a loss of self, especially in New York City where such a large number of Pentecostals identify as Hispanic American. These churches become home for many Hispanic Americans who interpret their scripture in similar ways due to a shared history of oppression.  The popularity and rise of Pentecostalism with Hispanic Americans must be partially attributed to its hand in self-identification and activeness in aiding marginalized communities.

Footnotes:

[1] New York State Community Action Association, New York State Poverty Report, March 2015.

[2] David Gonzalez interview by Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose, PBS, January 12th, 2007.

[3] Fernando Segovia, “Reading the Bible as Hispanic Americans,” The New Interpreters Bible 170.

[4] Suzanne Macartney, Alemayehu Bishaw and Kayla Fontenot, “Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place:2007–2011,” American Community Survey Briefs, February, 2013, 2.

[5] New York State Community Action Association, “New York State Poverty Report,” March 2015.

[6] Fernando Segovia, “Reading the Bible as Hispanic Americans,” 170.

[7] James Earl Massey, “Reading the Bible from Specific Social Locations,” The New Interpreters Bible 151.

[8] Ambrosia Viramontes Brody, The Global Impact of Pentecostalism.

[9] David Gonzalez, A sliver of a storefront.

[10] Michel de Certeau, “The Practice of Everyday Life,” University of California Press, 137.

[11]Fernando Segovia, Reading the Bible as Hispanic Americans, 171.

[12] Juan Martinez, “Varieties of Latino Pentecostals, and other Protestants in Los Angeles,” University of Southern California, August 15th, 2012.

[13] David Gonzalez, A sliver of a storefront, a faith on the rise.

[14] Juan Martinez, Varieties of Latino Pentecostals.

Amanda Robbins Pic

Amanda Robbins is a Sociology- Anthropology and Religious Studies double major at Elizabethtown College 17′.

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