Cultivating Lasting Faith Among Latino Teenagers
Sticky Faith in Multicultural Contexts
Photo by Jacob Mejicanos
This article is part of a series on Sticky Faith in multicultural contexts, born out of a recent think tank with leaders from Asian American, African American, Latino, Urban, and Multiethnic ministry contexts. The goal of the gathering and subsequent research is to help ministry leaders better understand and respond to particular cultural realities of these groups, as well as to help leaders within culturally specific contexts adapt Sticky Faith principles and practices in authentically contextual ways. Read Part 1 of this article.
Alberto, a junior in high school, asked that I pray with him after an altar call at camp. As I approached, I asked how specifically I could pray for him, and he answered: “It’s not logical! Grace doesn’t make sense! How can God give his Son for me? I keep failing God, and God has grace for me?” In Alberto’s case, his understanding of the gospel was based upon a rewards-punishment framework. Since his recent behaviors didn’t match up with the “list” of things that Christian youth don’t do, he was grappling with how to trust a God who had given everything for him in the midst of his sin and addiction.
Having grown up in church, Alberto struggled to accept God’s grace as a freeing response to the One who loved us so much. As I prayed with Alberto, reaffirming God’s grace upon his life, I also realized the depth of the need to communicate and model for our Latino youth the kind of gospel that points to trusting Christ rather than simply “managing sin.”
The Latina church plays a key role in addressing this need for the emerging generation of Latino youth. Whether intentionally or not, the Latina church has contributed to Alberto’s internalization of what God’s grace means. Yet, as the Latina church faces a shift both demographically and generationally, we must ask the question, “How involved will the next generation of Latinos be in the life and leadership of the church?” As Daniel Rodriguez explains, “In Hispanic communities where the fastest growing segment of the population is native-born and English-dominant, the church’s emerging leaders must also be from this group.”
In what follows, I’d like to suggest three concrete steps that can help embody the gospel of Jesus Christ as a means of grace to Latina youth.
Accompanying Latino Parents
Part 1 of this series discussed the influential role of la familia (the family) on Latina youth’s construction of self and community. This is also the case in their faith formation. Research has shown that Latino youth are heavily impacted by the communal dimension and influence of parents, grandparents, and extended family—either towards a positive appropriation of faith and religious practices from generation to generation or in the lack of guidance towards any spiritual or religious development. Thus, a non-negotiable factor of Latino youth ministry is the partnership with the Latina family—most specifically with a Latino youth’s parents or legal guardians.
The accompaniment and discipleship of Latino parents in their own development as parents and disciples of Jesus Christ is a necessary piece often overlooked. In order for Latino parents to embody a gospel of grace to younger generations of Latinos and Latinas, they must also experience this grace through the support and normalization of some of their joint struggles, expectations, and failures of being Christian Latino parents.
This translates into developing safe, nurturing, and empowering spaces for Latino parents to parse out the unique contextual challenges of raising their sons and daughters in “a land not their own.” Whether it’s a group mentoring format or a parent support group, the Latina church can play a crucial role in strengthening the social and spiritual capital that surrounds and nurtures the lives of Latino youth. In addition, Latino leaders and pastors may also use this space as a resource to inform, update, and provide practical tools for immigrant parents on navigating the generational differences between first- and second-generation Latinos present in their own home and church context. Topics included may range from differences in educational systems; concepts of authority; views on money, sexuality, social media, and civic engagement; and the relationship between doubt and faith.
Collaboration and mutuality between senior leadership and youth leadership can also communicate a “blessing” often necessary for Latino parents to engage and participate. Ultimately, a joint effort can also translate into a deeper set of intergenerational relationships between younger parents, grandparents, and other members of the congregation who themselves know the experiences of immigrant families.
Deepening Intergenerational Relationships
The celebration and deepening of intergenerational relationships is another key factor in the transmission and embodiment of faith to a younger Latina generation. Latina youth often inhabit environments where multiple generations do life together. Latina youth share living spaces with younger siblings—and, at times, abuelitos and abuelitas (grandparents) are also part of the day-to-day operations of a household. In addition, the cost of living and the desire to support family members may also lead multiple family units to share rent or mortgage costs until one of them can be self-sustaining and financially viable. At other times, although the family unit may be living in a single home, there is constant interaction with tios and tias (uncles and aunts) and cousins during weekend gatherings, celebrations, or simply to have cafecito (coffee). This same dynamic is often seen in the life of a Latina congregation since participation and involvement in congregational life means the gathering and solidifying of multiple generational relationships. Thus, Latina youth are exposed to interacting with younger generations while at the same time growing up with a sense of respeto (respect) towards older generations.
However, the presence and interaction of multiple generations in a Latina household or congregation does not automatically mean there’s a sense of deep, mutually transforming relationships. Generational differences between first- and second-generation Latinos tend to be drawn across language, values, and a sense of agency in the world. In Part 1 of this series, I developed these tensions through the lenses of identity formation and the complexity of migration in the life of Latino youth. Although these may be seen as truly overwhelming obstacles towards the deepening of intergenerational relationships, I’d like to suggest one concrete step.
Food. Yes, food! Relationships between first- and second-generation Latinos can be deepened through sharing recipes, cultural stories, and faith journeys. As young Latinos navigate the tension between assimilation and acculturation, the role of the Latina church can be crucial in promoting an appreciation of cultural practices that convey a sense of identity and belongingness. For example, a Latina congregation may promote a tamalada (a night of tamales) where different elder members of the congregation share and prepare tamales with the youth. Making tamales draws out unique recipes, techniques, and memories because Guatemalan, Salvadorian, Peruvian, and Mexican tamales each feature different ingredients and seasonings, providing a strong sensory connection for those who have migrated from these places. Thus, Latino youth may form a deeper appreciation for both the cultural component symbolized through tamales while also getting to know these older members in a more vulnerable space.
Mutuality may also be fostered in another event where Latino youth train older Latinos the basics on social media and digital technology. Other examples may include workshops and mentoring relationships based on the formation and instruction of basic life skills such as changing oil, job interview tips, financial education, and career exploration.
Equipping Agents of Transformation
A Latina church committed to God’s mission in and for its surrounding community must take seriously the role of Latino youth as agents of transformation. The Latina church knows first-hand accounts of injustice, chronic violence, marginalization, trauma, abandonment, and fear. But the Latina church also trusts in the God of life and justice who calls forth solidarity, peace, inclusion, participation, the dignity of personhood, familial bonds, and restoration.
Consequently, the Latina church—particularly Latino youth ministry—plays a key role in the process of leadership formation as Latino youth are seen as significant agents within their own communities. In fact, the Fuller Youth Institute frames this significance of Latino youth as a “load-bearing role” within the life of a church that spills over into the restoration and reconciliation of a neighborhood. It’s precisely this shift in a congregation’s mindset that liberates young people to move beyond receiving and consuming ministry opportunities towards an imaginative and engaging set of practices that seek the shalom of the city. This posture of empowering Latino young people moves them away from victimization and dehumanization towards a restoration of their dignity and their contribution to the good of the community. Moreover, Latino youth are uniquely positioned to inhabit multiple contexts through their biculturalism and bilingualism—a gift that equips them to be citizens of the Kingdom of God in a globalized world.
The Latina church must begin to envision the involvement of Latino youth in the launch and the leadership of new ministry initiatives or community service efforts. I’ve appreciated the model for social and political engagement for Latino faith communities known as the Pastoral Circle, which consists of three steps: ver, juzgar, actuar (see, judge, act). This model allows Latino youth to be more active and responsive towards injustices in their current context trough a shared, collaborative, and accompanied process appropriate to their age and in conjunction with other peers and adults.
For example, documentary nights in which community leaders from both the nonprofit and the public or private sector are invited to share insights related to homelessness, the justice system, racism, college education, and more could be hosted by a local Latina congregation. The aforementioned steps in the Pastoral Circle can be applied towards the documentary being viewed, and various youth leaders can help facilitate both small and large group discussions. The conversations stemming from these efforts could become the seedbed for starting church ministries responding to specific issues that resonate with Latino youth. It could also lead to ongoing ministry partnerships with existing organizations in the area.
Other ideas include helping Latino youth document their own realities through mobile devices and process their observations correspondingly. A local youth ministry may also be involved in engaging the need for arts and music in local schools through advocacy and community organizing. A good example that has emerged within the Latina community regarding advocacy has been the Dreamers, a group of undocumented students working towards comprehensive immigration reform for their families and themselves. Through the use of social media platforms and peaceful demonstrations, this group was critical in the passing of the executive order known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2008. Similar efforts may be launched within the Latina community via the involvement of Latino Christian youth that take seriously their call to discipleship, justice, and evangelism.
My hope through this series has been to name some practices that can nurture the ongoing work of the Latina church—most specifically Latino youth ministry. Through the accompaniment of Latino parents, the deepening of already existing intergenerational relationships, and developing their self-perception as agents of transformation in God’s kingdom, Latino youth may not just be recipients of faith, but active, vibrant participants in God’s mission in the world.
Action Points: Where to begin
- Gather several Latino young people and ask about their experiences with the church. What experiences of grace, family, and empowerment (or the opposite) have they encountered in the church community?
- Gather several first-generation Latino parents to discuss what kinds of support and tools they would find most helpful in navigating the realities of raising second-generation Latino kids.
- Discuss with your leadership team how your church can foster authentic intergenerational contexts through which adults and young people can find connection.
- Brainstorm ideas for empowering young people to be agents of transformation and serve in load-bearing roles in the congregation and community.
 Kara Eckmann Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford, Sticky Faith : Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 30-37.
 Daniel A. Rodriguez, A Future for the Latino Church : Models for Multilingual, Multigenerational Hispanic Congregations (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011), 164.
 Ken Johnson-Mondragón, Youth National Study of, and Religion, Pathways of Hope and Faith among Hispanic Teens : Pastoral Reflections and Strategies Inspired by the National Study of Youth and Religion (Stockton, Calif.: Instituto Fe y Vida, 2007), 48-53.
 Urban Youth Workers Institute has developed a great event that points to this particular area of life skills development. Although Manhood Camp is geared towards young men of color as a response to fatherlessness in our urban areas, the life skills workshops are worth noting as a basis for youth development and can be used as a model to adapt in a local congregation. http://uywi.org/event/manhood-camp-2016/
 Fuller Youth Institute’s research on churches Growing Young identifies that young people who play a load-bearing role in their congregation reveal the level of prioritization given to their development as leaders and as agents of mission. See Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), churchesgrowingyoung.com.
 Juan Francisco Martínez, Walk with the People : Latino Ministry in the United States (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 98-100.
 Johnson-Mondragón et al., 258-265. This is a great tool that can help in the discernment process for Latino youth’s engagement in the issues that they identify in their community, along with their understanding of the symptom and causes of injustice and their connection to their faith and to Scriptures.
 Thrive Collective, through its School Murals program, embodies this initiative in substantial and life-giving ways. http://www.thrivecollective.org/