Cecilia Menjívar

Religious Institutions and Transnationalism*:
A Case Study of Catholic and Evangelical Salvadoran Immigrants1

  Arizona State University



Modern social science theory assumed that as modernization and scientific rationalism took hold in society religion would wither. Religion, however, has not only persisted, but in some respects, its importance seems to have increased. One may even argue that, throughout the world, religious groups now constitute some of the most important forms of social organization and sources of worldviews (Rudolph 1997). For those who find themselves part of increasingly more encompassing global population movements, religion provides a unique way both to make sense of their predicament and to bridge new realities with experiences in their homelands. For migrants, religious participation offers not just a way to express and interpret their individual interests and to remain connected to their origin communities; it also provides a link to churches and religious organizations that maintain an active collective engagement by creating and shaping transnational spaces. In fact, it has been argued that in today’s post-modern age, religious communities have become vital agents in the creation of transnational civil society (Rudolph 1997: 1).

This paper seeks to examine religious institutions as they shape Salvadoran immigrants’ links to their communities of origin. It will focus on the Catholic and evangelical churches’ organizational structures as they sometimes coincide—even promote—but at other times, conflict with the immigrants’ own interests to sustain ties with their homelands. A focus on the organizational and institutional structures of these religious groups provides an important angle from which to examine how these structures enable or constrain the creation of transnational spaces.2 An ethnically heterogeneous and highly bureaucratized church that operates worldwide that is confronted with a multicultural membership locally, will likely adopt strategies aimed at uniting its membership, creating new “pan” identities in local congregations and downplaying specific national interests that would support ties to particular places of origin. For smaller, ethnically homogeneous churches it is feasible—often even desirable—to encourage national interests directed at a specific country of origin. Importantly, here I am referring to the hierarchy, not to the lay people in these churches, whose very agency actively creates and recreates these religious communities; sometimes the hierarchy’s interests to forge ties to homeland communities and those of their laity coincide, but, at other times, they clash. Even though it is possible for immigrants who maintain transnational links to belong to churches whose hierarchies de-emphasize national allegiances, the churches that operate within transnational social spaces find that such dual missions pose delicate institutional challenges. These challenges are sometimes resolved by framing transnational motives within the churches’ theologies and objectives. Examining the place of immigrant religious institutions within the ongoing processes of globalization helps to better understand the evolving visage of these religious institutions as the immigrants foster change within them. Conversely, this approach may further an understanding of contemporary trends of globalization and of how local institutions respond. As Casanova (1997) observes for the Catholic case, tensions between the national and the global character of this church and between the universality and particularity of its religious principles are both closely related to processes of globalization. Thus, the most transnational institution may be the least conducive to sustain individual immigrants’ transnational identities within the church because the unifying bond for transnational action is located in the hierarchy, not in the individual members.3

The case of Salvadoran immigrants bears upon the questions posed in this study because of the centrality of the church in the experience of these immigrants, and because many of these immigrants cannot travel back and forth between their country and the United States. In El Salvador the church was a central institution before, during, and after the twelve-year conflict when thousands of Salvadorans emigrated. In the United States, the churches in the communities that these immigrants entered have been actively involved in effecting changes in the lives of Salvadoran immigrants. This study demonstrates that religious institutions continue to be central in these immigrants’ lives, in achieving goals both within the receiving communities and in those communities from which the immigrants originate. But these immigrants have not become members of religious congregations in the United States in name only; they have effectively changed existing religious communities and created new identities and fresh perspectives on the church’s mission. This study discusses the religious communities’ institutional responses to the challenges posed by immigrants’ transnational aspirations and interests. It also points to when and how immigrant churches fulfill or impede the realization of individual immigrants’ transnational goals.

Immigrants, Religion, and Ties to Communities of Origin

The sociological inquiry of immigrant religious institutions goes back a long way. Many sociological studies of turn-of-the-century immigration, for instance, centered on the immigrants’ church participation and the religious institutions and practices brought from the homeland. Scholarly interest in the immigrants’ religion stemmed in part from the prominent place that the church occupied in the lives of immigrants, as religious congregations developed an intricate welfare system to serve the needs of Italian, Irish, and Jewish newcomers, among many others. The massive migration of Catholics, Jews, and German Lutherans contributed to increase the sociological relevance of religious identity itself (Warner 1993: 1058).

Studies of this early, particularly European, immigration examined religious participation mainly in terms of its contribution (or lack thereof) to assimilation. Among the early immigrants, religious differences were viewed as central in organizing their lives in the new country. Researchers of this immigration sought to clarify the role of community institutions—including churches—in the integration of immigrants, as well as the effects of religious affiliation on the immigrants’ socioeconomic success. For instance, Gleason (1968) examined issues affecting the assimilation of German-American Catholics, Nelli (1970) focused on the effects of religious affiliation on socioeconomic mobility among Italians in Chicago, and Litt (1970) concentrated on the specific influence of religious participation on political integration. Whereas some studies emphasized that immigrant groups had “put their past to rest,” others concluded that the ethnic parish helped the newcomers to retain their cultural heritage in their adopted country (Dolan 1975; Gleason 1968). Scholars also discussed the tribulations of immigrants as they struggled to either safeguard or change traditions within their churches (Handlin 1951), while others observed that the practice of religious traditions in ethnic parishes served to hold immigrant groups together (Tomasi 1970).

The central interest in the role religion and religious institutions played for immigrants gave way to other foci in immigration studies of the post-1965 period, the “new” immigration. Due to the vast changes in U.S. immigration patterns brought about by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, scholars of this immigration concentrated their attention on other prominent issues, notably the ever increasing diversity that post-1965 immigration brought to American soil. Given the increased racial and ethnic heterogeneity of these new immigrants—particularly when compared to earlier immigrants—scholars focused on issues related to immigrants’ participation in the labor force, the sociodemographic characteristics of the immigrants, the effects of legality and immigration policy on the immigrants’ lives, as well as family dynamics, social networks, and gender relations among these immigrants. That these new foci have become prominent vantage points from which to gauge immigrants’ progress and incorporation, however, does not signify that the importance of religion for immigrants has ever diminished. Several contemporary studies demonstrate that religious institutions have remained central in immigrant life. With few exceptions (Levitt 1998; Warner and Wittner 1998), these recent studies have mainly framed their questions within the traditional debate about whether religion impedes or facilitates the immigrants’ incorporation into the host society (Brown 1991; Orsi 1985). For instance, Kwon (1997) examines the link between religious practices and entrepreneurship as it affects Koreans’ incorporation in Texas, and both Kim (1994) and Kim (1991) focus on the church’s role in the acculturation and/or assimilation of Korean immigrants.

Immigrants’ lives are affected with equal force by events in the sending and in the receiving communities. Many contemporary immigrants actively maintain ties with their communities of origin and at the same time attempt to become part of the new society; it appears that even those who immigrated a century ago managed to maintain links with their communities of origin while simultaneously becoming Americans. With rapid and wide-ranging innovations in transportation and communication technology, and the increasing global economic interdependence of contemporary capitalism, however, many of today’s immigrants can easily remain active in their homeland communities through travel and/or other means, such as remittances, telephone and video conferencing, and continued streams of immigrants. People, goods, money, and information circulate between communities of origin and of destination, and these have given rise to transnational “communities” or “social spaces” (Glick-Schiller, Basch, and Blanc-Stanton 1992; Rouse, 1989). Although immigrants of the past maintained ties with their communities of origin, the intensity, prevalence, and facility to maintain such ties is today seen as a new phenomenon. Over time, sending and receiving communities become so economically, culturally, socially, and politically integrated that national borders and identities seem to lose relevance, and a “culture of migration” emerges that affects both immigrants and non-migrants (Levitt 1998). Such developments and assumptions have led scholars to question the utility of static, one-dimensional concepts for the interpretation of immigrant lives that connect vast geographical spaces. In fact, it has become commonplace to show how markets and telecommunications—not only the people engaged in transnational activities—create networks and arenas that circumvent the state system that emphasizes territoriality and sovereignty (Rudolph 1997: 12). Globalization and the emergence and expansion of transnational communities suggest that in order to understand the relevance of the churches in the lives of immigrants, one also needs to make sense of how religious institutions react to these broader processes.

Immigrant churches have always played an important role linking the immigrants’ communities of origin and the new communities they enter. Well-known transnational structures such as the Catholic Church have long recognized the value of these transnational links (though they were not referred to as such). The case of bishops in Italy collaborating to help Italian migrants (Astori 1968) or an evangelical pastor who traveled back and forth to preach in the United States and in Italy (Simpson 1916) are some examples. Mullins (1987), using an assimilation perspective, examined the ties that Buddhist institutions in Canada maintained with Japan and found that these links hindered the assimilation of these churches—with Japanese-speaking clergy—into the host society. More recently, instances of transnational religious activism include human rights networks, development agencies, missionary enterprises and their media networks, Bible societies, lobbyists, fund-raising campaigns, and publications to promote religious ideas (Levine and Stoll 1997). Immigrants have forged important links themselves through their churches. For instance, Popkin (1995) found that the churches in communities of origin of Guatemalan immigrants in Los Angeles made special appeals to these immigrants’ churches in the United States to actively participate in projects back home; the immigrant churches usually helped substantially.

However, scholars have only recently drawn attention to religious institutions’ transnational links. Trends in the globalization of religious movements that have emerged in traditional (e.g., Catholic or Lutheran) churches as well as in evangelical ones are now being discussed more frequently (Rudolph and Piscatori 1997; Warner and Wittner 1998). Levitt’s (1998) work among Dominicans in Boston and in their native Miraflores provides an example of a sociological study that examines how transnational ties reinforce and, at the same time, modify religious pluralism. The task then is not merely to acknowledge that immigrants bring with them religious and related cultural traditions to the United States; immigrants have done this for decades. What needs to be investigated is how religious institutions respond to the efforts of today’s immigrants to sustain ties with their homelands and to the challenges and opportunities that increasing trends of globalization pose.

Organizationally and institutionally, highly bureaucratized and hierarchical churches such as the Catholic church (and others similarly organized), find themselves at the intersection of the contradictory processes of cultural homogenization and communitarian pluralism that characterize modernity (Hervieu-Léger 1997: 107). For instance, U.S. Catholic parishes are expected to respect and even to incorporate the religious culture of each new immigrant group. When possible, ministering to these immigrants in their native language is also expected. Locally, however, the presence of multiple cultural groups—each with a unique interpretation of its relationship with and place within the church—creates a difficult situation in which the easiest solutions are to assume a cultural unity that often does not exist or to go with a majority culture (Wellmeier 1998). The outcome is that the local parish includes diverse groups under the same umbrella and adopts panethnic labels used politically by the state and the groups themselves; these encourage individuals to broaden their identity to conform to the more inclusive ethnic designations (Espiritu 1992: 10-11). The category into which the receiving society assigns them, or the “proximate host” and the “cognitive map” they have of themselves, will fashion the immigrants’ new identities (Mittelberg and Waters 1992). This process tends to weaken the religious institutional ties of immigrant groups to their communities of origin; masses and church activities are designed to fit all members of the congregation, not just specific nationalities. The process, however, does not exist in isolation from surrounding structures; it is more often a product of political and social realities, rather than of cultural bonds (Lopez and Espiritu 1990).

Smaller, less bureaucratized and less hierarchical religious institutions—such as many evangelical churches—that are often newer and more receptive to change are better equipped to meet the kinds of challenges posed by transnationalism. Not burdened with extensive and complex worldwide networks, these churches are able to operate more effectively in new religious spaces. Relatively simple to organize, they provide ample room for schisms, and within them it is not difficult to gain recognition as a religious leader (Levine and Stoll 1997). They also serve to empower and captivate the interests and desires of their members, making them feel part of a larger, supranational movement (León 1998). These churches are prone to incorporate the congregations’ cultural language and needs—whether these are local or transnational—and they tend to attract followers from the same racial or ethnic group. Storefront ministries that are ethnically homogenous, therefore, can center many of their activities around their hometowns (Wellmeier 1998: 115), without the tensions that may exist between a church hierarchy and the laity in local parishes, because each member is given the important mission of making the church universal.

In the following pages, I will first specify the data sources, summarize a few key points about Salvadoran immigrants in the United States to contextualize the ensuing discussion, and then describe how each church represents local institutional efforts to deal with the transnational challenges and opportunities of the congregations. In each instance, I will examine the churches’ attempts to reconcile their organizational structure and their religious teachings with their members’ own transnational projects.

Methods and Data

The data for this study were gathered in 1996-1997 in the two Catholic churches (St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s) with the largest Latino membership—where many of the members are Salvadorans—and in two evangelical churches, one with an all-Salvadoran membership (God’s Light) and one with a mixed Latino membership (Emmanuel’s Temple).4 All four churches are located in Washington, D.C. and its vicinity. The data collection included two components: first, a survey among 80 Salvadoran respondents from all four churches (20 from each church) used mainly to delineate a profile of these congregations and, second, 25 intensive interviews (15 of Catholics and 10 of evangelicals) with selected survey respondents. All of these were conducted in Spanish. Additionally, priests and pastors, religious workers, and churches’ staff were interviewed; the study was complemented with ethnographic observations in all four congregations. I make no claims regarding the statistical representativeness of these data, for the study participants were not selected following strict randomization procedures. The data are used for illustrative purposes to highlight important aspects of the relationship between religious institutions and immigrants’ transnational aspirations and objectives.

The sociodemographic profiles of the congregations of both Catholic churches were similar. Overall, slightly more than half of the survey respondents were women (54 percent), their average age was 38 years, and their average level of schooling was 9 years, and about half were married (49 percent). Respondents originated in predominantly rural areas of El Salvador (81 percent), mostly in the eastern part of the country, and had been in the United States an average of 6.5 years. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) spoke English poorly or not well. The gender and age composition, the length of stay, and the rural origin of the membership in the evangelical churches were very similar to that of the Catholics. But the average educational level in one evangelical church (God’s Light) was lower (8 years) while that in the other evangelical church (Emmanuel’s Temple) was higher (12 years), and the proportion of those who spoke English poorly or not well was much higher in God’s Light Church (80 percent) and lower in Emmanuel’s Temple (25 percent) than in the Catholic churches. The proportion of married members in both Evangelical churches was significantly higher; three-fourths in God’s Light Church and two-thirds in Emmanuel’s Temple are married. In El Salvador, respondents in all four churches were students, farmers, and workers in the urban informal sector and in services. A few of them were teachers, clerks, domestic workers, merchants, and technicians. Even though their work experiences in El Salvador were varied, most of the membership in the two Catholic churches and in God’s Light Church has entered the lower echelons of the service sector in Washington, where women have found jobs as domestic workers or as hotel chamber maids, and men have obtained jobs in construction and in restaurants. The occupations of Emmanuel’s Temple membership are more heterogeneous, with several members employed as white-collar workers, such as office clerks and technicians.

Salvadorans in Washington, D.C.

Salvadoran migration to the United States increased exponentially in the 1980s, when political conflict that had been brewing in El Salvador for decades finally escalated into a bloody civil war. The Salvadoran population in the United States increased from close to 100,000 in 1980 to the more than half a million enumerated in the 1990 census (U.S. Census 1993). But even though this increase corresponded with the civil war in El Salvador, Salvadorans were not admitted into the United States as refugees and most seeking political asylum were denied such status. Many also missed the application cutoff date to apply for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Salvadorans who entered the country prior to September 19, 1990, were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), but after successive extensions, this provision finally expired in December of 1994. Also, since 1990, Salvadorans whose asylum applications had been unsuccessful have been able to resubmit them under the American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh (ABC) settlement. Initially their success rate increased from about three to twenty-eight percent in fiscal year 1992 (National Asylum Study Project 1992) but has since leveled off and declined. Certain Salvadorans were included as beneficiaries of the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), which was designed for Nicaraguans. Salvadorans who entered the country before September 19,1990, and registered under the ABC settlement, or who had filed an asylum application before April 1, 1990, could be granted a “cancellation of removal.” This is a special discretionary relief, which, if granted, permits an individual who is subject to deportation or removal to remain in the United States. But automatic consideration for permanent residence—granted to Nicaraguans and other nationals—has been denied to Salvadorans. Thus, many Salvadorans have been, and will remain, in the country undocumented. The Immigration and Naturalization Service’s recent estimates place the percentage of undocumented Salvadorans at well over fifty percent (Immigration and Naturalization Service 1997). This means that many of the Salvadorans currently in the United States—although closely connected with families back home through means that do not require personal visits—cannot travel back and forth, and thus are often unable to individually fulfill their transnational obligations and goals. For them in particular, having trusted institutions like the church through which they can realize such objectives is crucial.

Before the sudden increase in Salvadoran migration in the 1980s, there were relatively few Salvadoran immigrants in Washington, D.C. Most of them were women who had been recruited to work as housekeepers by diplomats and international agencies and U.S. government employees who had worked in El Salvador (Repak 1994). These early immigrants, though few, were pivotal in creating the networks through which thousands migrated to the area during the 12-year Salvadoran civil war. Additionally, Salvadorans have migrated from other states to Washington, D.C., as news about the District’s favorable job market and higher wages spread in other U.S. Salvadoran communities. Within a single generation, Washington, D.C., and its surrounding areas have become the second largest concentration (after Los Angeles) of Salvadorans in the United States (Repak 1994). Salvadorans in Washington, D.C. are highly concentrated in the Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, and in surrounding suburbs, such as Alexandria in Virginia and Takoma Park and Silver Spring in Maryland. Even though some of these areas have become “immigrant neighborhoods,” with a high concentration of immigrants who have provided locals with ethnic fare and cultural amenities, they should not be seen as ethnic enclaves because they are not sources of employment for immigrants (Repak 1994). Salvadoran women and men’s jobs, therefore, are geographically scattered in the District and its suburbs.

The Churches

In this section I will discuss how each church responds institutionally to—and sometimes takes advantage of—the twin processes of multiculturalism at the local level and transnationalism globally. I will present the cases of the two Catholic churches together because of their similarities in this regard. The evangelical churches will be discussed individually, as each represents a different type of institutional response. Thus, the churches’ organization, composition, and size—as these affect and are affected by their theologies—represent three distinct responses to these two processes.

The Paradox of Transnationalism and Panethnicity: The Catholic Churches

Focusing on Asian Americans, Espiritu (1992: 2-3) defines a panethnic group as a politico-economic collectivity made up of peoples of diverse national and tribal origins, in which the groups’ cultures and identities are submerged and the larger construction assumes a common identity. Here I will discuss the case of the Catholic churches, as it exemplifies institutional efforts to articulate common interests by fostering a panethnic identity that often precludes the cultivation of institutional transnational links with individual localities. Both churches have ethnically and nationally diverse constituencies, and their leadership sees the importance of coming together so that the membership can advance as a group. Although the churches’ panethnic efforts parallel those made by non-religious organizations to advance the political interests of the groups under such umbrellas, the churches’ rationale for doing so is usually expressed in the language of their theology or creed. Thus, at a Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s Church, Father Vicente delivered an energetic homily appealing for Latinos to unite because, “as individuals we can’t do much to change our conditions; it’s only in unity that we’ll gain the strength that we need to deal with the obstacles we face.” When I met with him after Mass, we discussed this homily. He explained that even though he knows his Salvadoran compatriots are often oriented toward their country—and because he is Salvadoran they expect him to do the same—he thinks it is best to talk about and point to common interests to make the members realize the power of organizing and working together. He also said that in a multicultural parish it is imperative to unite the membership so that it would not be fragmented along national lines.

The Catholic church’s impressive network of institutional, material, and human resources with the structural power to rival that of states is perhaps one of the most fundamentally transnational organizations. In fact, given the transnational nature of the Catholic church, it never really felt fully at home in a system of territorial nation-states (Casanova 1997: 122). Since Vatican Council II recognized the new demography of Catholicism (Hervieu-Léger 1997), the church’s activities have increasingly reflected the hierarchy’s efforts to encourage the plurality of the congregation through initiating culturally appropriate ministry projects that would legitimize such diversities. But this “Catholicism from above” is not easy to translate at the local level, where parishes are often caught in the tension between implementing such projects and keeping the flock oriented toward the inherently universal nature of the organization. Such challenges are salient in parishes with multicultural immigrant congregations, where groups with strong ties to the homeland often seek to express their faith within a context that may foster such links.

In this study, the leaders of Catholic parishes have made concerted and carefully balanced efforts to allow space for the parishioners to articulate their own experiences and cultural expressions of their faith, while at the same time keeping the unity of the flock under the umbrella of “Hispanics” or “Latinos.” One example of the duality of such efforts is the celebration of patron saints’ days. When immigrants move to new localities, they bring their divinities with them, in a sense “re-territorializing” their religious practices (McAlister 1998). And church leaders have always been very much aware of this; the Madonna Del Carmine for Italians in New York (Orsi 1985) is but one example. The leaders in this study, for instance, explained how they had consciously selected those patron saints that would advance efforts to unite the membership and how they went about coordinating the activities around these celebrations. Father Francisco, a Salvadoran priest at St. Joseph’s, explained that he is working hard to encourage the devotion of particular Patron Saints, and that in such celebrations, he sees an opportunity to unite his membership. One day this priest took me on a tour of his church to point out “the importance of having these symbols around so that everyone can identify with an image and, also, everyone can learn about each others’ devotions,” as he put it. He showed me a semi-circle of images around the main altar, each a patron saint from a country represented in his congregation.

Look, the Virgen de Suyapa [from Honduras] is here, then we have la Caridad del Cobre [Cuba] over here, of course, la Altagracia [Dominican Republic], Santa Rosa de Lima and San Martin de Porres, you know, they’re both patron saints for the Peruvians, la Concepción de María [Nicaragua] and, of course, we have el Señor de Esquipulas [Guatemala]. This one is very important because since he’s black, it serves to integrate our black Latinos. It’s good that they feel that their color is represented, you know, and that we are all proud of it. And of course we have our Salvador del Mundo [El Salvador] over here. All these saints represent something for each person who comes from these countries. But they are also opportunities for each to remember that we are part of a larger community. These images are here not as symbols of a particular country, representing nationalities, but for people to know that we recognize their origins. They’re not here to separate but to unite.

This priest also mentioned that he had deliberately chosen images that would mean something for everyone from a given country, “without reminding them of a national origin, because these images do not have national origins themselves, they are not political symbols.” This point was echoed by Father Vicente, who explained that he did not encourage the celebration of “saints that represent small towns or cities in a particular country because they tend to divide people; it’s better to encourage a more encompassing symbol.” He went on to add an example:

Take for instance, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Even though she is the patron of Mexico, all of us Latinos know who she is and what she represents. What does she represent? Well, I think she is a symbol of our unity, of our race, because the color of her skin is like ours. She represents all of us. So I encourage her cult here in the church. Dominicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans venerate her too because in her we all find ourselves as a race, as a group. She serves to unite us. She’s truly very important.

Father Francisco mentioned that whenever these patron days are celebrated he is always mindful that people from other nationalities are invited and included in the celebrations, so the activities help everyone to feel a part of what the church does. In his words:

You should have seen how nice the celebrations of El Salvador del Mundo turned out. We had a novena, each day a family got to keep His image in their homes. There was food, and we had a very good time. But I made it a point that non-Salvadorans should also participate. So the image stayed in the home of Puerto Ricans one night and with Guatemalans another night. This shouldn’t be only a Salvadoran festivity, you know. I want to encourage the celebrations of the rest of the patron saints like this, for everyone. So that everyone feels recognized in the Church but no one feels excluded…or may feel that some are favored more than others.

Father Vicente invoked his religion’s “communitarian ethic” (Greeley 1989: 486), to explain his position. “I see our work as being truly, fundamentally community-oriented, so we have to encourage and to create community. We only do that when we recognize the origins of our congregation, but at the same time, unite them in Christ, which is our mission.” Among his efforts to unite his Latino congregation, he holds weekly meetings to read the Bible from a “Latino” or “Hispanic” perspective. During these Bible-reading groups, they take passages and interpret them in light of their current (immigrant) situation vis-à-vis their environment, and are challenged to think of ways to confront many issues, mostly looking at how these issues affect them as a group, and in turn, how they can respond to them from within the same “communitarian,” “Latino” perspective. And both priests make sure that lay committees in their churches include a mix of nationalities.

Apparently, the Catholic leadership had recognized the importance of the ethnic origin of the priests for the congregation; both Catholic churches had Salvadoran priests. When I asked how this happened, each priest mentioned that it was the result of efforts by the archdiocese to respond to the growing presence of Latinos in the area. Given the increased presence of this group, and in an attempt to re-energize these immigrants’ faith, the archdiocese put out a call to other countries to send priests. This effort had historical precedence in the U.S. Catholic church’s earlier invitation to Italian priests to minister to new immigrants. El Salvador responded promptly to the call and sent one priest, Father Vicente. (Father Francisco had left El Salvador when he was a teenager, and was transferred from Pennsylvania.) But the archdiocese was mainly concerned with having a Latino priest, not necessarily a Salvadoran one. So later—even though Father Vicente had been actively involved with the community and the Salvadoran immigrants readily identified with him—upon his return from a short trip to El Salvador, he was notified, to his surprise and to the astonishment of the Salvadoran congregation, that he was going to be relocated to another parish whose Latino congregation had grown so greatly that it needed another Latino priest. The congregation was shocked and could not understand the reason for the move, particularly because this priest’s successor was a Spaniard with limited experience in Latin America. According to Julio, an active church member with a ninth-grade education who is in his early thirties,

Definitely, that was a major blow. This person [Father Vicente] was very enthusiastic and had great energy and many plans, and understood us very well. And then, they sent us this other priest…who may be a saint, but who doesn’t walk at our pace. Nothing against him, don’t misinterpret me. But he doesn’t know where we come from and we don’t know what he’s all about. We just don’t understand each other. We can’t identify. And this is a problem.

Father Francisco, like Father Vicente, tried to juggle the challenges of his own nationality with the overall identity of the community. They managed to maintain a delicate balance between emphasizing their own personal (and, perhaps, national) concerns and the needs of the Latino community as a whole. They both went out of their way to de-emphasize their “Salvadoranness” and to identify themselves with the community as a whole. Father Francisco explained: “Because I am Salvadoran, I don’t want people to think that I’m favoring Salvadorans. As a spiritual leader, I’m impartial. But I have to maneuver so that I’m not perceived as a Salvadoran priest, which I am (smiling), but as a leader of a multicultural congregation.” For Father Vicente, who is “on loan” from his church in El Salvador, the challenge is often greater, but he explains: “My mission is to do my work wherever I am. Here, I’m going to work for this community, to unite them as much as possible so that they can recognize their strength. I’d probably do the same back in El Salvador too.”

In spite of the Catholic churches’ efforts at community-building, and their attempts to foster cultural expressions of the immigrants’ faith, Catholic church leaders have made it clear that their concerns are located in the United States, not in El Salvador. Such statements often carry a contradictory message for parishioners who do not think of their community in Washington, D.C., as disconnected, or even independent, from their communities of origin. Most informants in this study indicated that they kept close and regular links to their places of origin, both financially—through their voluminous remittances—and through telephone calls, letters, and even videocassettes. As Miguel, a high school graduate in his mid twenties, put it:

Let’s be frank. I live here because of circumstances that I couldn’t do anything about. But my eyes, my mind, and my heart all point to that place where I left my umbilical cord. My body is here, but my mind is there…the problems there affect me as much or even more than the problems I have here. And I am not the only one who feels like this around here. Many of us are in the same situation.

The tendency of the Catholic church to focus activities on the United States—rather than to orient any to El Salvador—has met with disapproval from some members. Some Salvadoran informants wanted the church to be involved with social projects in El Salvador, but mentioned that they had to get involved on their own or through other organizations. They expressed disappointment because they trust the church’s work, and thought that helping hometown projects through the church were better than through other organizations.5 A woman who has been trying to organize support for a center for war orphans that she had created in El Salvador, expressed her frustration in the following words:

In this parish I can’t talk about it because the Father has said that the problems of El Salvador should be left there, and those here should be dealt with here. But I can’t be happy if I know someone is suffering [there]. Here I can’t talk about what I would like to do because people are afraid that it may be something political that I’m trying to do.6

Other parishioners said that even though they were not actively involved in any community projects in El Salvador, at the least they would like to discuss the politico-economic changes in their country of origin, as these had vital repercussions for their lives in the United States. When asked about it, one woman lowered her voice and whispering explained that if they talked about the situation in El Salvador, they were seen as wanting to discuss politics, and that was looked upon with disapproval. Notably, the Catholic leaders encouraged discussion of U.S. politics, particularly when they affected the lives of the church’s members. What the Catholic leaders seemed to avoid was specific mention of Salvadoran politics and its derivatives. When I asked Father Francisco about this issue, he candidly responded:

Yes, it’s true, I make them realize that they’re here, not over there [in El Salvador]. Yes, you have to remind them of this, or else they really divide themselves to try to live in two different places. It’s about time for them to start thinking about themselves and not to sacrifice everything for their families and others back home. As a religious person, I understand what it is to sacrifice ourselves for others. But I’m aware of the sufferings of these people [Salvadorans] so I can advise them about what to do. Some don’t like it, I’m sure. I even joke with them (laughing) and tell them that they have to contribute [monetarily] to this church, not to their churches over there [in El Salvador].

By failing to encourage activities that are oriented toward El Salvador, the leadership prevents the “politicization” of the Salvadoran community and its possible fragmentation. Father Francisco, for instance, feared that the moment he allowed discussion of any action with regard to issues in El Salvador, the Salvadoran congregation would immediately become divided. He said that this might not be the case among other immigrant groups, but it could occur among Salvadorans because of the context of war and political conflict within which this migration took place.7

Praying Transnationally: God’s Light

The organizational structure of this Evangelical church contrasts sharply with that of the Catholic churches. Its total membership is about 400 (slightly fewer than the number of Catholics that fill the pews on a single Sunday Mass in Spanish in the Catholic churches), but this number was halved recently when the church splintered and a new one formed.8 Apparently, however, it was not the first time such a break had happened; the church secretary mentioned that since approximately 1981, about five churches had come out of theirs. Perhaps this reflects the evangelical church’s greater flexibility, which better equips it to adapt to the kinds of change that immigrants face in the new country. Member contributions (and physical efforts) had made possible the construction of the building that houses the church and to purchase three vans that transport members who live miles away—in Maryland and Virginia—and own no transportation. The member tithes pay for the maintenance of the church and the pastor’s salary, and when there is financial need for a project—whether in D.C. or in El Salvador—the members are always quick to contribute, though they are by no means affluent or even financially secure. And the church keeps its members busy; in spite of their full schedules churchgoers manage to attend services Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and during the week days there are also Bible-reading and youth groups. Importantly, most members, including Pastor Efraín, originate in the same area in eastern El Salvador, where the church’s headquarters were located until recently.

Thus, the national homogeneity of this church made it irrelevant to encourage the creation of any new identities—like the panethnic efforts of the Catholic leaders—or even to bring up the issue of multiculturalism within the church. One of the members commented: “Don’t you feel that when you step inside this, the house of the Lord, you feel as if you’re not even in this country? It’s a very special feeling that only a place like this can give us. It’s as if I never left my country. No, it’s true, I always feel as if I’m back in my village when I come here.” And perhaps no one could deny that. The food served after the service was always Salvadoran; the pastor often used colloquial Salvadoran expressions during the sermons and referred to events reminiscent of the members’ hometowns; and the subject of conversations and manner of speech of the members conveyed an unmistakable feeling of “Salvadoranness.” Thus, as a somewhat perplexed Pastor Efraín mentioned when I asked him if he had made efforts to unite his constituency as “Latinos” or “Hispanics”: “Well, we’re all Salvadorans and Christians here. We have more union than we need. I don’t see the need to be united under something else that may not even be for us.”

So this exclusively Salvadoran congregation sees no conflict with directing its objectives and interests not only to El Salvador in general, but often to the small communities from which most members originated. Incorporating such concerns and keeping ties alive with the churches in El Salvador are, therefore, integral components of this church. The pastor and his assistants are, themselves, personally involved in working in communities back home and involving the church in such projects. Pastor Efraín, with monetary help from the Washington membership, coordinated a project in El Salvador to help orphan children. The church provided the orphans with basic necessities, such as food and shelter. Thus, the members saw this as “their” project and felt directly involved in it. According to the pastor, however, the church’s main mission was to provide these children with spiritual guidance and to persuade them to accept Christ as their savior. He also mentioned that this was precisely the crowd that they wanted to minister to, since these children were very much at risk of engaging in criminal activities and drug addiction. None of this church’s members—including the pastor—believed that there were any conflicts in carrying out and orienting such activities to their hometown. In fact, the very support of these transnational efforts was one of the main foci of this congregation’s work.

With its headquarters now located in D.C., this church trains new pastors here and receives monthly reports from sister churches in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and eastern El Salvador. The church keeps up an active interchange among the church members in all locations. For instance, the members in Washington and in North Carolina hold services together every few months, which provide among other things important opportunities for socializing. A woman explained that she feels particularly energized when she attends these functions. “It feels so good when they [the North Carolina members] come here or when we go there. It feels as if our work, to take the Word to all corners, it’s fulfilled.” And Pastor Efraín’s sermons, in contrast to the Catholic priests’ homilies that emphasized the need for a pan-Latino unity, are infused with emotional appeals to work on solving problems—by praying and spreading the Word—that afflict the communities of origin as much as the community in which they now live. In one service, he utilized such vivid and present-tense language to refer to the community in El Salvador that for a moment it was difficult to realize exactly where we were.

This church had a two-hour radio program three times a week that was transmitted to neighboring states as well as to eastern El Salvador.9 The congregation at both ends could listen to the sermons and readings of the liturgy at the same time and with a call-in hour, they could even hear their relatives’ and friends’ voices. In addition, even though many members cannot travel back and forth between the United States and El Salvador (mostly due to their uncertain legal status), Pastor Efraín makes several trips a year to visit the sister church in El Salvador, and often takes financial contributions with him from the Washington, D.C., congregation and returns with news and letters from home. This church also has missionary groups that periodically visit El Salvador to work with the church there. Thus, the two sister churches are very closely connected, as one member explained: “We are related with the church there [in El Salvador] spiritually and in practice. We are oriented to them and they are to us. It’s like one [church] in two places.”

Transnationalism and Panethnicity by Default: Emmanuel’s Temple

Emmanuel’s Temple does not directly attempt to forge panethnic links within the congregation in Washington D.C., or to encourage the maintenance of ties to specific immigrants’ homelands. But in keeping with its religious beliefs, its goals of expansion, and its multicultural membership, the Temple ends up encouraging both. Similar to God’s Light, Emmanuel’s Temple has been in existence for approximately fifteen years. It is located in a building that the congregation rents, with ample room for meetings, Bible-reading groups, and even housing a child care center on Sundays. Members’ tithes maintain the church, and even though the church’s edifice itself does not compare to the Catholic houses of worship in grandeur, it is large enough to comfortably accommodate the activities of the congregation.

Salvadorans comprise almost half of the 300-member congregation, including the Salvadoran pastors who replaced two Puerto Ricans. The church membership is also composed of people from different national and ethnic groups, including Guatemalans, Dominicans, and a few Haitians and Brazilians. Pastor Mario, however, like his Catholic counterparts, does not emphasize the individual nationalities of the members, but rather tries to forge a common identity, in this case, a “Christian” one. Without making reference to the political force that united Latinos may represent or the consequences of forging panethnic links to which the Catholic leaders alluded, Pastor Mario did mention that he tries to unite his membership. As he explained:

We are all the same before God. We can’t be Salvadorans or Haitians or whatever when we are before God because He doesn’t recognize nationalities. He recognizes our faith and our beliefs. And what we emphasize here is that we’re all one in Christ our Lord. No nationalities, nothing can be compared to the glory of being called a Christian. So we have left behind nationalities and things like that. We are all one now, but one in Christ. Our new identity is simply being a Christian.

In contrast to the Catholic leaders who encouraged culturally inscribed expressions of the parishioners’ faith, this pastor said that he never encourages such things because they are “sad reminders of the [non-convert] world; so we have eliminated that.” For instance, he showed me that behind the altar in this church stand two flags, the U.S. flag and what the pastor called the Christian flag, to emphasize that “the moment you become a Christian, this is your flag, this is what you owe allegiance to. Your country becomes the Christian world.” He again emphasized that he does encourage his members to “become one” because it is only through doing so that he can help people to shed their individual interests and “live for Christ with all their hearts and minds.” In contrast to the Catholic churches’ carefully planned committees that include a balance of multiple nationalities, the council at Emmanuel’s Temple is almost all Salvadoran; there is only one Brazilian and one Puerto Rican.

Pastor Mario’s church membership seemed to agree with his “universalist” approach. Alicia, a secretary by training in her thirties, said that as long as she knows she is united in Christ with her brothers and sisters (referring to other church members), she does not really mind what is her own ethnic or national identification. She explained that, “because of my blue eyes and blond hair and because I only speak a little bit of English, people get confused, and sometimes ask, ‘are you Latina or Hispanic’ and I proudly tell that they can call me that or any other thing, but what I am is a Christian. When the entire world accepts the message, there won’t be a need for such differences. My heart fills with joy when I say that.”

Emmanuel’s Temple belongs to a council of evangelical churches that operates in a few countries; the majority of affiliates are located in the United States and in El Salvador. Though this church lacks the hierarchical structure and center, the bureaucracy, and the imposing formalized networks of the Catholic church, it relies on a web of rapidly growing informal networks for expansion. Thus, institutionally, this church maintains dynamic links with immigrants’ countries of origin. When I asked Pastor Mario about such ties, he told me that because of the church’s objectives for spreading the Word, it needs to keep in touch and to coordinate activities with sister churches in other countries. Pastor Mario’s assistant explained that, “when people tell us that they would like to work with their hometown, we welcome this opportunity and try to send people there, so that we can carry out our Christian mission there. So, yes, we do all we can to keep connected. But like he [Pastor Mario] told you earlier, it’s all done to advance our church’s projects.” Thus, the churches, particularly those in El Salvador and the one in Washington, keep up active ties, such as inviting each other’s pastors to speak, holding conventions that bring together the congregations, and even, with some adjustments, circulating the same monthly newspapers in both places. Pastor Mario, however, stressed that such links are limited to the work that the church does and that they are not meant to establish links with any particular country:

We are only in touch with the countries like this in the church, only if it’s something to do with the church, otherwise, we don’t touch it. It’s not for us…But let me clarify something for you, it’s not that the Salvadorans are going to be in touch with the Salvadoran churches or the Puerto Ricans with their country’s churches. No, no, no. That’s not how it works. We all work together in all these places, regardless of our nationalities.”

This strategy, as León (1998: 191) observed among born again Christians in East Los Angeles, empowers members by making them feel part of a global movement. The membership seemed to embrace such an approach and appeared convinced that putting their own national interests aside was important to further the objectives of their faith. Echoing the words of the pastor and his assistant, Beatriz, a former teacher in her late twenties, explained: “We only keep in touch with our own countries if it’s going to help them accept Christ as their savior. And then, the nationality doesn’t matter anymore. What’s important is that we bring them the good news, the Word. This is a much better gift than any amount of money or clothes you can send.” Alluding to his own Salvadoran nationality, Pastor Mario, expressing similar concerns as the Salvadoran Catholic priests did, mentioned that his church also goes an extra mile to assure the congregation that they are not there to represent the interests of any particular group.

Importantly, in contrast to both Catholic churches and to the other evangelical one, Emmanuel’s Temple services often include songs and preaching in both English and Spanish. When I asked why this was so when most of the adults seemed to be primarily Spanish speakers, I was told that the Church needed to reach young members and that in order to do so, the services needed to be bilingual. Outside church, I overheard conversations among the younger members, who comfortably switched back and forth between English and Spanish. The pastor was nearby and, looking at the group of youngsters, reiterated the need for bilingual services. “See, I told you, if we don’t speak their language, they won’t find my message satisfying. So we have to make room for them…it doesn’t mean that we’ll disregard their parents…But we need to keep a balance.”

Summary and Conclusions

All the churches in this study are eminently transnational in their broader objectives, but their local institutional responses to processes that increasingly link their immigrant membership to distant homelands result from the interaction between the churches’ organizational structures and doctrines. A formally organized entity with a “communitarian” emphasis, such as the Catholic church, actively encourages policies that forge multicultural models in order to become more accessible and relevant to parishioners. But this is the church “from above,” an approach that when applied locally relegates the membership’s ethnic and national interests to a second plane, the expression of which is discouraged within the spaces that the church provides. Thus, Catholic leaders are faced with the challenge of trying to fulfill their communitarian mission within increasingly diverse parishes comprised of members with more transnational projects and obligations than ever before. The Catholic churches in this study thus strike a delicate balance to allow for specific cultural expressions of faith without compromising the unity that the church is attempting to cast, so as to become relevant to the immigrants’ lives in the place where they live.10

The less formally structured God’s Light, with an emphasis on the individual’s personal relationship to God and a grassroots approach, makes for a malleable organization that not only accommodates easily to the challenges of transnationalism, but benefits from such trends to expand its mission. Entrusting each individual member with the important mission to take the Word to all corners, this church’s objectives are particularly attuned to contemporary transnationalism. Thus, the leader’s and the congregation’s goals of universalizing their church contribute to create institutional social spaces for immigrants to sustain relations with communities of origin. And, importantly, this church’s ethnic homogeneity further reinforces its ability to shape and focus the transnational interests and objectives of its adherents to one place of origin—rather than to all corners of the world, according to church objectives. In doing so, the church actively fosters institutional ties with religious institutions in the Salvadoran immigrants’ communities of origin.

Emmanuel’s Temple shares important characteristics with both the Catholic churches and God’s Light. On the one hand, it is similar to God’s Light in its organizational structure and its fundamental approach. This church also delegates to each individual member the mission to “spread the Word,” and because this objective is intimately linked to the church’s teachings, it too contributes to foment key institutional links to the members’ places of origin. This church, however, is ethnically heterogeneous, so it does not make direct efforts to forge links with one specific place of origin, but instead tries to create links to all the members’ homelands. In this way, by forging such links, it achieves its universalist objective of spreading the Word to as many places as possible. Similar to the Catholic church’s efforts to unite its membership under one umbrella, Emmanuel’s Temple also forges such unity. But whereas for the Catholic leaders, encouraging a panethnic Latino identity—in line with non-religious, more politically rooted efforts—is a fundamental requirement to accomplish their communitarian objectives, for Emmanuel’s Temple it is an expected component of its religious compromise. The objective here is to create a new “Christian” identity, not based on nationality but on the church’s beliefs and principles. Thus, Emmanuel’s Temple, manages to do both, to create spaces for institutional links within the church that converge neatly with its doctrine, and to unite its membership under one umbrella.

Based on the cases presented here, it seems that there are certain factors that together tend to reinforce religious institutional links to immigrants’ countries of origin. The ethnic composition of the churches’ membership, their organizational structures, and their religious doctrines, all intertwine to create different religious institutional responses to contemporary processes of transnationalism. For instance, the transnational character and organizational structure of the Catholic church may be taken for granted and a response more in tune with an expanding global civil society is expected, since this church offers a space more compatible with its globalizing objectives. But when local translations of this approach are examined, it becomes clear that the ethnic composition of the particular parish and the church’s communitarian doctrine impact greatly its response to trends of transnationalism. In the case of the evangelical churches, doctrine fundamentally shapes and is affected by the churches’ objectives, organization, and congregations’ efforts. The evangelical churches show, however, that even though they may also have universalist goals that lead them to transcend local ethnic or national differences, a critical mass of immigrants from the same country or region of a country can develop a nation-specific orientation within the church. Undoubtedly, the factors identified in this study—ethnic composition, doctrine, and organizational structure of the churches—may be found in different configurations across religious communities, such that Catholic and evangelical churches may operate dissimilarly from the cases discussed here. What remains heuristically important about these case studies is their contribution to an understanding of how different religious institutions result in their members’ constructing dissimilar kinds of transnational identities and social spaces in localized settings, and of how by doing so, these individuals contribute, in their everyday life, to globalization.

© Cecilia Menjívar



vuelve * This article was previously published as “Religious Institutions and Transnationalism: A Case Study of Catholic and Evangelical Salvadoran Immigrants.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 12 (4): 589-612. (1999). I wish to acknowlegde the Journal's permission to publish it here.

vuelve 1. This research was funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts awarded to Manuel Vásquez, Anna Peterson, and Philip Williams at the University of Florida, Gainesville; I thank them for having included me in their research team. The assistantship of Carmen Albertos and Carlos Rubén Ramírez during fieldwork in Washington D.C. is greatly appreciated. I am grateful to Victor Agadjanian, Helen Rose Ebaugh, George Thomas, and the Editor and reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. I would like to thank Mary Fran Dreiskin from the Center for Publication Assistance at Arizona State University for preparing this manuscript. The responsibility for any errors remaining is mine, of course. Direct correspondence to: Cecilia Menjívar, School of Justice Studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-0403; menjivar@asu.edu.

vuelve 2. Religious teachings and scriptures, though important, will only be relevant in this study as they influence and are influenced by church organization.

vuelve 3. It should be noted that largely homogeneous Catholic parishes would perhaps have a stronger orientation to a particular home community and thus be able to foster transnational ties with that particular place, in line with the congregations’ wishes.

vuelve 4. The names of the churches, as well as of the priests and church members, are fictitious.

vuelve 5. Wellmeier (1998) makes a similar observation among Catholic Guatemalan Mayans.

vuelve 6. Father Franciso said, and I had the opportunity to witness it during a Sunday Mass, that he is very keen on allowing people to collect money to give to a specific project or cause in El Salvador, or in any other country, for that matter. He stressed, however, that although he allows the parishioners to take collections, he makes it clear to them that these collections are not church-initiated. One exception was the church-mounted campaign to collect aid for the victims of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Honduras and Nicaragua, and parts of El Salvador in October 1998. Father Francisco explained, however, that even though the first boxes of aid had been sent to El Salvador, that the congregation would work equally hard to send similar contributions to the other countries as well.

vuelve 7. The divisions with which this priest is concerned may not take place among other groups coming from politically conflictive contexts because those groups tend to be ideologically more homogenous, i.e., the Vietnamese, Cubans, and other refugee groups.

vuelve 8. As a result of a serious disagreement between the membership and the pastor, one member decided to form another church—with a very similar name—and took with him half of the congregation.

vuelve 9. This radio program was halted for some time as a result of the rift within this church. It is, however, expected to resume in the near future.

vuelve 10. I should stress that in no way do I imply that these immigrants do not keep ties individually—or through other organizations—with their communities of origin, or that the immigrants do not bring change to the churches in their communities as a result of their dynamic contact with their homelands. The emphasis here is on the institutional responses to such processes.




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