By Pat McCaughan
The newly created Coalition of Episcopal Latinos or CEL aims to expand the Latino/Hispanic voice and establish a collaborative network throughout the Episcopal Church, according to the Rev. Canon Carmen B. Guerrero, canon for peace and justice in the Diocese of Arizona.
"We're incorporated; we've got members joining everyday," said Guerrero, a founding board member, during a recent telephone interview from her Phoenix office.
Guerrero said that ideas for formation of the CEL have been around a while, but never lasted. But after General Convention 2009 in Anaheim and a fall summit on immigration she realized, "We need a united voice, and an independent voice, so we can say what needs to be said. It appears as if this is the time," she added.
'We have a major role to play'
With at least 16 Spanish-speaking congregations in his diocese, Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Floridasaid he is frustrated with the Episcopal Church's sluggish efforts to reach out, not only to immigrants but also to the second and third generations and middle class Latinos/Hispanics.
"Too often they were presumed to be Roman Catholic when in reality they were unchurched people," said Frade, a keynote speaker for the upcoming Sept. event. "We need somebody to say, 'hey, we're missing a great opportunity.'"
CEL could also address the historic underfunding of Latino ministry. Frade noted that the General Convention 2009 budget allocation of $300,000 was considerably less than the $2 million requested to fund a strategic vision for Latino ministry development.
"As a diocesan bishop, many times I struggle to make sure the voices of Latinos are heard, especially in budget times. We love this church and we want our community to know more about what the Episcopal Church is."
He said the church ought to put together two obvious facts: "that we have ability to be the church of the 21st century" and that Latinos are among the fastest-growing populations.
Too often churches have blocked Latinos rather than ministered to them, he said. "But they will continue to come and will be part of our lives whether we like it or not."
Frade praised the ministry of the Rev. Canon Anthony Guillén, the Episcopal Church's program officer for Hispanic/Latino Ministries, and said the new group hopes to support that work but also to advocate apart from church structures.
"The goal is not to fight with the church, but to establish a network," that offers local autonomy and influence when allocating budgets and making other decisions, Frade said. "We want to be part of the standing committee, the commission on ministry … to be creative, to be formed and to be trained as leaders."
Guillén said the coalition is being formed to work in the areas involving Latino/Hispanic ministry that his office does not or cannot address. "In that way we are complementary and distinct. I look forward to collaborating with the coalition in the future," he added.
Some 325 Spanish-speaking Episcopal congregations in the United States and another 370 in the church's Province IX, "are growing at a fast pace. We do not have adequate clergy to do the ministry and thus we employ many laity, both paid and volunteer to develop our Latino/Hispanic congregations," he said.
Province IX includes dioceses in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Central and Litoral Ecuador, Honduras, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
About half the clergy serving in Spanish-speaking congregations in the United States "are Anglo and many are women," Guillén said. "In my estimation this is due in part to women clergy being willing to work for less pay and/or part-time."
A disproportionate number do not receive full-time pay, health-care benefits, pensions, and have not taken a vacation in years, he said.
Guillén's office focuses on assisting dioceses and congregations in initiating new congregational ministries, planting churches and revitalizing congregations, as well as Christian formation, liturgical resources and leadership development, he said.
The Rev. Floyd "Butch" Náters Gamarra, associate rector of St. Mary's Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and a founding board member, said CEL has been 30 years in the making.
Such efforts date at least to the debut of the Consulta, or Consultation at General Convention 1985 in Anaheim. The coalition of progressive organizations in the Episcopal Church included the Union of Black Episcopalians, Integrity USA, Episcopal Urban Caucus, Episcopal Women's Caucus, and others, but no official Latino/Hispanic organization.
Gamarra intervened and was invited to represent the interests of the Latino community and previous efforts to start an organization of Latino Episcopalians.
A series of organizational attempts followed: the Coalition of Hispanic Episcopalians (CHE) in 1985; the National Hispanic Organization of Episcopalians (OHNE) in 1992, but neither lasted.
Ten years later, some 200 Latino Episcopal clergy and laity gathered in Los Angeles under the theme "New Awakening: Challenges and Opportunities" and again expressed an urgent concern for creation of an organization of Latino/Hispanic Episcopalians.
It feels different now, said the Rev. Enrique Cardena, a CEL founding board member and vicar of Iglesia Episcopal de San Pablo, a congregation of about 300 in the Diocese of Phoenix.
"Excitement is already building" in anticipation of the September gathering, at which participants will be asked to approve board members, and determine priorities.
"We are trying to reach every diocese and hoping to have a good representation," he said in a telephone interview from his Phoenix office.
In consultation with former UBE president Judy Conley, Guerrero organized a September 2009 gathering to envision CEL.
"We need something like this, the church needs to be held accountable to everybody and we're the only people who did not have a group or a voice," Gamarra said.
Leadership development, advocacy, justice, immigration
Gamarra said CEL is "trying to organize in such a way that we can begin to work at inequalities and injustices in this church, like glass ceilings, deployment, who gets what benefits," he said.
Guerrero agreed, noting that often when Latino clergy "get a job, they're so grateful to get the job that they don't get as good a salary. I was one of those … Or, they get the worst churches; usually the urban ones nobody else wants anymore and then they're given a deadline of 'make it happen' in three years."
CEL also aims to empower young Latinos/Hispanics for ministry. CEL memberships range from $25 for individuals to a lifetime membership, at about $500, Guerrero said.
The Rev. Isaías Rodriguez, editor for Forward Movement Hispanic resources said that so far the response to CEL has been very positive.
"We expect at least 60 people for the first general meeting," added Rodriguez, a former Roman Catholic priest from Spain now in the Diocese of Atlanta and the author of the Spanish language "Introduction to the Mysticism of St. John of the Cross."
"A humble beginning, but considering the past it should be a real triumph," he said, adding that Guerrero is "a true leader. I am sure that this organization will not disappear."