La Familia 101: Partnering with Parents to Minister to Hispanic Youth

October 3rd, 2009

Uno, dos, tres…you start to sweat as you realize that those are the only words you remember from your high school Spanish class. Sure, thanks to Ricky Martin you're familiar with the phrase “Living la Vida Loca,” but you still feel a little nervioso as you realize Juan and Maria are part of your youth group. What now? It doesn't matter how diverse your community is, if you live in Missouri or Miami, or that you're a gringo (translation: non-Hispanic)—the odds that you'll have the opportunity/challenge of ministering to Hispanic kids and their families are quite high. By the year 2005 there'll be well over 40 million Hispanics in the United States, making them the largest minority. On top of that, Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be less than 18 years-old.

Hispanics come from all kinds of settings (from the tropical Puerto Rico to the bright lights of Mexico City) and generations (from the one that just joined the hunt for the American dream to the one that has always known the U.S. as home). Hispanic families are no longer only in a few states; they can found everywhere, thanks to military bases, work, and simply because “my aunt was living there.”

You might be thinking, “Hey, youth are youth. Black, white, green, purple—I know what I'm doing.” Ministering to Hispanic youth in Orlando, Florida (and growing up as one) has taught me that partnering with parents is the only way to effectively minister to them. Believe me; you owe it to the Juans and Marias to take a crash course in La Familia 101.

The Expectation: the role of your ministry.

During the Spanish colonization of America, the conquistadors followed a very uniform community development plan when it came to establishing towns. First, build the church and the plaza—and then the town will grow around it. Therefore, the church was the social, religious, and cultural center of every town. It's for this reason that the church in the mind of La Familia should fulfill more roles than simply a spiritual one. In the building of our church in Orlando, we have a community service center run by a local social agency. In conjunction with this organization, we offer parenting classes for the parents of teens as well as teenage parents.

Do you have to do this in your ministry? Not necessarily, but do understand that la familia will expect your ministry to be a resource for dealing with problems like this. Understand that the church in the Hispanic culture stands in the middle of all aspects of social life and needs, not exclusively spirituality. You'll fall short of your mission if you provide solid discipleship but your youth don't develop their full potential in Christ due to issues in their familias. Fifty percent of high school dropouts in the 1990s were Hispanics. Teen pregnancy is rampant among Hispanic females. We can't minister to the Hispanic youth if we plan to overlook their social and physical needs. You must serve as a connection between la familia and other agents in society such as school, doctors, etc.

The Respect: your relationship one on one with the parents.

Madre y Padre might speak with an accent, but I guarantee you that their accent isn't in their minds. When I first moved to the United States from Puerto Rico people inevitability spoke slooower to me or simply tried to use every word or phrase from the Taco Bell commercials that they could remember. Avoid this. If the parents perceive that you're being disrespectful, you'll loose your opportunity to minister to these kids. They may only have a 4th grade education, but think about what level of education you'd have if you'd escaped guerrillas, gorillas, cartels, poverty, and political persecution to give a better life to your 17-year-old boy in an unfamiliar country?

Just as Jesus did with us, meet them were they are. Put your stereotypes aside. Keep your “Yo quiero Taco Bell” jokes to yourself. Show sincere interest in them and they'll do the same for you. Learn that “Hispanic” means Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Costa Rican, etc. Knowledge is the cure of all ignorance. I am sure that la familia will be glad to share about their culture with you. As a minority, the Hispanic family might mistrust you at first, but if you show interest in their students, like any other parent, they'll open up.

The Big Move: now you see them, now you don't.

One of the main ways that Hispanics cope with crisis and financial difficulties is by moving from place to place and back. This is one of my biggest frustrations in my youth ministry. “My son is using drugs.” “There's no money for rent.” “I lost my job.” “We're moving—from Puerto Rico to New York to Puerto Rico and back again.” According to the Legacy 2002 report made by the Healthy Community Initiative of Orlando, one of the biggest problems in the Hispanic Community in Orlando is the movement from school to school during the same academic year. Academic performance was significantly reduced with each move. It's easy to understand how their spirituality will also suffer from this movement.

There are two main factors to take into consideration. First, help to illustrate the consequences involved in moving as a coping mechanism. Most of the time, la familia does this because they don't understand the consequences of this behavior. Even better, have yourself, the youth leader, and your ministry become an asset for la familia, giving them an incentive to stick around. Second, don't undermine your time with them. Your time, no matter how brief, will make a big difference in their lives.

The Gap: from the first to the fourth generation and everything in between.

Hispanics are no longer an outside influence in the American culture, but a driving force inside the melting pot of society. Therefore, the variety of Hispanics, depending on your setting, varies greatly. You may experience Hispanics from the first generation that just came to this country, to those whose only home has been the United States. Regardless of what generation, Hispanic parents, like any others, feel it's important to pass their values on to their offspring. For example, one of these values is work.El trabajo holds an equally significant role as education in most Hispanics families. La familia may want their teens to learn about God, but might want Juan to work or baby-sit his siblings rather than going to your mid-week service. You must prove to the parents the value of your youth group for Juan. If the parents think you're trying to undermine their roles, they'll take their kids away from your ministry. As a good leader, your vision and purpose must be clear.

Teach your students that honoring their mothers and fathers also means honoring their culture and roots. A teen who doesn't know where she's coming from won't know where she's going. Due to the generational differences between kids and parents, cultural conflicts often arise. Since the students are being raised in a much different culture, which often includes a different language, the youth may feel unwanted pressure from parents to maintain a culture that's incompatible with their social settings. Parents often feel frustrated when they perceive that the price their kids are paying to adapt to the present culture is to completely forget their own culture. As a youth leader, being aware of this added stress to la familia and offering support during difficult times is essential. Also keep in mind that becoming more American or assimilating into the culture of the majority doesn't correlate with salvation. Because of the recent acculturation of youth ministry, la familia could perceive your ministry as just another agent of the culture and not one from Christ.

In reality, la familia and the family aren't very different; they're both groups recognized by God and society to provide for the needs of its members. So the question is really whether or not you're going to take the time to overcome cultural barriers in order to bring Christ to la familia. Contrary to what many people believe, Jesus wasn't an All-American kid or the quarterback on his football team. Would a teenage Jesus and his family feel comfortable in your ministry? People from all walks of life and cultures felt comfortable around Jesus. He ate with them, walked with them, and talked with them. He took the time to dissipate any and all barriers between them and set them free. If you follow Jesus in this exciting work, maybe, just maybe, la familia will teach you more than you could ever teach la familia. So stop sweating, put down your English/Spanish pocket dictionary, and get to work.


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