Leading scholar on Latin American social movements explains that these groups “call on the collective conscience to focus on the vulnerable and the marginalized.”
The greatest strength of the country’s booming Latino community is its deeply religious faith community, which is creating a growing number of organizations to address social concerns, sociologist and author Milagros Peña told an audience at the Drew Theological School.
“Many of these Latina-Latino faith-based organizations are also moral organizations. They call on the collective conscience to focus on the vulnerable and the marginalized,” said Peña, a University of Florida professor known for her research into the impact of religion on the lives of Hispanic immigrants, especially women. On May 1 she delivered the school’s annual Frederick A. Shippey lecture, established to advance scholarship in the sociology of religion.
Hispanics comprise 16 percent of U.S. residents, a number expected to grow to 20 or 30 percent by 2050, Peña said. While ethnically and religiously diverse—belonging to Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal congregations—they are disproportionately affected by poverty, low educational levels and unfair labor practices. They are also establishing footholds in new places. In New York City, for example, Mexicans are moving into East Harlem, historically a Puerto Rican neighborhood. Hispanics are also settling in many counties of the American South and the Midwest.
A native New Yorker whose own childhood was positively impacted by Roman Catholic nuns, many of Irish descent, Peña’s research has involved interviewing Latino pastors and lay leaders about the new social ministries. Some have organized across racial and ethnic lines, especially in the fight for affordable housing, she said. Peña pointed to Vision Urbana on New York’s Lower East Side, the Latino Pastoral Action Center in the Bronx and the Community Development Corporation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Paterson as leading examples.
“They are not a panacea,” she said in response to a question from an audience member who said he was critical of some faith-based programming. “I’m a sociologist and skeptical about any organization—organizations breed a lot of human dynamics. You’re always going to have abuse of power and abuse of resources. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to try.”—Mary Jo Patterson