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Hispanic Baptist unity: a Gospel imperative

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — Unity is a biblical mandate vital for empowering Hispanic Baptists’ witness for Christ, two leaders said in setting forth their vision for cooperative efforts that transcend cultural impediments.

Jonathan Santiago and Daniel Sanchez, two longtime Hispanic leaders in Southern Baptist life, responded to questions from Baptist Press about Hispanic unity in view of the June 10 gathering, “Celebrating Our Diversity and Unity in Christ” in Birmingham, Ala., prior to the SBC’s June 11-12 annual meeting.

Santiago is chairman of the newly formed 23-member Southern Baptist Hispanic Leaders Council, which is sponsoring the event. He is the Puerto Rico director for SEND Relief, the mercy and compassion arm of the North American Mission Board.

Sanchez is distinguished professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. A member of the faculty since 1983, he previously served with the Home Mission Board (currently NAMB) and the Baptist Convention of New York.

Their responses follow:

BP: What does the Bible say about unity amid diversity?

SANTIAGO: Unity has almost become a cliché word people use when either trying to calm everyone down after troubled times or get others to agree with one’s agenda. But when I read and meditate on what the Bible says about unity, I cannot help but remember when Jesus prayed to the Father that we’d be one, so that the world would know He sent Jesus. What a timed moment to talk about unity when the theme of our SBC annual meeting is “Gospel Above All.” When we talk about unity, we are talking about the Gospel being above all because as Jesus said in John 17, if we are one, the world will believe the Father sent Him. We have to understand that unity is not just a relational issue, but a Gospel issue. It is not just about us finding ways to relate to one another, but that our unity has eternal implications.

SANCHEZ: In reading the Word of God I have found great affirmation as an individual knowing that God loved me so much that He sent His only begotten Son to die on the cross for me (John 3:16). I have also been inspired by the fact that God cares for all of the people groups in the world as expressed in the Great Commission by the resurrected Christ who sent His followers to make disciples of all people groups. While we see diversity of people groups in the Bible, we also see unity. The apostle Paul affirmed this unity when he stated at Athens that “God has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on the face of the earth.” Our unity is based on the fact that we have the same Creator.

Examples of efforts to promote unity are found in the Scriptures. At Jerusalem, when the newly birthed church faced the challenge of disunity due to the manner in which the Grecian widows (actually Hebrews who had assimilated into the Greek culture) were being overlooked in the distribution of bread, the leaders sought the face of God and appointed deacons to serve everyone equally. It is not by accident that the names of some of the deacons (e.g., Steven, Philip, Prochorus) also reflected their assimilation into the Greek culture. From this we can deduce that persons who were acquainted with the Greek language and customs were selected to serve and to bring about unity in the midst of diversity (Acts 6:5). It is then marvelous to read: “Then the Word of God spread and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (v. 7).

Another inspiring example of unity in the midst of diversity is found in the Antioch church. Started by Jewish Christians fleeing persecution in Jerusalem, they at first were “preaching the word to no one but the Jews only” (Acts 11:19). But “men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who when they came to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus Christ” (v.20). It was from this church made up of Jews and Gentiles that an offering was sent to minister to the Jewish believers who were suffering hunger in Jerusalem. It was from this church which had unity in the midst of diversity that Barnabas and Saul were sent as the first Christian missionaries (Acts 13). In Revelation 7:9-17 we see a picture of the redeemed from all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.'” There is indeed diversity in this multitude but a marvelous unity in that they are all worshipping God and Jesus Christ. These are just a few examples in the Bible of unity in the midst of diversity.

BP: Why it is important for Hispanic Baptists to have unity?

SANTIAGO: As a denominational leader for almost 20 years, I believe one of the reasons why it has taken this long for our denomination to recognize and identify leadership among Hispanics is because of the lack of unity in who we are and what we do. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics will be one-third of this country’s population by the year 2050. As the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow in the United States, we are starting to fall behind in creating the structures, systems and paths for reaching first-, second- and third-generation Hispanics. We need to do better. But most importantly, if we are going to take Jesus’ words seriously in John chapter 17, we will recognize that the main reason for unity is the Gospel. If we want to be effective in proclaiming Jesus as the Savior of the world, we cannot do that effectively if we are not in unity.

SANCHEZ: Hispanics are characterized by diversity. For one thing, they come from over 22 countries and numerous territories. In addition to this, there is significant diversity due to the different stages of assimilation starting with first-generation Hispanics who are the immigrant generation and extending to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have different linguistic abilities and cultural characteristics. Despite this, Hispanics have a degree of unity based on the fact that our culture and customs have deep roots in Spain. But even more so, Hispanics can have a greater source of unity in Jesus Christ. First, there is a marvelous opportunity to reach Hispanics with the Gospel of Jesus Christ due to the fact that they are showing more receptivity than ever before. Today, almost one-fourth of all Hispanic Americans identify as evangelical/Protestant. Second, Hispanic Baptists have great potential to be involved in world missions. The United States is now the world’s second-largest country in Hispanic population. With over 60 million Hispanics, the U.S. now has more Hispanics than even Spain. Hispanics are now poised to go from being a mission field to being a mission force. By joining hands with the Southern Baptist Convention and all of the SBC-related entities, Hispanics can be a part of a marvelous movement that can impact this country and our world. To accomplish this, Hispanic Baptists need to be united.

BP: In what ways can Hispanic Baptists experience unity beyond their various nationalities?

SANTIAGO: As Hispanic people, no one else knows the context, culture and paradigms of our people better than we do. We have a deep love for family and community along with a deep sense of responsibility when it comes to taking care of each other. That is what makes us who we are as a Hispanic people. We do life in community. And that is the strength of our Hispanic churches. Regardless of nationality, we all face the same struggles and opportunities together. But we have to learn how to take our struggles and turn them into gospel opportunities in such areas as English as a Second Language (ESL) and unforced culture assimilation, refugee and international ministries, poverty ministries and reaching the next generation. These are all struggles that gives us opportunities to share the Gospel. As a church, we have to learn to do ministry based on needs and opportunities instead of ministry based on cool and trendy. But we cannot do this effectively if we are not united. Jesus said in John chapter 13 that by the love we show one another the world would know we are His disciples. Our culture and context unite us, our language unites us, our struggles and opportunities unite us, but most importantly, the Gospel and our hope in Jesus Christ unites us.

SANCHEZ: Common evangelistic and missionary goals can enable Hispanics to experience unity beyond their nationalities. This needs to start in local congregations. Most Hispanic churches now have people from a wide variety of national backgrounds. Some churches affirm their unity in the midst of diversity by displaying flags of all of the nations represented in their congregation in their gatherings. Some invite people to bring food that is representative of the different countries. Many Hispanic churches are now involved in mission trips to Latin American countries to win people to the Lord but also to give their church members an opportunity to get acquainted with people from other countries. Someone said: “When you personalize, you demythologize.” In other words, when we get to know people personally, we get rid of the myths related to that group. In addition to what the churches are doing, it is very encouraging to see the various Hispanic fellowships coming together and forming the Southern Baptist Hispanic Leaders Council, a network of leaders that is in an excellent position to relate to the SBC Executive Committee’s Convention Advancement Council. Hispanic Baptists are experiencing a new sense of unity as they seek to become more involved in the work of the Southern Baptist Convention.