A guest post today from a rising scholar I admire, namely João Chaves. Here is a brief overview of his journey:
João B. Chaves, Ph.D., is associate director of programming at the Hispanic Theological Initiative, housed at Princeton Theological Seminary. João is the author of several peer-reviewed articles and three books, including Migratory religion: context and creativity in the Latin diaspora (Baylor University Press, 2021). His next books include, Jim Crow South’s Global Mission (Mercer University Press, May 2022), Baptists and the Kingdom of God (co-published with Laine Scales, under contract with Baylor University Press), and Remembering Antônia Teixeira: missions, memory and violence beyond borders (co-authored with Mikeal Parsons, under review). You can follow João on Twitter at @JoaoB_Chaves
Lessons from the sidewalk of a church:
Experiences of Evangelical White Migrants and Neighbors
A few years ago, while conducting research on immigrant faith communities, a pastor from a large immigrant church in the southern United States told me a story that summarizes some of the central changes that are produce under our feet. Walking around the church’s multi-million dollar campus, the pastor pointed to one of the many sidewalks that connect buildings, parking lots, patios and a football field and told me that when the group he led was still small, the pastor of the predominantly white community the church that hosted them at the time demanded that immigrants get off those sidewalks whenever they saw white Americans (Christians!) arriving. Fast forward a few years, and you get a very different picture: the immigrant group grew exponentially and bought the campus from white Americans who had dwindled in both numbers and financial power. In a show of grace, the immigrant pastor hired the pastor who once claimed immigrants aren’t good enough to share sidewalks with predominantly white church members. He didn’t need to hire the American-born minister but, he told me, he wanted “his brother” to retire comfortably.
Stories like this continue to proliferate as Christianity in the Global South develops in a number of different directions. Religious entrepreneurs, migrants, and missionaries strive to spread their religious products as they travel from the Global South to the Global North, from one part of the Global South to another, and within and across multiple borders. national and transnational. Many faith communities that have buildings once filled with white American and European Christians continue to face two options: either be reinvigorated by welcoming a genuinely diverse constituency with a strong presence from the Global South, or be reoriented in light of the decrease in number. I’ve seen the second option happen way too often in places like New Jersey, Texas, Florida, California, Maryland, etc. The first option – accommodating a genuinely diverse constituency – is more difficult than one might initially think. Despite what leaders of predominantly white groups say or feel about authentic diversity, the costs of overcoming power dynamics informed by long-standing socio-cultural engagements are truly significant. The enthusiastic publishers of Galatians 3:26-29 (For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God by faith…There is no more Jew or Greek…) might suggest otherwise. But eschatological hopes are not social facts!
Why do predominantly white evangelical groups in particular often struggle to embrace authentic diversity, despite their purported intentions, theological discourse, and/or rhetoric? Because they have become deeply accustomed to racism and xenophobia. Certainly not all (or even most) pastors of predominantly white churches would ask non-whites off the sidewalks – at least not today. Yet the racialized and nationalistic entanglements that inform the practical dispositions of many white American evangelicals remain an important aspect of the movement, and they affect how evangelical immigrants from Latin America relate to their American counterparts.
My work focuses on relations between the United States and Latin America, with particular emphasis on the formation, maintenance, and development of religious networks between the United States and Brazil. My previous book, Migratory religion, explored how immigrant Christians from Latin America became religious entrepreneurs in migrant and local communities in the United States. My next book, Jim Crow South’s Global Missionworks as a prequel to Migratory religion and reveals how the racialized imagination of white evangelical missionaries in the southern United States helped shape wider Latin American evangelicalism—and thus the theological imagination of many immigrant Christians.
In some circles, it has become common to present evangelicalism in Latin America as a disposition historically characterized by an “evangelical left”. This “evangelical left” is often known as embracing a socially progressive (but mostly theologically conservative) form of evangelical Christianity called integral mission. The majority of evangelicals in the region, however, have actually drifted in different directions. Agreement with (or socialization into) the most conservative expressions of white American evangelicalism (such as support for political and social conservatisms) has consistently informed the theopolitical imagination of millions of Latin American evangelicals. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this general trajectory; here, I’m more interested in general trends than nuanced nuances.
The paradoxical lesson that my study of white evangelicalism and immigrant Christianity in the United States has taught me is that often the racialized theopolitics of American white evangelicalism loosens its grip on Latin American evangelical immigrants when these immigrants encounter made of American white evangelicals in their natural habitat. It is in the United States that white evangelicals typically vote to deport undocumented siblings, act to advance the marginalization of black and brown sisters and brothers, reveal their bipartisan leanings toward nationalist mythos, and sometimes even ask Christian immigrants to leave “their” churches sidewalks. In Latin America, theology rhetoric of American evangelicalism has historically been one of the most strongly emphasized aspects of American expressions of the movement; When Latin American Protestants migrate to the United States, they experience the daily practical commitments and palpable habits of American Evangelicals as an undeniable, lived reality. The crisis of the Latin American evangelical spirit is not generally created by the invitation to adopt a set of abstract theological concepts articulated in the American evangelical keys; instead, the crisis arises when immigrants from Latin America live as physical neighbors of white evangelicals whom, it seems, immigrant Christians find easier to admire from a distance from their home country.