I was recently struck by what a Latino pastor wanted me to see. Before immigration reform and other hot button issues, he said, "I would like Anglo churches to see that Latinos are a suffering community." When you see a Latino walking down the street or sitting in a local business, what do you really see? The current immigration debate has poisoned the well of compassion and replaced it with the residue of resentment. While multicultural ministry brings an array of challenges, I believe our greatest need is to see rightly.
For many Latinos, daily life is marked by struggle. A 2011 Pew Hispanic Center study recorded poverty rates for Latinos at 28.2 percent--higher than any other minority group (whites were at 11.1 percent). Children received the brunt of this reality, setting a new U.S. record. "More Latino children are living in poverty---6.1 million in 2010---than children of any other racial or ethnic group," Pew reported. "This marks the first time in U.S. history that the single largest group of poor children is not white."
Poverty in Latin America begets poverty in the United States. Let me highlight Latino Christians as an example. Among Latinos in the United States, 39 percent describe their religious identity as "born again" (15 percent self-identity as evangelical). "Absolutely poor" Christians disproportionately live in Latin America. According to world Christianity statistician David Barrett, "In all developing countries, Christians living in absolute poverty number 260 million (24 percent of the 1.1 billion absolutely poor, or 13 percent of all Christians); half of them live in Latin America." Absolute poverty in one's home country often results in economic migration.
While the effects of poverty are intense, its reverberations can be even harsher. As a result of economic migration, families are torn apart and divided by barbed wire and border walls. Given the choice between suffering at home in absolute poverty or providing for family by crossing a border wall, many choose to cross. But this gut-wrenching suffering merely scratches the surface of a collective Latino struggle. One could discuss colonization, brutal regimes and revolutions, forced mestizaje (mixing of races), identity issues, and exclusion as heirlooms of a Latino heritage. All of these struggles factors into the U.S Latino experience---tribulation we must begin to see.
The vast majority of Latinos in the United States have no legal issues. For example, all Puerto Ricans are citizens by birth, and many Latinos descend from generations of U.S. citizens---sometimes further back than many Anglos. Yet Latinos are often viewed with suspicion due to their heritage; fear and exclusion mark their daily lives. Ignorance festers in the absence of cross-cultural friendships. Instead of seeing and embracing a suffering community, we often plan ways to avoid them. In many of our churches, we segregate services to avoid overlap. Indeed, Anglo churches have been far too content to leave their Latino brothers and sisters in the shadows, hidden from the broader church. This hinders our ability to see our communities through a biblical lens. As 1 Corinthians 12 shows, if one part of our body suffers, we all suffer. Instead, many of us simply see a reflection of ourselves.
Many of us are blind toward suffering because we have "mirror eyes." When we look at the world, we're tempted to see a reflection of ourselves---our life experience, our political views, our perspective on Scripture, our definition of success, our economic status. We assume everyone's life experience resembles our own, particularly if we have opportunities and middle-class mobility. We simply do not see the reality of suffering around us. The Gospel writers often note how Jesus saw the hurting and was filled with compassion (Matthew 9, 14, Mark 6, and elsewhere). Do you see the suffering around you? When you do, are you moved with compassion, or are you blinded by mirror eyes? As a church, we desperately need a new set of eyes to see the diverse collection of trials around us. If we reach out in friendship, suffering communities wield a hammer needed to shatter mirror eyes and replace them with Jesus-shaped lenses.
My mirror eyes began to fracture as I lived in a barrio of Oaxaca, Mexico. As we walked through my Oaxacan neighborhood, my friend Alejandro pointed to house after house. With each gesture, he described families torn apart by economic migration, now separated by border walls. Each story had a common theme: desperation and suffering. These stories are not confined to southern Mexico, however; they were waiting for me as I fellowshiped with a Latino church in the Chicago area.
Leave the posturing, resentment, and fear to politicos. And let us replace them with lenses that see through the gospel. What do you see when you consider Latinos in the United States? My hope is that as a church, we would see the suffering around us and act prophetically. Theologian René Padilla says, "Wherever the church fails as a prophet it also fails as an evangelist." Seeing suffering is ultimately about the gospel. Our prophetic example, either by silence or friendship, will define our message to a broken world.