The 2010 United States census clearly pointed to a demographic shift in this country. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that Latinos are at the forefront of this explosive growth in the United States. Between 2000-2010, the Latino population grew by 43 percent and now accounts for 16 percent of the total United States population. In the last 10 years, my home state of Texas joined California, Hawaii, New Mexico and the District of Colombia as having “majority-minority” populations.[i] In Texas, Latinos make up 38 percent of the population and in the under-20 demographic sector, they represent 51.3 percent of the population.[ii] In states across the Southwest and Midwest, Latinos are the engine of population growth and in some cases are revitalizing small towns with dwindling populations. These numbers might mean little to you, but chances are your community has also seen an influx of Latino families.
Reading about these changing demographics reminded me of the short-term mission debates of the late 1990s and early 2000s. From the time short-term mission projects caught fire in Mennonite and evangelical churches in the late 1980s and early 1990s (maybe earlier?), the idea was to take mostly white and middle-class youth out of their safe havens and expose them to the poverty and everyday struggles of urban life. It was assumed that for the most part these youth lived in areas that were majority white, semi-rural, and in good economic standing. The response by host communities was mixed, but for the most part these groups were well received by their African American or Latino hosts. In my own experience as someone who worked hosting these groups, I quickly learned that these one to two week experiences also came with a slew of culture clashes and white youth who left with a sense of superiority instead of a sense of responsibility. After some years hosting groups in South Texas, some of us began to feel like our communities were being used to appease the white guilt of churches with inflated budgets.
In 2001, I was part of a group of church leaders from South Texas that wrote an article that criticized how the Mennonite Church organized short-term mission programs. The article, “Stories of Protest Against Short-Term missions,” (The Mennonite, July 2001) shared several of the bad experiences we had with groups that came to South Texas and northern Mexico from places across the Midwest. A month after the article first appeared, reader responses came in that both supported and derided the article. Some called us “ungrateful” and others called us “prophetic.” But in the flurry of responses, we did receive questions from people who, on one hand appreciated how we “raised our voices,” but who were also left with, “Well, now what should we do?” Genuinely good—and liberal—people wanted us to show them what authentic solidarity with marginalized communities might look like. And, they wanted us to know, even with the problems of short-term mission programs, their experiences did make them aware of racial injustice, systemic poverty, immigration politics, and Latino culture in general. “How is that a bad thing?” they argued.
Short-term missions, they carefully asserted, could still lead middle and upper class white people to think critically about race relations, poverty, and immigration politics. On the other extreme, some folks even decided not to participate in short-term mission programs until church and youth leaders agreed to rethink the whole enterprise. But whatever position people took, the point was that we were having a real conversation about the nature of church missions. The article we wrote did not start this. The debates around church missions in general and short-term missions in particular have a much longer history. But I think it did help move Mennonite churches and institutions to pay closer attention to preparing groups entering different cultural and economic contexts. Today in the Mennonite Church, in other words, the short-term missions debate is no longer as charged as it once was. Today churches and organizations often have in place well-organized programs that provide some sort of cultural orientation that includes an analysis of racism and poverty. More importantly, the demographic shifts of the last 10 years have extended the geography of Greater Mexico well beyond the Southwest. Growing Latino populations have popped up across the South and Midwest, places where black/white tensions are being complicated by what some have called the “Browning of America.”
I say all this because I believe that the problems and debates that emerged around short-term missions can teach us something about how we approach the upcoming convention in Phoenix next year. Mainly, the positives that came out of the short-term missions debate encourage us to not be afraid about having an open and honest conversation about immigration and racial politics in the U.S. Will we disagree? More than likely, but that’s ok. It is much worse to hide behind Bible verses that promote love as a way to silence the debate and avoid conflict.
As Christians, we are good at using poetic and biblical phrases to smooth over the realities of racism and poverty in the U.S. We come up with catchy slogans like “Citizens of God’s Kingdom” or my own personal favorite, “Welcoming the Stranger,” to help us think collectively about our position as Christians in a sinful world. But what if you are the stranger? Being a citizen of God’s kingdom is nice until you get pulled over for “driving while brown” in Arizona or any state in the US.
When Jesus talked about injustice, he did so by telling stories that made a point and by offering creative and practical ways to subvert the oppression people were suffering. Remember the Sermon on the Mount? If there is something that the short-term missions debate taught us, it’s that we need to be practical and creative about how we either deal with oppression or how we stand in solidarity with marginalized communities.
So, how will you and your group prepare in the next few months? What about once you get to Phoenix? I am hopeful that you will plan clear and practical ideas to show the world that the part of the church that will be at the Phoenix 2013 convention objects to Arizona’s racist immigration laws.
Want some ideas? Start by supporting the DREAM Act by visiting www.DreamACTivist.org and take action by visiting www.DREAMERjustice.org to find qualified legal service providers in your area. Also, call on Arizona to reinstitute ethnic studies programs in high schools and watch the PBS documentary, “Precious Knowledge” http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/precious-knowledge/film.html. Be informed about all the issues and get creative about how to best model what exactly it means to be a “Citizen of God’s kingdom.” Maybe, just maybe, Mennonites will shed their “quiet in the land” reputation and make some noise in Arizona. But most of all (and this is for all of you that have been on a mission trip, short-term or otherwise) remember how you felt when you left the place where you worked as a volunteer. Remember how stunned you were at the economic inequalities. And remember how committed you were to “changing the world” right before your youth group showered you with Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, and Cheetos.
[i] Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010, see: www.census.gov /population/www/socdemo /hispanic/hispanic.html. Accessed August 22, 2011.
[ii] Michael E. Young and Daniel Lathrop, “Latest Census Data Show Shifts on the Texas Home Front,” Dallas Morning News, August 10, 2011.
Born and raised in South Texas, Felipe Hinojosa is Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University. Felipe is married to Maribel and they have two children, Samuel Alejandro and Ariana Saraí. The Hinojosa family lives in College Station, Texas, and attends Houston Mennonite Church.