New Harmony: Why churches welcome Hispanic converts, with or without papers

Published: Thursday, April 11 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

LDS Hispanic choir rehearsal for a Christmas Devotional.

Scott Abbott, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

A few months ago, I went to a local publisher with an idea for a book. I wanted to spend a year in an LDS ward in Tijuana, Mexico, chronicling the rites of passage of the members — the births and deaths, the baptisms and marriages.

I was told that because of the immigration controversy, publishers had a hard time interesting white American readers in the religious lives of Hispanic people.

In other words, my book had no audience.

So when I saw the new Time magazine last week, I wondered if the editors there had worried about the same thing.

The cover story is titled “The Latino Reformation” and tells how Hispanic people are transforming religion in America.

I’ve seen the trends discussed in the article up close in Utah’s Evangelical and LDS churches.

The author, Elizabeth Dias, says Hispanics are abandoning Catholicism to seek a “break with the past, a quicker assimilation into the middle class and a closer relationship with God.”

She had apparently been reading my stake's mail.

And immigration issues colored her article at every turn.

Dias writes that many new Hispanic evangelicals are “still sorting out their place in a country where many in the congregation aren’t yet citizens.”

Adds Mark Noll, a Notre Dame historian, “When groups appear that are similar to one’s own but with some striking ethnic or musical or cultural differences, they can appear threatening as well as promising.”

And that’s one reason, I suspect, my book idea crashed and burned before it got off the ground.

I see both sides of the issue.

Many Americans aren’t sure why religions cater to illegal Hispanics without even bothering to check their papers.

When did turning a blind eye become a spiritual virtue, they ask?

Aren’t we supposed to be honest in our dealings?

On the other hand, the feelings of the various religions resonates with me as well.

Church leaders aren’t in charge of the country, they are in charge of God’s Kingdom. And when a soul knocks on the gates and asks to come inside, a Christian leader can’t, in good conscience, say, “Go back and work things out with the government and then God will have a look at you.”

God and governments have never worked together well.

In fact, more times than not, the governments — the Caesars — have gotten in the way of spiritual need. It’s why Jesus tells us to give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give God what is God’s.

Blending the two usually leads to disaster.

And that’s why religious leaders open the doors of God’s Kingdom to those who knock without whistling for Caesar’s approval first.

It's not Caesar's call.

The hope is, over time, Caesar will realize that there has to be a better way.

In fact, as I write this, the old boy is back there in Washington trying to hammer out a solution.

And no doubt the millions of converts who have tasted a “closer relationship with God” in their new religions are praying for him.

Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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