by Diana Barrera
We are living in a time when God is giving the Hispanic Church the opportunity to reach out to Muslims.
I still recall my first encounter with the Muslim world. It was back in 1970 when I was a student at Universidad de Puerto Rico. During my junior year I studied immigration currents in Puerto Rico’s history. Our professor decided that we should go to a Middle Eastern restaurant. We walked a couple of blocks to Padre Colon Street in Rio Piedras and entered the restaurant in which local Palestinians typically ate. It was a two-story, smaller place. Men ate on the first floor; without making eye contact with anyone, women entered and went to the second floor.
This restaurant, I later learned, was a key entry point for Muslims coming to Puerto Rico. In 2004, I went back to Rio Piedras to visit my alma mater. The same place I used to eat Middle Eastern food is now a mosque, one of five that have been established on the island. Muslims now own the majority of businesses in that area. An Islamic class is being taught on the university campus and a prominent Puerto Rican lawyer, who is a strong Muslim advocate, teaches Islam on the radio.
Mobilizing Hispanic Churches to Reach Muslims
My first experience of Hispanic engagement with Muslims was the CLAME 90 conference in Orlando. Hispanic churches in Orlando joined with Partners International and COMIBAM (Iberoamerican Missionary Cooperation) to sponsor this first meeting, in which Christian Arabs and Iberoamerican Christian leaders met. The main topic was sending missionaries from Iberoamerica to Muslim countries. The COMIBAM movement has approximately three thousand missionaries working among Muslims in different parts of the world.
We considered how to build on similarities that exist among both cultures. Since then, the leaders of COMHINA (North America Hispanic Cooperation in Missions) have been mobilizing Hispanic churches to reach Muslims. Since 1990, we have seen an increase in Muslim immigration in the U.S. While traveling through different cities to visit Hispanic churches, I noticed Muslims moving to Hispanic communities in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Jersey City, and Orlando, among others.
In the last few decades, we have started to hear about Hispanics becoming Muslims (200,000 in 2009, according to the American Muslim Council). Eleven Hispanic Muslim centers—including HispanicMuslims. com, PIEDAD in Florida, Alianza Islamica in New York, and Atlanta Latino Muslim Association in Georgia—have been established.
It is unknown whether Muslim presence in the U.S. will continue to grow. Some predict increases in immigration from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan because of U.S. interventions. This prediction is based on historical patterns in which the largest immigration from Latin America comes from places where the U.S. has intervened militarily. Intervention has tended to create a path for immigrants.
Potential of the Hispanic Community
The Hispanic population in the U.S. has grown impressively in the last decade. We have become the biggest minority group. We have become a decisive group in the culture, in politics, and in Christianity. Jose Ferrer and Rita Moreno were the first Latino actors in Hollywood. The operatic tenor and symphonic director Placido Domingo is famous in the music world. Most recently, Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican from New York, has joined the Supreme Court. Projections claim the Hispanic population will keep growing by birth and by immigration. This will have an impact on the future and spirituality of the nation.
According to Tim Halls, mission strategist with Latin America Mission,
The ability of Latinos to create the future will grow, and so will the self-confidence of Hispanics that they can make a difference in the world. A more proactive Hispanic population, strongly Christian, will reach out to evangelize others, and will begin to see that their calling is not only to the Hispanic community, but to the whole country, especially to those on the margins.1
Especially after September 11, 2011, Muslims and their motivations have been puzzling and often misunderstood. This dynamic provides Hispanic Christians with the opportunity to compassionately reach out from a place of cultural understanding.
Puerto Rico is not the only place in Latin America from which Muslims are emigrating. Many Muslims living in South America move to North America. Halls claims, “We have overlooked the immigration route from Latin America, of Koreans and Palestinians.” Halls notes that many “Hispanic” immigrants to the U.S. have names like Nasser, Massif, Abdul, and others, revealing their Arab backgrounds. This is because their ancestors moved from the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan) to Latin America. Now they are moving north. This may create a bridge between Latin Americans and Muslims since they see themselves as drawing from a similar well.
Strong Connection between the Latin and Arab Worlds
Since Hispanics are not a religious group and Muslims are not an ethnic group, how can we talk about them “interacting”? How can we say Muslims have something in common with Hispanics? In Latin America, all eleven presidents who have been of Arab descent (Syrian, Lebanese, or Palestinian) have been Christian, with the exception of Carlos Saul Menem in Argentina. He converted to Catholicism because the country’s constitution required it for him to become president. During the Menem presidency, he conferred many benefits on the Muslims in Argentina.
There seems to be a strong connection between the Latin and Arab worlds, even though all eleven presidents came predominately from Christian backgrounds. Also, there is evidence of transnational connections between diaspora Muslims in Latin America and communities in their Muslim homelands. These connections have served to increase the flow of immigrants and commerce that involve Latin Americans and Muslims. This has a large influence on the Hispanic world in the United States.
Halls claims he is not worried about assimilation of Hispanics into U.S. Islamic culture. Hispanics becoming Muslims, he says, actually demonstrates two positive things.
1. God is allowing Hispanics and Muslims to live together in communities. “For the first time in hundreds of years, Muslims are living in the same place as Latino Christians and buying at the same stores and sending their kids to the same school,” he says.
2. Latino conversions to Islam may indicate that there are still historical ties and close cultural affinity between Latinos and Muslims, even though these groups have lived apart for almost six hundred years.
Muslims are now being exposed to Christianity as much as Christians are being exposed to Islam. Halls notes, “When Jesus is recognized as the crucified and risen Christ, it will happen in ways that Muslims recognize as their own through contact with people who have the Spirit of God living in them.” Muslims will not just become Hispanic Christians. Instead, God will use Hispanic Christians to bring Muslims into their own discipleship. According to Halls, “Many Hispanics are bearers of the gospel. Their lives with Jesus and their testimonies are inescapable, and their love for others and their willingness to pray for others is powerful.” Certainly, Muslims who culturally value these qualities will not overlook them.
Muslims are already working hard to reach Hispanics in the U.S. For instance, some Latino young men in the jails have followed Islam for the same reasons that African Americans have done so: to straighten out their lives and become part of a community. In addition, some Latinas have converted so they can marry Muslim men, and some Hispanic students have converted because they find that Islam offers new ways of looking at old religious traditions.
However, Halls says, “Still I am not worried because I don’t think that things will only go in one direction. We are in a shared space and what comes out of the shared space depends on what the people in it will do. Right now, Muslims feel extremely empowered and Latinos do not.”
A Kairos Opportunity
This is a “kairos” opportunity from God; he is giving the Church the opportunity to be empowered. Christian Hispanics are enthusiastic about their faith, and church growth in the United States is fastest among Spanish speakers. We are living the days in which Abraham asks God in Genesis 17:18 to fulfill his promise to remember “Ishmael.” Ishmael’s descendents are Arabs and Muslims, and they have a place in our communities.
Hispanic hearts need to be convinced that Jesus is Lord of all humanity and that he loves Muslims and wants Hispanics to love them, as well. True love leads to action and to convivencia (sharing). Living together in community makes space for the Spirit of God to work.
We don’t know how Muslims will follow Jesus, or what their discipleship will look like. We are not going to teach them to act like Hispanics in our Hispanic churches. According to Hall,
We want them to be able to follow Jesus with freedom. So we must focus on tearing down the walls between us, and letting the Spirit of God and the word of God do their work. Looking at the history of God’s work in the world, we see how the gospel spreads mostly by contact between people.
In that sense, it is like bees cross-pollinating flowers. Missionaries who go out are indeed special, but God has also always used everyday people. What is needed is for the Hispanic Church to decide what outreach to Muslims will look like.
1. Author interview, August/September 2009.
Diana E. Barrera is currently serving as mission director of Southeastern Spanish District A/G. For the past two decades she has been working through COMHINA to mobilize the Hispanic Church and to instill within the Church a vision for unreached people groups.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 150-153. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.