Christian denominations have been fighting the trend of declining attendance by reaching out to the Hispanic faithful hungry for what they can’t find in their current churches. One area of outreach includes the willingness of Protestant churches to offer leadership positions — including the priesthood — to Latinas.
According to a Pew Research Poll in 2015, six in ten American Catholics said they favored allowing women to become priests. But even as Pope Francis seems to be more lenient on some issues, the prohibition against women becoming priests in the Roman Catholic Church is resolute.
This is not the case among Protestant denominations such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians. In fact, Methodists and Presbyterians have had ordained women as ministers, deacons, reverends and pastors since the early 1900s. Latinas are entering the ministry at a higher rate than ever in evangelical congregations, and they have found leadership roles in megachurches in their music ministries, children’s ministries, counseling, and youth/young adult outreach as well as pastors.
A recent trend in the Episcopal Church reflects the increase in Latinas becoming priests. Some are converts from the Roman Catholic Church who were unable to serve as priests in that faith, while others have grown up in or discovered the Episcopal Church with women priests there to mentor them. This trend is consistent with the ongoing outreach to Latinos by Protestant denominations.
Rev. Uriel Lopez of San Romero Episcopal Church, Houston, shared his own opinion on the topic of female priests. “It was such a special experience the first time I performed a [worship] service with a female priest,” Lopez said. “Since I had been a priest for 10 years in the Roman Catholic Church and then became an Episcopal priest, it actually brought me to tears to serve with a female priest. It was a liberating experience for me. I thought, ‘Why haven’t I had this experience that is so wonderful before? She has the exact same calling and she’s an excellent priest!’ “Since then, I have been openly supportive [of female priests]. And that first time, I felt the transformation of God’s spirit, who was there with us.”
I also spoke with the Very Rev. Miguelina Howell, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Conn. Rev. Howell, a lifelong Episcopalian who grew up in the Dominican Republic, had a life-transforming experience when she was 14 years old. She felt called to dedicate her life to the church and considered becoming an Episcopal nun, when her rector suggested she attend a church conference. As fate would have it, at the event the young Miguelina met the very first Dominican female Episcopal priest, Rev. Margarita Santana.
“Seeing her lead a worship service was what I needed to change my path to the priesthood,” Howell said. “It was the moment in my life when I realized I could do it, too.”
People might think that male-dominated Latino culture would be the last to welcome women to the altar, but with time they are gaining more acceptance.
I asked Rev. Howell if she has experienced discrimination as a female priest and while she said it’s rare, it has happened.
“I’ve had people [in Latin America] come up to me seeing my collar and ask me if I’m a sister,” Howell said. “Here in the U.S., I’ve had people come into my church and at the end of the service ask me if the ‘padre’ will be at the service next week. When I tell them, I am the ‘padre,’ I can tell that some of them won’t be back. But this has been very rare. I love my call to service.”
From the East Coast to the West Coast, Latinas are serving as clergy. They are connecting with congregations of parishioners drawn to who they are, their unique journeys, their approaches to faith, and their similarities with racially diverse and Latino congregations. To these congregations, that encapsulation of diversity with Latina clergy is resonating!