Worship and Witness through Popular Piety: a Latino View
by Ivis LaRiviere-Mestre (May / June 2005 • Volume 21 • Number 3)
See also below
Hearing the Struggles of the New Voices: A Litany about Opening Our Eyes to a Vision of Hope and Escuchemos las luchas de voces nuevas: Una letanía para abrir nuestros ojos a una visión de esperanza
A Latina pastor seeks to shape her congregation’s worship in ways that take its setting and mixed Hispanic cultures, as well as its Lutheran Christian theology and traditions, seriously.
A few years ago, a Latino family asked me to join them in the celebration of “Three Kings Day.” Among many Christians in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is observed on the day of Epiphany, January 6. The family was celebrating a special reunion. The father, who had been in a mental institution for several months, had just returned home.
Although the joy of the children was contagious, it was still obvious that this family was spiritually and emotionally drained. A few years ago, the dreams of this family had become broken forever. The oldest son, who was on his way to work, had been killed in a fight between two neighborhood gangs. Sadly, the son was supposed to have started college the following fall. This family had never been the same. The father suffered from various forms of physical and mental illness. The mother had to deal with the family’s serious financial problems.
During the Three Kings Day celebration, the grandmother, Doña María (not her real name) opened a very old book that contained special prayers and Puerto Rican folklore music. In charge of the family ritual, she had a gift for improvising musical poetry every time she began to sing. She sang about the assurance of God’s love in the midst of suffering and hard times. She made sure that people knew there was a reason to celebrate. For her, the living Word of God was in their midst.
The mother had organized a “family altar” in the center of the dining room table where everyone had gathered to eat and celebrate. In the center of the table stood a Nativity scene with the three wise men, candles, the cross, and a picture of their oldest son. The grandmother led the singing with three typical Puerto Rican songs called aguinaldos. She asked me to pray before she sang each aguinaldo and read the biblical story of the wise men. We ended with a blessing.
I had taken part in and witnessed a Latino/Mestizo ritual that was an expression of this family’s “popular religiosity.” In the midst of their pain, they had found a way to cling to what was familiar to them: God’s Word, a popular religious family ritual and symbols, and their stories of faith sung by the grandmother through her aguinaldos.
A few days later, I began to reflect on what had taken place at that family’s celebration. As their pastor, I could see that the family altar and the grandmother’s songs reflected an understanding of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had called “costly grace” in his book, The Cost of Discipleship. This family was witnessing to Jesus’ urgent message to follow him. Their Christology was not a result of abstract thinking but rather a living witness that was centered in their faithfulness to the living Word of God.1
This was the first time I had really experienced a kind of tension between the traditional theology of the church I serve and a theology that is incarnated within the celebrations, struggles, and suffering of God’s people. This celebration had become so meaningful to this family that the following year they asked me if the leaders of our church would consider celebrating Three Kings Day as part of our regular worship. From their request was born the celebration of a “popular religious” Latino/Mestizo Lutheran ritual known as “Three Kings Day” within our community of faith.
Latino Lutheran Worship
Today, this ritual, among others, reflects the worshiping experience of our Latino/Mestizo Lutheran community of faith and is done without compromising our Lutheran identity, theology, and heritage. In our context, we speak of Mestizo, as well as Mulatto, in reference to the ethnic groups that have come from Latin America and the Caribbean and who have brought with them a tapestry of races and ethnicities that emerged from the conquest of the Spaniards long ago. In our congregation, we use the description “Latino/ Mestizo Lutheran” to acknowledge the rich cultural diversity and expressions of faith that emerge from “popular religiosity” while claiming, at the same time, our Lutheran identity.
Our community of faith, named San Martín de Porres Evangelical Lutheran Church, has found a common ground for witnessing to the living Word of God by experiencing these rituals within the context of our worship. This common ground of worshiping and witnessing invites many of our Latino/ Mestizo Lutheran members to live out their baptismal promises boldly and fully. The weekly reenactment of the drama of God’s salvation reminds our congregation of the many ways that God’s living Word equips them to respond to their calling, witnessing, and discipleship within their ethnic-specific realities of doing outreach in at-risk neighborhoods.
Every Sunday, some of our members talk about experiencing a glimpse of God’s victorious power in the midst of a situation where they feel hopeless and powerless. Some even say “Estoy en victoria” (“I am in victory”). This is a statement of faith for many in our congregation because God’s living Word has become real in their lives. It is their experience that, through the hearing of the proclamation of the living Word of God, the lonely, abused, poor, brokenhearted, and oppressed are moved by the power of the Holy Spirit to hear the good news of deliverance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and fullness of life in Jesus Christ.
As their pastor, I have experienced many special moments of God’s perfect kairos during worship through which God continues to sustain, nurture, and comfort those who suffer, especially those who suffer unjustly. “Go in peace and serve the Lord” makes perfect sense to God’s children who have to go back into a broken world to live out their particular vocational calls.
This is the experience of our Latino/ Mestizo Lutheran congregation that has struggled to keep a healthy tension between our biblical and theological Lutheran roots and the expressions of faith of “popular religiosity” without compromising our worship principles and Lutheran heritage. It has been our experience that the process of interpreting, experiencing, and reflecting on the theological meaning of Latino/ Mestizo “popular religiosity” in relation to our worship and evangelistic outreach can offer a distinctive richness and diversity to future theological conversations on this subject.
|In our congregation, we use the description "Latino/Mestizo Lutheran" to acknowledge the rich cultural diversity and expressions of faith that emerge from "popular religiosity" while claiming, at the same time, our Lutheran identity.|
Author Manuel Jesús Mejido offers an overview of the origin of “popular religiosity.” He says that there are three expressions of “popular religiosity” that took place in the Americas at the time of the Spanish conquest and colonization: (1) the African beliefs found in the syncretistic religious mix of African religions and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain;
(2) the indigenous beliefs found in the syncretistic mix of indigenous religions and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain; and (3) the religious perspective and practice of the campesino (peasant), which developed in the rural areas due to the relative absence of religious leaders in those areas.2 The expressions of faith, or popular piety, primarily emerged from the experiences of people who had been living in poverty and suffering oppression.
As we have reflected on the relationship between worship and culture in our setting, we have also used some of the official documents of the ELCA and the Lutheran World Federation, including The Use of the Means of Grace (ELCA), Renewing Worship: Principles for Worship (ELCA), Christian Worship: Unity in Cultural Diversity (LWF), and the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture: Contemporary Challenges and Opportunities (LWF).
For example, in Renewing Worship: Principles for Worship, the document talks of the dynamic relationship between worship and culture:
Christian worship relates dynamically to culture in at least four ways: First, it is transcultural, the same substance for everyone everywhere, beyond culture. Second, it is contextual, varying according to the local situation (both nature and culture). Third, it is counter-cultural, challenging what is contrary to the Gospel in a given culture. Fourth, it is cross-cultural, making possible sharing between different local cultures.3
Theological Reflection Needed
But as the ELCA continues to strengthen its outreach of witnessing to the living Word of God in ethnic-specific congregations in at-risk neighborhoods, we are encouraging church leaders to reflect theologically on the expressions of faith of Latino/Mestizo Lutheran “popular religiosity” as expressed in family rituals, religious festivals, cultural symbols, and the use of biblical images.
The reality is that many Latino and non-Latino pastors and leaders who are called to do outreach ministry among Latino/Mestizo families in urban and rural settings in the United States are facing the challenge of interpreting these expressions of “popular religiosity” on their own. In our own theological reflection, we have experienced that these expressions of “popular religiosity” sometimes can be misunderstood and used in a way that may compromise our Lutheran identity, heritage, and theological teachings. “Popular religiosity” is a term often associated with the popular expressions of faith from believers who are associated with the Roman Catholic Church. But other expressions of faith have more disturbing associations with non-Christian syncretistic expressions that awake fear and superstition in the mind of many believers.
For this reason, we try to leave enough space for the faithful and others to enter into serious theological reflection about what expressions of faith of “popular religiosity” have a positive contribution to make to our Lutheran theology as well as other expressions that may compromise our identity and heritage. It is has been a challenge for us, but we have faithfully continued to reflect on these concerns.
Listed below are some questions about popular religious practices that have emerged from informal theological discussions and pastoral situations in other ethnic-specific congregations that are doing outreach ministry among Latino/Mestizo people. Our leaders believe these expressions of piety merit more serious theological reflection:
- In the Lutheran church, do we light candles to saints?
- In a Protestant sanctuary, do we have a special place for Mary, the mother of God?
- Is the Virgin of Guadalupe a cultural image of faith of the oppressed and poor that needs to be theologically discussed among Lutheran and other Protestant scholars?
- When is it appropriate in the Christian liturgy to have blessings for specific religious objects like a crucifix or a rosary?
- What does the Lutheran Church teach about blessing a rosary?
- Is it appropriate to bless children or present them to God before their baptism during a Lutheran worship service?
- How can the Latino/Mestizo ancestors’ popular spirituality be validated as part of the Christian liturgy?
1. The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology, edited by David F. Ford (second edition, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997), pp. 45-46.
2. This is an adaptation from Manuel Jesús Mejido’s theoretical article (1999) on “Prolegomenon to the Sociology of US Hispanic Popular Religion,” Journal of Hispanic Latino Theology, 7 (1) 33.
3. Renewing Worship: Principles for Worship (Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 2002), intro. p. 9.
Ivis LaRiviere-Mestre is pastor of Iglesia Luterana San Martín de Porres, Allentown, Pennsylvania. She will begin a new call as Associate Director for Latino Evangelism and Outreach, Division for Congregational Ministries, Chicago, Illinois in the middle of this month.
Hearing the Struggles of the New Voices:
A Litany about Opening Our Eyes to a Vision of Hope
Escuchemos las luchas de voces nuevas:
Una letanía para abrir nuestros ojos a una visión de esperanza
(This bilingual litany, written by Ivis LaRiviere-Mestre, was used at a community organizing meeting sponsored by the Congregation United for Neighborhood Action (CUNA). It reflects the struggles of various multicultural Christian communities of faith in their endeavor to promote healing and systematic changes in their at-risk neighborhoods in Allentown, Pennsylvania.)
L: People of God, let us quiet our minds as we prepare to reflect on our vision of hope: In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
L: Pueblo de Dios, aquietemos nuestras mentes para prepararnos a reflexionar sobre nuestra visión de esperanza: en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo.
L: Most Merciful God, you know how much we yearn for your presence in our lives and in our world. And yet many times our vision of hope is clouded by our greed and our eyes are blinded by our misuse of power.
L: Misericordioso Dios, tú sabes lo mucho que anhelamos tu presencia en nuestras vidas y en el mundo. No obstante, muchas veces nuestra visión de esperanza está nublada por nuestra avaricia y nuestros ojos están cegados por el abuso del poder.
C: O Holy God, we confess our selfishness and blindness. We ask that you open our eyes to a new vision of hope, so that together we cry out for your justice in the midst of a broken world.
C: Oh Dios de santidad, te confesamos nuestro egoísmo y ceguera. Te suplicamos que abras nuestros ojos a una nueva visión de esperanza, para que unidos clamemos por tu justicia en medio de este mundo quebrantado.
L: Most Gentle Creator, our tears of frustration are shed over old wounds of mistrust and oppression that continue to put at risk our relationships with one another. Open our eyes to walk together a new path of forgiveness and reconciliation, so we learn to live and respect people who come from a different ethnic background and speak other languages.
L: Benevolente Creador, nuestras lágrimas de frustración son derramadas a raíz de heridas viejas minadas por la desconfianza y la opresión que continúan poniendo en riesgo nuestras relaciones con los demás. Abre nuestros ojos para caminar unidos un sendero nuevo de perdón y reconciliación, a fin de que aprendamos a vivir y respetar a la gente que viene de otro trasfondo étnico y habla otras lenguas.
C: Loving God, open our ears to hear the voices of the voiceless through these communities of faith that have gathered here at this assembly, so that we bear witness to the living Word of God while we celebrate the astonishing diversity of people who live in the neighborhoods of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
C: Amante Dios, abre nuestros oídos para escuchar las voces de los que no tienen voz, a través de estas comunidades de fe que se han congregado en esta asamblea, a fin de que podamos dar testimonio de la Palabra viva de Dios mientras celebramos la resplandeciente diversidad de gente que vive en los vecindarios de Allentown, Pensilvania.
L: Righteous God, we present before you the community leaders and government officials of this city. Guide them into a path of justice and truth. Let your great love shine on them. Grant them wisdom and courage to denounce the injustices of institutionalized racism. Let the design of your compassion, which was revealed to us through the life and ministry of your Son Jesus Christ, inspire them to be just and compassionate leaders among those who are powerless and oppressed.
L: Dios de justicia, te presentamos a los líderes de esta comunidad y a los oficiales gubernamentales de esta ciudad. Guíalos por el camino de la justicia y la verdad. Permite que el diseño de tu compasión, que nos fue revelado a través de la vida y ministerio de tu Hijo Jesucristo, los inspire a ser líderes justos y compasivos entre aquellos que son indefensos y están oprimidos.
C: Gracious God, through our Baptism you have welcomed us as co-workers in your kingdom. Thanks to these baptismal waters, you quench our spiritual thirst, refresh our weary spirit, wash our old wounds, and cleanse our tears of suffering away. Continue to open our eyes to new visions of hope, open our ears to hear the cry of those who suffer, and bless our hands to work side by side with one another as a diverse community that is a reflection of your divine love. We lift up this litany of hope to give all glory and honor to our Triune God: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
C: Bondadoso Dios, mediante nuestro bautismo nos has recibido como colaboradores de tu reino. Gracias por estas aguas bautismales, pues así Tú sacias nuestra sed espiritual, refrescas nuestro espíritu cargado, lavas nuestras viejas heridas y limpias nuestras lágrimas de dolor. Continúa abriendo nuestros ojos a una nueva visión de esperanza, abre nuestros oídos para escuchar el clamor de los que sufren y bendice nuestras manos para trabajar unidos como una comunidad de fe diversa que es reflejo de tu amor divino. Elevamos esta letanía de esperanza para dar toda la gloria y el honor al Dios Trino: en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.