Welcome at the Table: Latinidad in Methodist Churches

A group of people pray over dinner at a table full of food.
Photo by Nicole Michalou on Pexels.com

In this interview with Yet Alive, Alfredo Santiago—a social worker, 2021 graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary, and active participant in Latinx ministries in the Baltimore Washington Conference—discuss the unique gifts the Methodist church brings and challenges it faces in offering a welcoming table to all. The interview covered many topics, but Alfredo’s commitment to honoring the richness of Latinidad and his love of Methodism were clear dominant themes. We have tried to capture those loves in these excerpts from our interview.

Yet Alive: Can you talk about your background and religious history and tell me how you ended up in the Methodist church?

Alfredo Santiago: Interesting enough, it was connectional. I have a friend who’s a Methodist pastor, and he was doing community work in the Highlandtown area, a neighborhood of Baltimore, and we met through a mutual friend that he knew as a social worker. So we went into this community event that they were doing for Christmas. And I was impressed to see all the people volunteering. An all-white church, mostly elderly, and they were serving all these Latino immigrants.

Then he invited me to come back to his church to visit, so I visited. I would go to Catholic mass in the morning, and then I would go to his church to visit in the evening. So that’s how I started going to a Methodist church. I liked both experiences.

Then I remember when I went to a United Methodist communion Sunday. The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Giovanni Arroyo, proclaimed that everyone was welcome to the table. And he said it one more time, very firmly, “Everyone is welcome to the table.” And when he said it, I believed it. And it spoke to my spirit. So after that, I received communion. I walked back to my seat in tears. I was a little bit embarrassed to be that person. Because I believed it, that there was nothing keeping me away from the Lord, from his table. And that all of me was welcome.

YA: Was that different from what you had experienced previously?

AS: You know, I was born Roman Catholic, and I’m not gonna complain about Roman Catholicism, but if we haven’t confessed to a priest, we’re not able to receive communion. And we have mortal sin and we have venial sin, so it’s like, am I in mortal sin today, venial sin today, do I have to go to confession before I can receive communion? So sometimes it wasn’t so clear whether I was worthy. That causes conflict with an image of a loving, merciful God—am I worthy to receive communion today?

YA: After you found the Methodist church, why did you decide to stay?

AS: [laughs] I think I liked the fact that it’s not just worship on Sunday, but it’s also doing love in action. I’m a service-centered person; that’s why I’m a social worker. I hope to become an ordained deacon, to be a servant leader. What I like about the Methodist church is that it really is community-centered. At least the way I perceive it, the way I want it to be, the way I try to live it. I like the connectional aspect to it, and they have that also in the Catholic church by the way, but it’s just different.

What I came to understand about why I became a Methodist is I need community. When I moved to Baltimore, I did find a Spanish-speaking Catholic church. And I would go to Mass, but when I would leave Mass, that was it. Nobody would invite me over for dinner or out for coffee. It was just like, “Okay, I guess I’m going home now.” I did go to a young adult group and it was nice, that hour that we had before Mass, but I always felt lonely, and meanwhile I was part of this congregation that had hundreds of people.

I’m in a different space now, but it’s also, I’m very intentional about spending time with people. Joining people for meals, sitting down and trying to get to know one another. It has a lot of value to me, beyond the church walls.

YA: How would you say your faith has changed over the decade or so that you’ve been part of the Methodist church?

AS: I felt a calling years ago, since I was young, to be in ministry. To be a priest, or maybe a friar. And [in Methodism] it’s obtainable, because there’s support around that, from men and women, from ordained ministers and from laypeople. I definitely want to continue that spirit of service, and I know that if I pursue that, other people will join me. And it won’t be like, “Oh, this is a great idea.” It’ll be like, “Let’s sit down and talk about that. Let’s make it happen. Let’s see who we have to connect with to make it happen.” That always brings me a lot of joy.

My Christian walk is very service-based. If I’m in church too much on Sundays, I start getting uncomfortable. You know, why aren’t we going outside? What are we doing wrong?

YA: So it sounds like it wasn’t really about your faith changing; it was more about finding a community that supported you in the things you were already passionate about?

AS: Yes. And already bought into. I came and [it wasn’t like] “Alfredo Santiago brings all this energy.” No, the energy is already there; I just join it. And when I say energy, again, the need to serve under-served community members.

YA: American United Methodism is overwhelmingly white. What unique things do you see people of Latine descent bringing to the dominant church culture?

AS: What we bring is that we come with faith already. We’re not being evangelized. Actually, we’re doing a lot of evangelizing to people, in the way that we live, in the way that we want to have a worship experience. I think that most Latino worship services are livelier. It doesn’t mean we have more Spirit, by the way, because you can be a conservative liturgist and the Holy Spirit can move in that way also, very quiet and peaceful. But I think we bring a liveliness, and we are not ashamed of that. We don’t tone it down. And because a lot of our folks are marginalized, we pay attention to the poor and marginalized. Because for some people it’s their lived experience right now, but they don’t want to just focus on themselves; they want to focus on others. 

I think that there is a paradigm shift. A lot of times Latinos and other immigrants were seen as people that had to be ministered to, evangelized to, and the dichotomy is changing in that we are now in co-ministry together. There is a challenge in that. It’s nice to see that our church is universal, connectional, but when that starts to become a reality, sometimes there’s a little bit of pushback in that. Because you start getting into that conversation about “Oh, this is the way that we do it. This is the way that we’ve traditionally done it. This is how our church does it.” And I’ve sensed that in my church, but I’ve heard that same kind of theme in other churches also. It’s like, let’s try something different. We don’t want to erase that, but add something else to it or something new. And the Spirit keeps moving. It’s the same Spirit, but it gives us creativity. Let people use their gifts. But it’s almost like the added flavor is not always welcomed.

YA: That leads me to my next question. What do you think people, and congregations in the UMC in general, need to be doing better to allow the Spirit to work in our communities in a way that integrates Latine people?

A: English curriculum and English liturgies get translated to Spanish, but why don’t we find liturgies that were in Spanish and then get translated to English? Or find theologians who are Spanish speaking, Latino, and quote from them? There’s a richness in Methodism, by the way, and there’s a richness in a lot of theologians beyond our denomination who are south of our border, you know, Central and South America, [and] here within the United States. So giving them a voice…

A lot of times when we lead worship and say “Let’s have a bilingual service,” it’s always English, and Spanish echoes the English after it. It’s always the echo, like the afterthought. And the cultural sensitivity there would be “Let’s follow the Spanish speaking. Let’s respond to the liturgy in Spanish with English. So that we’re the echo versus that they’re the respondents.” We’re not always the ones that are on the receiving end of it. We’re not leading worship; we’re following worship, responding to worship, but we’re not leading worship. 

I know some people actually get bothered by having bilingual services. It makes them uncomfortable; they don’t understand; they lose something. But I never hear a Latino person say that. I never hear them say that. And I hear that often from my English-speaking brothers and sisters. I appreciate that they come. But they always say that there’s something about it that doesn’t sit well with them. I think that has a lot to do with White privilege. That everything has to be smooth. Well, you know, people are uncomfortable. How about when people come from another country and they want to be part of your worship service, and they don’t understand the language, but they know that there’s something good happening so they keep coming back? 

YA: It sounds like what you’re saying is it’s not enough to just welcome somebody in; you have to be willing to de-center yourself.

AS: That’s a wonderful way to show humility. And it takes discipline and humility to do that, to say, “I don’t have to be the center of worship. I don’t have to be the worship leader. It can be someone else, and I have an experience. Maybe they can provide a message.” Or even for our folks who are undocumented, who can’t go to seminary or there might be some polity in place that will block them from going into leadership, to become a full elder. Maybe they can become a local pastor. But how about letting some of your lay people be the worship leader because he or she has gifts. They might not have a theological education, but you can tell they have a strong Christian base. Give them some space for them to give a message.

If you need to get an interpreter because you don’t understand them, then invest in one. Get some interpretation machines or have somebody come and [interpret]. People make those adjustments all the time. 

YA: If a church is looking to take a first step to being less Anglo-centric, what do you think that should be?

AS: First of all, I wouldn’t say “less Anglo-centric,” just be inclusive. If White Americans are the majority in the church, it’s going to have a certain kind of culture. If it has more African Americans, it’s going to have a certain culture. We’re not saying to mute that, just let us complement it. And not just Hispanic Heritage Month. Give us space throughout the course of the year.

YA: Yeah, that makes sense. The thing that we have not talked about is that being a person of Latino descent is only part of your identity, and there’s a whole lot else going on in the Methodist church in terms of inclusion and hospitality. I’d be interested to know, specifically coming from the intersection of an LGBTQ+ Latino background, how does that shape your faith, and how has that impacted your experience of Methodism?

AS: I’ll go back to the start of the conversation. When I heard everyone was welcome to the table, really, the whole person without exception, regardless of my sexual orientation, besides the fact that I’m a social worker, besides the fact that I’m bilingual, like all of me can come to the table, with no shame and just pride—I say pride as in dignity, as in human, right. 

It’s interesting, politically speaking I’ve never had to “act up.” And that’s no disrespect to that group that was [acting up] in the ’80s and the ’90s. But I never felt like I had to come to church to be militant about being a gay man. But it seems to be a hot topic in our church right now and will cause unfortunate division. And it saddens me as a person who just joined this denomination that sexuality will separate the denomination. 

I stay because I’ve been welcomed, and I’ve had positive experiences. I’ve heard a few people who [say things like], “it’s sin” and where would they stand with that, but for the most part, I feel very welcomed. I hear more straight allies talking about LGBTQ situations and they’re up in arms and angry for us and I’m like “wow.” So that’s love in action. Thanks for being an ally, and not just being an ally but being an advocate. That’s different from being raised Catholic. We went to confession for homosexuality; we felt guilty about it. Again, can I receive communion today or not? You know, those kinds of questions. So I don’t come in and try to be like a militant gay man who’s Methodist. I come in as a man who’s gay, social worker, bilingual. Like, it’s a part of my identity, not all of my identity. 

Yeah, it’s just interesting. Are we going to be allies or not? Are we going to be able to sit next to each other in the pews or not? And for the most part, I think that people for years already have [been allies], so I’m like, so what, because they want to change a few words in our denomination, you know, that might split the whole denomination? But I’ve had a good experience, to be honest with you. It pains me, though, to hear about the split. To tears, it pains me. Because I like unity. I’m family-oriented, so anytime there’s a divorce, separation, I internalize that. But again, personal experience, I want to be a good Christian man, but there’s a lot more involved in this description of me. It’s multifaceted, my personality, and I don’t want some of my personality to be frowned upon and some of it to be celebrated. I think we’re all created by God, so we all need to be celebrated.

Q: What do you think the church needs to do, specifically for LGBTQ+ Latine people, to be more welcoming?

A: Welcoming [should] be intentional, [and intentionally state] that everyone is welcome here. Whether you’re White or Latino, whether you’re a citizen or undocumented, or you’re straight or you’re gay, whether you’re single, married, divorced, living together, like, everyone is welcome here. Be very intentional about saying it out loud: “This is a welcoming table.” Be very specific about what that means. That you over there, a gay man or lesbian woman or transgender person, you are welcome here to be in co-ministry with us. Not just to sit quietly. You have to be very intentional about that and let people know that. 

I see people that have, like, rainbow flags outside the church. That’s nice. My church doesn’t, doesn’t mean it’s less inclusive. I don’t need that. I need to hear it. That you’re welcomed. 

Q: Coming from your position as a social worker and someone who cares about immigrant rights and undocumented folks, are there other things Wesleyan Christians can be doing in the world? 

A: You know, it might be wise for people who don’t have the experience of being from El Salvador, or from Honduras, or from Ecuador, where our folks are coming from, go and visit if we can. Do a mission trip. Evangelization can be just that, evangelizing, a revival and Sunday we finish with a big bang, or it could be that we go and help build a local hospital or a local school, that kind of mission work. We dig in the trenches and build a well. Know their experiences. Where are they coming from? People are saying they’re leaving their country because of violence; their lives are being threatened; their family members are being killed. Do I want to do a mission trip to those places? No! No. Would I, if I lived in that type of environment, want to leave? Yes! So show some compassion to people who are coming here. You’re saying “Why are those people here?” Well, sit down and talk to them and ask them. Individually, and not so hostile. Or go to their countries and find out. From a place of Christian love. Let’s go find out. And hopefully support, on that side of the border, and on this side of the border. A lot of us have the resources to do that. If not, we can find the resources. The Methodists are very resourceful. We support one another. That’s where the connectional part comes out. 

And we talk about Latinos, but I would love to do a mission trip to Kenya. There’s a school there where the girls are orphans whose parents died of HIV/AIDS. That connection where we Latinos can be global also, not just thinking south of the border, but that we’re thinking on a global level because we have the social media that allows us to do that. We can join in ministry beyond south of the border. 

Specifically about being welcoming, understand. Understand, and let’s have conversation; let’s go visit. And not just Taco Tuesday. 

Alfredo Santiago

Alfredo Santiago (he/him) is a licensed clinical social worker and candidate for deacon’s orders in the United Methodist Church. After being raised in a charismatic Roman Catholic tradition in New Jersey, he moved to Baltimore where he is a member of Salem-Baltimore Hispanic United Methodist Church. He is a recent graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary and a passionate pursuer of justice for all people. He lives in Baltimore with his foster sons and their beloved dog, Chuck.

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