With a population of 53 million in 2012 that’s projected to hit nearly 128 million by 2060, Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States. About 70 percent of Latinos are Catholic, a number that has remained steady largely because of an influx of immigrants from Mexico. To gain insight into the Latino demographic when it comes to planning events, we spoke to Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church. They give their insights into what it takes to attract and maintain a stronghold within this demographic at your events. Note: The words Hispanic and Latino have similar meanings, though their origins are different. In this article, they are used interchangeably.
Q: What are the best ways to make Latinos feel included at faith-based events?
Rodriguez: To attract Latinos, religious meetings should be inclusive. They should speak their language, affirm their culture and celebrate their diversity. Make room at the table, on the program and in leadership, for Latinos. Be intentional; it won’t happen by osmosis. Meetings should also reflect the Latino community. There should definitely be at least one Latino speaker on the program. Music is also a good way to appeal to Latinos, and it doesn’t have to be just Latino music but can be a variety. Also, programs should be provided in both Spanish and English, with headphones available for English sessions.
Aguilera-Titus: Hispanics should be included as speakers, in services and at hospitality events. If you want Hispanics to participate, you need to have Hispanics around the table during planning. If you only think, it would be nice to have Hispanics attend, you will fail. Their attendance is unlikely without significant involvement from the get-go. You plan with people, not for people.
Q: How can an organization plan meetings with more appeal to Latinos?
Rodriguez: Culturally, when you think of Latinos, you think of energy, music, food, family and faith. Latinos are known for their passion, and at church they sing and praise with passion. Latinos don’t leave culture at the door of the church, but instead bring it into the sanctuary to be part of the program. They bring Mariachi music into the service. For every culture, we will engage your dialect, sing your song and eat your food. Meeting planners should pay attention to aesthetics related to marketing and branding to reflect the audience they are looking to recruit, register and engage. You can’t reach what you don’t reflect. The people shown in photographs of your marketing materials should include Latinos. Video is an effective medium to reach out to Latinos, who tend to be attracted by touch and sound. Every branding element, down to type fonts, should be geared to appeal to the Latino community.
Aguilera-Titus: Language is secondary. The responsibility is to transmit the faith. We are here to evangelize, not to Americanize. More and more, the implied English-only policy among Catholics is going away. In some Catholic parishes, the idea of Hispanic kids already knowing English led to implementation of an English-only policy. Using English only eliminates Spanish-speaking parents from teaching their own kids. It alienates families that don’t speak English. Don’t limit transmission of the faith to one language when you are dealing with a multicultural group.
Q: What is the overall impact of Latinos on the faith-based community—and on meetings?
Rodriguez: All major religions in the United States would be in decline if not for the Hispanic-American influx. Latinos are saving and revitalizing Christianity and also other faith groups. All religious events in the 21st century must include a Latino outreach. Hispanic inclusion is mandatory going forward. It’s doable. Hispanics are not interested just in Hispanic-only events; they are interested in participating. Do you want me at your event? How do I know? Will your event speak to me, my community, my culture, my needs?
Aguilera-Titus: The Catholic Church in the United States is showing a vibrancy that is more than sheer numbers, both the sacraments and growth in the lay ecclesial movement. Hispanic Catholics likely participate in a parish but may also embrace other opportunities to worship God. Hispanics are more welcoming of engaging with people who talk to them about God than other groups. We had 15,000 people gather at a charismatic retreat in southern Los Angeles recently. There were 12,000 who attended a similar event in Houston. There is an incredible increase of Catholics being transformed by Christ in their life.
Q: What else should meeting planners know about the Latino demographic?
Rodriguez: The Latino Christian’s worldview emphasizes a multiethnic approach and multiculturalism that reflect the makeup of the Latino community, which embraces many cultures from a variety of countries unified by a common language. Latinos do not represent a race, but many races, including Europeans, Africans and Hispanics. It would be unlikely to find an exclusively Mexican church or a Puerto Rican church or a Cuban church; rather, they are combined in a multiethnic Latino church.
Q: How is inclusion a way of life for the Latino community?
Rodriguez: Latino Christians reconcile the vertical and horizontal aspects of the Christian message. They combine a message of salvation through Christ, emphasized by Anglo Christians, with a message of justice embraced by African-Americans. Latino Christians integrate both messages into a holistic and inclusive approach that emphasizes cooperation, collaboration and community. Latino Christians focus on the nexus of the cross, where sanctification meets service, faith meets action, and where the prophetic and the practical reconcile.
Aguilera-Titus: I hear Pope Francis talk about making the church a church of inclusion—of reaching out, especially to those who live in poverty. He is constantly challenging the Catholic Church, pastors and bishops to meet people where they are. That’s very Latin American in how we view God. Pope Francis resonates with Hispanics in the United States. The Pope has rekindled an enthusiasm for the Catholic faith for Catholics all over the world of all races. He brings a high sensitivity with people who live in poverty.
Q: How do immigration issues affect faith-based meetings?
Rodriguez: In order to attract Latinos, planners should do their homework and research state immigration laws, which is an important issue to Latinos. States with stringent anti-immigration laws are perceived as hostile. We see anti-immigrant laws with polarizing rhetoric as anti-Latino laws that persecute families.
Aguilera-Titus: There has been an increase in scapegoating of Latinos in the United States over the last 10 years, much of it driven by political rhetoric. The hate, dislike and rejection have filtered down in religious communities. The Catholic leaders have been clear on what immigration reform should look like: compassionate and fair. Since the last election, perceptions are shifting, with growing recognition of the contribution of immigrants and their service to the country. I think immigration reform will be a great benefit to all churches—members will feel more at home, more invested, more generous.