Rev. Dcn. Rafael A. Rodriguez
My experience growing up as an immigrant is still in process. I’m proud of my heritage from the Dominican Republic. In many ways, I’m also proud of the way I’ve assimilated into majority (white) culture. I now feel fairly comfortable in settings where I’m the only person of color; though I still notice. I developed a taste for metalcore music (don’t judge me), Waspy clothing, colorful quilts, and apple-picking in New England. Heck, now I’m an Anglican.
But the assimilation process (which I undertook somewhat unconsciously) is not easy. Please notice the present tense. I often consider myself as a “bridge” between Aro-Latino culture and White American culture, helping to translate between the two, but often feeling less than fully comfortable remaining strictly inside one instead of the other. After high school, I enrolled in a Puerto-Rican university. I was shocked when fellow Latinos couldn’t believe that I was Dominican. Where’s your accent? Where’s your bachata playlist; your fast-paced Dominican slang? Why do you prefer speaking English? What’s the matter with you? Aren’t you proud of your heritage? I transferred back to the States after one semester. Back home, I would face a different set of questions. Why is it that you’re black but have a Mexican last name? You don’t look Hispanic. No, where did you come from? Could you tell us about the African-American Church? I’m used to it by now.
But the hardest part of this experience was when I decided to follow Jesus personally. Yes, I had a religious upbringing, but never made the faith mine until high school. I had enrolled in a private Christian academy in small-town Indiana. It was a great time, but that was the beginning of a sort of “cultural migration”; the beginning of the process of becoming aware of my non-whiteness; the beginning of my faith formation in white spaces, from white leaders. I was encouraged to think of myself as a Christian and suddenly found myself considering white American Christianity to be the default “home-base”–a non-ethnic Christianity. On my trips home to the Iglesia of my youth, I had entered into “cultural” Christianity. Back in Indiana, it was just Christianity. For the first time in my entire life, I was having dinners and potlucks with white families. I was learning to stomach baked beans and mashed potatoes. My faith was being formed in many solid ways, but any contribution from my culture was relegated to language, food, and music. My immigrant Afro-latino heritage had nothing to say to my faith. They were not joined at the hip. I found myself building another bridge, one that would help translate my faith to my culture and visa-versa.
For several years I was succeeding in this cultural migration process. Nothing in my appearance, preaching, or theology would relegate me to a “cultural” or “ethnic” subculture within the church. Sure, I was still Rafael Rodriguez, but I could overcome that. I stopped speaking Spanish entirely. I didn’t want to be “relegated” to Spanish ministry, so I cut myself off from the riches of Latino experience in order to flourish and be known in the mainstream of the church. This was my new home. Thanks be to God.
It was the Trayvon Martin moment that woke me up. I was never the same after that. The actual process of events is not what shook me. Rather, it was how such an obvious example of racism could be met with dead silence from many of the white leaders and ministries that had shaped my faith up to that point. Sure, you would expect the “ethnic” part of the church to respond, Hispanics and African-Americans, but that is their job isn’t it? To sell a “niche” view of the faith, a view from a particular racial segment from the kingdom? The “mainstream” white American church had no racial consciousness because race isn’t relevant in their brand of Christianity. This was the poison pill I had received under all my theological and spiritual formation in white spaces. The topic of racism was taboo and speaking about it was divisive and unChristlike. We are all one in Christ. Why divide us by race? “Red and yellow, black and white. . .” This was my safety blanket. But suddenly I was racialized once again. That’s when I began to see things as they truly were. What is it like for me being a Christian Afro-latino immigrant within the American church?
- It means feeling the pressure to choose between the “Pro-life” Republicans and the Democrats with a friendlier policy for your immigrant relatives who are working hard to provide for their children back in their homeland.
- It means painfully reminding your white friends that no, racism was not dead before Obama.
- It means the inability to accept sermons in multi-ethnic congregations that do not address the needs and realities of immigrant minorities, thereby promoting the poison pill of “color-blind” Christianity.
- It means having to subtly remind your white progressive friends not to get too comfortable with you.
- It means having to watch members of the immigrant church suffer silently in part because they don’t want to be labeled “ungrateful” by the larger faith community.
- It means looking on in confusion as Christians proudly and unreservedly cheer on a president who started his campaign with, “Mexico is not sending their best”, and has yet to apologize for it.
- It means watching politically conservative Christian pastors use the voices of a few well-spoken politically conservative Hispanics to mute the masses of immigrants often in their own congregation.
- It means watching discussions about global Christian suffering suddenly shift into language about immigration policy once that suffering is located in Central and South America.
I’ve written this post with very few qualifications. This ought not to be looked upon as a mere power dynamic. The white American church has much to offer to immigrants (and I’m not simply referring to material resources). Being an Anglican, for now, means that I will mostly attend and serve white majority parishes. Thanks be to God. Yet I can’t help but smile at what the Lord is doing in the Global South. God is raising up His Church. His people are His gifts. And they’re coming to us as immigrants. Demos gracias a Dios.
Rev. Dcn. Rafael A. Rodrigues is a Pastor at Church of the Good Shepherd in Redding CA.