The History of Familia Latina Unida

The ministry we call Familia Latina Unida grew as we organized a new church: Adalberto United Methodist Church. The new church was formed primarily by undocumented Mexican Catholics whose efforts to organize their own community and provide a better education for their children were opposed by the neighborhood Catholic Church. They were active in their church and depended on their faith - but they wanted a church that would support their efforts.

The Methodist tradition mirrored many of the Catholic traditions that allowed for child baptisms, first communions, confirmations and quince eras which were important to them. It also allowed them to seek guidance from the scriptures, unfiltered by church doctrine. It encouraged a direct relationship to God, unfiltered by the priest in the confessional. Finally it allowed for a more lively church service with stronger preaching, powerful music and free flowing prayer and testimony without prohibiting them from saying the Rosary together.

We began together a reading of scripture to find support for the struggle in which they found themselves. Most religious leaders had applied the Old Testament command to “welcome the stranger” as the appropriate way to address the situation of the undocumented. We found more identification in the story of the children of Abraham, the Israelites themselves. The families identified with the people of God who were forced to go to Egypt to survive. They found themselves in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. They were not strangers – they were the people God had chosen to make himself known in the world, in the United States. When God told Jacob to take his family to Egypt where he would make them a great people, as many as the stars in the sky,” they felt God had his hand on them, heard their cries and gave them a destiny.

In the Gospels – and in the letter from James – they found a new Jesus who took the side of the oppressed against the hypocrisy of the temple and the cold oppression of the Roman Empire. As the struggle for legalization surfaced and grew, they more and more saw themselves as the subjects, not the objects, the people God chose, not the foreigners who the people of a new western Zion were called to accept with tolerance.

Gradually, the stories of the undocumented were told out loud. They were no longer hid in whispers, hidden from their children as well as the rest of the world. The church took on the cases of family after family, fighting deportations and separations. Instead of “welcome the stranger”, the scripture that said “what God has put together no man should separate” became their protection and strength in their faith. In the midst of crisis the families found themselves in scripture – and that helped them find faith and hope, a way where there was no way.

The serpent that tempted Adam and Eve in Genesis in the beginning of the Bible, became the dragon of Revelations which chased the woman and her child across the desert at the end of the Bible. The serpent had tempted Adam and Eve to take upon themselves the authority to decide what was right or wrong – in their own selfish interest. That selfish arrogance grew to become the powerful nation of the North, the United States, which had grown to dominate the continent of Latin America and the people who were forced out of poverty to seek their survival amidst the discrimination of the north.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, seen in the words of the 12th chapter of Revelations, was themselves, their mothers, the woman chased by the Migra across the desert crossing. And that Virgin of their traditions was still with them, guiding them through dangerous times.

Our church became a connecting point, drawing evangelicals and protestants as well as Catholics. We honored the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Mexican Catholic traditions, prayed like evangelicals and read the Bible in social context like Methodists. The church was being grown as a bridge between the divisions that doctrine and institutional competition had cut across the Latino community as we sought to support the faith of a people in struggle.

The Seasons of Faith and Resistance

The Methodists instructed us to follow generally, but not dogmatically, a year-long lectionary. At its core, the lectionary reflected both the Biblical instructions to “remember” events of God’s intervention such as the Birth of Christ, the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Pentecost, instructions that themselves harkened back to the Holy Seasons of the Israelites that built on the seasons of an agricultural economy. The popular religion that had grown up within the Catholic culture was built around these celebrations of seasonal events.

At the same time, we found ourselves in an annual calendar of struggle in our efforts to force the congress and the President to pass legalization, to fix the broken law. The Biblical seasons, the traditions of seasonal celebration in Mexico, which also reverted back to an agricultural economy, the persistent themes of planting and harvesting, and the annual calendar of mobilizations, elections and legislative struggle began to merge together for families that now saw themselves as the subjects through which God was working.

In this way, the seasons of “remembering” became also seasons of “renewal.” The first five seasons flowed naturally from the tradition. Advent was the time of preparing the soil of faith for the planting of the seeds from the previous year. We relived the appropriation of the Gospel by an indigenous people, by the ancestors, through the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Galilee, beginning in January with the Baptism of Jesus, followed Jesus in planting the seeds of the Kingdom. We are guided by healing and then by the exorcism of the demons of the Empire which have invaded our people. We are sent out with the 12 and the 72 and then taught the lesson of abundance in what we have by the feeding of the 5,000. The season concludes with the transfiguration, as Jesus communes with his ancestors to prepare himself for the march on Jerusalem that is to come.

“Jerusalem”, called for us to bear witness, confronting hypocrisy and injustice, as the seeds began to break ground. We internalize the lessons of rejecting the hypocrisy of wealth, of status and of the law as we organize our confrontation with the broken law. Then we relive the passion and feel the crucifixion and betrayal in our own struggle.

“Resurrection” represented the renewal and unity and hope as “the seed became the corn”, explaining that the seed of Jesus was now the body of Christ among the believers, healing us of the betrayals and crucifixions we had suffered. The gospels were in many respects a preparation for a people that would soon be in diaspora – again – this time with the prophesied destruction of the temple. Jesus had given them the means of grace to renew annually their faith in small groups. Then in seven resurrection appearances, he reminded them of these basic means of grace: Baptism, Reconciliation (confession and atonement), Communion, Prayer, Abundance, Assurance and Commission. Thus in the season of Resurrection, we not only are guided in rebuilding our movement but we are guided in the practices of our church which serve to renew our faith and unite us as a people of God.

Then came Pentecost and the first 11 chapters of the Book of Acts, as new leaders came forward in the Holy Spirit to carry on the movement, charged with bearing witness to God’s law in open confrontation with hypocritical laws enforced by government. The confrontation between God’s Law and man’s law confirmed us in the commitment to sanctuary and “popular power”, independent of any political party. We learned from the disciples as they prepared a people who were soon to be dispersed to hostile foreign lands where they would be called to form new communities of faith and make disciples/

As the years went on we added Kingdom Time, following the scripture in the letter from James, a time in which we sought the Kingdom of God among us”, were strengthened by adversity and disciplined ourselves to the Way of the Kingdom. In addition to James, we revisited the Gospels scriptures of the farmer who watched and guarded the growing of the seeds to a crop, preparing for the Harvest.

The struggle then made it clear to us that Kingdom time was followed by a time of Harvest, when we recognized the changes in ourselves and in our situation which the year of faith and struggle had produced. Often Harvest time coincided with a march on Washington and we drew on the scripture from the Book of Revelations, as John told his seven churches that they would survive the oppression of the Empire.

Finally, we added seven weeks in “Assembly Time”, seven weeks to assemble the seeds of the harvest, the people we had gathered, the people we had become, the lessons we had learned, to prepare for next year’s planting.

As the ministry grew, the scriptures in each seven week season seemed to speak directly at the problems we faced – and directed us in the struggle within our families, within the church and in the struggle for justice for the undocumented. The teachings and parables of Jesus spoke directly to us.

The seasons of faith that guided our struggle gradually also helped us to find harmony with the seasons of the year, with the moving of God’s creation. The memories of the early indigenous ties to harmony with creation were restored in Christianity.

Signs and Spirituality

Each year we joined the struggle of particular families or individuals caught in the cruel “lottery” of immigration enforcement. As we gathered around these families and individuals in prayer and in the very practical struggle to fight their deportations, these individual struggles inspired new strategies in the struggle. From the beginning, the Bolivar family first caused us to raise the issue of family unity within the immigration struggle. Elvira’s fight brought us to the strategy of the demand for the moratorium and sanctuary. The Leno family was the inspiration for the first familias unidas tour. The case of Alberto Segura brought us to the demand for discretion, for the demand that cases of those with U.S. citizen children or spouses be closed by executive action. The healing of a blind man as part of a posada of struggle for health care brought us to the 5 plus 1 program to end the 20 year death gap that affected the uninsured and undocumented: “He was blind, but now he sees.”

When we won these cases – after prayer and struggle – they became signs of hope, signs that God was leading us, protecting us and calling us to continue the struggle.

Unity and Destiny

There came a time in the struggle when Pastor Freddy Santiago stood in front of a Familias Unidas rally and said, “Today we are not Catholics or Protestants or Evangelicals. Today we are throwing religion out of the window. Today we are all part of the body of Christ.” It confirmed one of the most important callings of our ministry: the unity of the Latino community across divisions of doctrines and churches. It was not something we had set our minds on. It was a calling we had been given by the people who became part of our ministry, the wisdom of scripture, the power of prayer and the Holy Spirit. As our understanding of the immigration issue deepened we found new insight in Elvira’s statement that “I did not come here because of the American Dream but because of what the American nightmare did to my country – and to all of Latin America.” We began to feel the call to a destiny: Those who came from the south would join with those who came from Africa and from the east; they would be fruitful and multiply and become the majority in this nation, called to turn it from a nation that sucks the blood of the world to a nation that shares its wealth with the world; from a nation that wages war on the world to a nation that can be a fountain of peace; from a nation of the arrogant claim of exceptionalism to a nation called by the witness of “the least of these my people,” of God’s people.

In all of these ways, the ministry of Familia Latina Unida was a gift we were given and called to. It helped us with our faith and revealed the Way we struggled. It gave us courage to deal with the onslaught of intimidation, injustice and shame that was being piled on millions of people. Within the gift of this ministry they could say with Elvira, “I fear God more than I fear Homeland Security! Those who humble themselves before the Lord need not be made ashamed by the arrogance of man. Those who stand in the freedom of God’s Law, need not fear to stand apart from the hypocrisy of man. Those who believe in the Resurrection need not fear the Crucifixion.”

Harvest of the Ministry:

Vision of Seven Churches

Each year we celebrated the Harvest of that year, drawing on the Book of Revelations. On the seventh year of our ministry we looked more closely at ourselves. Adalberto had moved to Humboldt Park. We had replanted a new church in Pilsen. We had gathered families into the membership of Familia Latina Unida from many neighborhoods. They had come to us to aid in their defense against deportation – and had stayed as part of the faith and the struggle. We had also formed a youth organization, La Fuerza Juventud, with 1500 members from five high schools – to struggle against mass deportations and mass incarceration. Together Familia Latina Unida and La Fuerza had formed partnerships to struggle against the twenty year death gap in our communities that comes from lack of early detection and treatment for chronic diseases – because health insurance is denied the undocumented.

The vision of Revelations revealed to us a vision of committed groups of new disciples in different communities struggling together. Looking at the neighborhoods from which the families and youth came we determined to build seven churches which would be the faith centers of Familia Latina Unida and La FuerZa Juventud. The gathering in our church of those from different neighborhoods was a gift – and a sign – of our new vision of the ministry of Familia Latina Unida.

Organizing the Ministry

The ministry of Familia Latina Unida is based on faith. We are respectful of people’s particular religious traditions – but also respectful of those who have turned away from religion. Jesus taught – but he also acted. He demonstrated his faith among the people. Our ministry should follow his example.

The disciple begins the ministry in a new community by organizing the defense of the families and young people who are under attack by the evil policies of mass deportation and mass incarceration. There are defenses using the law and the disciple must become both an expert and a connection to legal resources. In our ministry we combine mobilization and gathered influence with legal defense. We gather supporters and make our case in public. We gather those with influence – pastors, elected officials – and ask them to go public with us. We have found that when we mobilize we can win cases.

A disciple at this stage of the ministry needs to honest about what they know and don’t know – and disciplined about learning what they don’t know. The disciple also understands – and listens to better understand – the psychological, economic and social strains that these attacks put on the person and the family under attack. The first task of the disciple is to be a source of strength to those under attack, to demonstrate that they are acting out of love and solidarity, not out of selfishness or self-interest.

The disciple should have an understanding of scripture – and the way we find our place in scripture – to bring the Word to help people under attack remain strong. The disciple should be able to offer the Word and Prayer – but should not preach, drawing on the faith and understanding of the word that already exists. That means: First listen!

In the course of defending our community in this way we look to see what natural collectives can be put together. If the disciple has worked carefully to demonstrate and then use the scripture and prayer when it is appropriate the collective can be brought together to both study scripture, pray and learn better how to defend our community.

Those who form the collective make a commitment to service and to making the people of the community conscious of their true history and place in current day society.

Bible Study follows the teaching of our ministry – leading the group through the seasons of faith, the word, prayer and struggle. Bible Study helps people find their place in the Biblical Story of the journey of the people of God. The Bible Study, which may take place in the context of a legal defense and action program, follows the scripture and teaching of the weekly messages from the ministry. Those in the Bible Study group are invited to weekly services at existing ministry churches.

From the Bible Study and Action group consistent outreach is done in the community. When there is enough strength a community site or center is established. When the Bible Study and Action group is strong enough a weekly service is organized. A congregation is built, person by person, family by family, community network by community network. Faith leaders are trained to lead the congregation.

Disciples reach out to pastors and church leaders in the community. We are not in competition. We offer help in the defense of families and young people. We do not pressure people to become members of the new congregation, inviting them to our service or Bible and Prayer meetings without pressure to join – or leave their own churches.

The organization of the ministry lets God work among the people. Each year there will be a harvest of the faithful. The disciple is required to have the patience and persistence of the farmer, providing support for what God is doing with his people.

A network of these kind of churches form the backbone of the ministry – providing self-reliance and renewal.

How Do I Increase My Faith?

Some come to us with an ongoing commitment to a religious tradition. We have to work with them to “help us build unity”, emphasizing sharing faith over religious dogma. We believe that our ministry has shown us a way to unify our people through faith. That has to be sincerely our purpose! We have to let people see what we have been given.

Others come to us who are alienated from religions – for many reasons. Some participate with us because they want to defend their people but don’t really “feel” the faith. In truth, the Scriptures and especially the gospels are protest against the hypocrisy of religion. The gospels also prepared disciples to practice their faith without a temple, in collectives of resistance to a hostile society.We suggest to them to practice the faith with us and to seek the faith through meditation. It is true that through our participation in the seasons of faith and struggle, through study of the word, prayer and collective celebration, and struggle we are brought to a spiritual understanding of the forces in the universe that lay beneath our religious practice. It is also true that when we let ourselves believe, when we let ourselves go through the seasons of the faith, we can seek an honest experience in meditation and prayer – and we will find it! That is the meaning of “seek and you shall find” and “knock and the door will open?”