Editor's note: Albert Cutié is an Episcopal priest and former Roman Catholic priest known as Padre Alberto or "Father Oprah." He is the author of the memoir, "Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle with Faith and Love" and hosted the talk show "Father Albert."
By Fr. Albert Cutié, Special to CNN
In South Florida, every time a politician at the state or federal level aspires to attract the Latino vote, they come to a famous landmark restaurant on Little Havana’s Southwest Eighth Street. It’s called Versailles, and they come to drink the infamous cafecito, a Cuban-style espresso that is served at a window counter in front of the restaurant. It’s designed for those who prefer to stand outside and talk about world news and politics, rather than sitting down in a comfortable, air-conditioned cafe.
Regardless of what party or political inclination these people represent, getting acquainted with the Miami community begins with drinking the famous miniature cup of coffee and talking to folks who have made it part of their daily routine for decades. In the world of politics, there is no doubt that reaching Latinos - the largest minority in the United States - has become a priority for most. Yet, when it comes to many churches, especially our mainstream religious communities in the United States, I often wonder if we’ve truly started to make a sincere effort at reaching out to Latinos effectively?
According to the latest census, there are now more than 50 million Latinos in the United States. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, an overwhelming 68% of all Latinos say that religion is “very important” and most are un-churched, meaning that they are not regularly attending any particular church service on Sundays.
In my 25 years of experience as a seminarian, deacon and priest, every time I’ve listened to those in the process of assimilating and making the transition to life in our country, one of the things they claim is that they have little or no time for worship or religious practice. This is mostly due to the fact that their greatest concern is work and getting ahead - not just for themselves, but for their family members back home. Only after Latinos reach a certain level of stability in the United States do they begin to seek a church family and a congregation that will embrace them.
I believe all houses of worship would be much more attractive to this explosive demographic if religious leaders began to preach the Latino gospel. By this, I mean that we must make the effort to really address the issues that are sacred and important to Latinos, not just religiously, but socially. Many Latinos will tell you that they prefer a pastor, priest or religious leader that understands their culture, even more than a leader who can speak their language. I have witnessed and been impressed by this dynamic so many times. Often, a clergy person that is sensitive and demonstrates true interest is so much more effective than someone who speaks the language, yet ignores the culture.
I suggest that sensitivity to the core values of the Latino community and a desire to address their basic needs is what really attracts this growing minority to embrace a church family. I know many denominations are actively working on ways to reach out and offer services in Spanish. For instance, the Episcopal Church in the United States has a growing Latino population and has developed a strategic vision for reaching Latinos. There are countless others that are developing similar methods of outreach, and that’s a good place to start.
Yet, preaching this Latino gospel has to do with being familiar with the answers to some basic questions all religious leaders and communities must understand as essential: What do Latinos value most? What rules and social norms do they live by? What are needs and deepest desires of Latinos as a group? What are the things that might attract them to a religious congregation or deter them from even coming in the door?
One very telling survey revealed by the National Council La Raza in July said that immigration was the top issue on the minds of Latinos.
The economy and education were second to the ongoing immigration saga. It’s a striking difference between Latinos and others, who are overwhelmingly concerned about the economy, healthcare and other social issues; immigration is the least of their worries. I am sure Latinos tend to see immigration issues as directly connected to the terrible consequences of deportation and family separation. This is why most Latinos continue to see immigration as their top issue.
As a Latino who has worked with diverse Latino communities for years, I’ve seen more evidence that points to four core values that influence every aspect of life, including church or religious affiliation.
La familia: Above all else, Latinos expect churches to offer programs to enhance their marriages and families - activities that will strengthen the spiritual and overall welfare of all things family. It is equally important to remember that for most people in this demographic, family is also a lot more than the nuclear family – it also includes grandparents and others.
La fe: When it comes to religious faith, Latinos seek symbols, religious language, expressions of popular piety, basic doctrines, biblical teachings and a practical understanding of their relationship with God. They want to understand church as a community they can belong to, not just as an “institution.” That explains why Latinos are embracing non-traditional forms of Christianity and new religious expressions at a faster rate than other minorities.
Tradiciones: Folklore, food and cultural customs are very much part of the Latino ethos and everyday life. Special holidays and even birthday celebrations - like the popular debutante ball, the Quincieañera, which is often initiated by a blessing or full service at a church - are among the traditions that are most revered and continue to be honored among Latinos. All of these celebrations have their own unique rituals, food, music and styles, depending what region of Latin America or the Caribbean the particular community comes from. Invite God and spirituality into them.
Servicio: Latinos like to get involved and be hands-on. If a church building needs to be painted, if something needs to be fixed or if there’s a need for fundraising, they are often the first to volunteer their time and resources. But Latinos are not accustomed to making generous weekly contributions to their houses of worship because of cultural practices and government-supported churches in many Latin American countries. The mentality is often “The church will always be there,” and it is a real challenge for religious leaders to teach the American concept of regular and consistent giving and tithing to one’s religious community.
Reaching out to Latinos in America will continue to be a major challenge for both traditional and newer religious groups, but I believe it’s a good place to start by just asking the question: Does your house of worship speak the Latino gospel? It’s a lot more than just a language.