Religion in the United States is increasingly shaped by Hispanic Americans. Hispanics now constitute 40 percent of Catholics in the U.S., and they’re also playing a big part in the growth of the American evangelical church. And, a growing number of Hispanics are converting to Islam and discovering their Jewish roots.
But who are these faces that are shaping what American religion looks like? From a pastor who uses rap as a tool for urban outreach to the Muslim convert who is translating Islamic resources into Spanish, these Hispanic faith leaders across the country have started unique ministries that are geared toward engaging, educating, and serving the country’s growing Hispanic community.
As Hispanic Heritage Month draws to a close, here are 15 Hispanic faith leaders from across the United States you should know:
New Life Covenant Church | Chicago, Illinois
Why you should know him: Better known as Pastor Choco, DeJesus is the lead pastor of one of the largest Assemblies of God churches in the country, which boasts a weekly global attendance of 17,000. In 2013, he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in large part for his social justice work. New Life has more than 130 ministries, including New Life for Women, a rehabilitation center for prostitutes and addicts located on a farm, Gangs to Grace, an outreach committed to helping people find a way out of gangs, and River of Life, a homeless shelter for women with children.
2. D.A. Horton
North American Mission Board | Atlanta, Georgia
Why you should know him: As national coordinator for urban student missions at NAMB, Horton works to communicate biblical principles to an urban context. For him, that means engaging the hip-hop culture — he’s performed as a rapper himself and previously served as the executive director of ReachLife Ministries, a partner of Christian hip-hop label Reach Records. A former church planter, Horton specializes in urban apologetics, addressing theological missteps — prosperity gospel, liberation theology — prevalent in Latino churches through his preaching and seminary teaching.
Hope + Future Foundation | Union City, New Jersey
Why you should know him: Gonzalez, a high school teacher, was thrust into the spotlight in 2011 after speaking at the New York Giants chapel service the night before the team defeated the Jets during the Christmas Eve game, a win that reversed the downward trend of the season, which ultimately ended in winning Super Bowl XLVI. Gonzalez told the players to be “All In” and the phrase became the team’s rallying cry. Prior to that, Gonzalez played in the NBA Summer League and turned down professional basketball contracts to continue working with at-risk youth. His organizations 4-One and Hope + Future both use athletics to foster positive growth in students.
National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference | Los Angeles, California
Why you should know him: As president of the largest Hispanic Christian organization in the nation, Rev. Rodriguez is likely the most well known of Hispanic evangelicalism’s leaders. He blends the evangelistic vision of Billy Graham with the social justice activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., the result being a number of NHCLC ministries like Free Indeed, which aims to mobilize “born-again” Christians to join the movement to end human trafficking, and Imago Dei, a social media campaign committed to “recognizing that we are all made in the image of God, without exception.” A number of publications have named Rodriguez the leader of the growing Latino/Hispanic evangelical movement.
Esperanza | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Why you should know him: Raised in the housing projects of Spanish Harlem, Rev. Cortes founded Esperanza in 1987 after seeing the prevalence of poverty, addiction, and homelessness among the Hispanic community in Hunting Park. The goal of Esperanza is to strengthen Philadelphia’s Hispanic community through economic, social, and educational development programs — for example, one-on-one housing counseling, a legal service for low-income immigrants that has helped naturalize 90 new American citizens, and a job training program that serves 2,500 welfare recipients each year.
Community Connections for Youth | Bronx, New York
Why you should know him: Rev. Rubén Austria started CCFY in 2008 to facilitate a network of indigenous faith- and community-based organizations that would create alternatives to youth incarceration. Rev. Austria’s goal is to decrease the over-reliance on the juvenile justice system, reduce youth crime and recidivism, and ultimately enable individual communities to respond to (and care for) misbehaving youth. With a $1.1 million grant from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, CCFY launched South Bronx Community Connections, a juvenile justice intervention program that connects arrested youth to mentors and civic engagement projects instead of formal court involvement.
United Methodist Church | Lost Angeles, California
Why you should know her: In 2004, Bishop Carcaño became the first Hispanic woman to ever be elected to the episcopacy. Since then, she has been an outspoken advocate for humane and comprehensive immigration reform, serving as the Council of Bishops’ official spokesperson on the issue. She has also spoken about the need to include LGBT families in immigration reform. Carcaño has led the push to create a Mexico-United States ministry that seeks to alleviate the hardships of communities on the border, and she has worked with the faith-based organization Humane Borders, Inc. to create water stations in desert migrant routes.
Archdiocese of Los Angeles | Los Angeles, California
Why you should know him: Archbishop Gomez is the highest-ranking Hispanic bishop in the United States, as well as the first Hispanic Archbishop of Los Angeles. Gomez, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1995, founded the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders as an organization of Catholic professionals and community leaders who would facilitate dialogue within the Church and U.S. Latino community.
Christian Community Development Association | Chicago, Illinois
Why you should know him: Castellanos has spent the last 30 years working full-time in Latino urban ministry, which includes founding La Villita Community Church in Chicago. He is currently the CEO of CCDA, a network of Christians who aim to restore communities through their three “R’s”: Relocation, Reconciliation, and Redistribution. In part through the CCDA Institute that he established, Castellanos teaches that Christian leaders should commit long-term to their neighborhoods and ministries to effect change, as truly sustainable change will come from the inside out. He also served on President Obama’s Council for Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships.
TrueVoices | Bronx, New York
Why you should know him: Better known as Brother Jay, Escobar founded TrueVoices in 2012 as a platform for Christian poetry and performing arts. What started in New York has since expanded across the country, with new TrueVoices chapters springing up in Chicago, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. TrueVoices sponsors monthly poetry clubs for people ages 16-24, as well as TrueVoices Outdoors, the emphasis of which is to reach people with the gospel through artistic expression (spoken word, for example) in everyday places. Their annual Proclaim conference is the largest Christian poetry and performing arts event on the East Coast.
11. Josue Urrutia
Ministerio Mizpa | Alexandria, Virginia
Why you should know him: Urrutia says the name, vision, and mission of his church were revealed to him at the age of 13. By the time he was 20, he had founded Mizpa and become one of the nation’s youngest pastors. Urrutia, now 25, was elected to join the NHCLC board (as its youngest member) in 2012. As a Millennial, he appeals to the young Latino Christian, while also understanding the growing number of Hispanics who identify as nones. Christianity Today named him one of its 33 Christian leaders under 33 who are shaping the next generation of faith. Urrutia’s bilingual congregation alternates between worshipping in Spanish and English, and a translator follows Urrutia as he preaches in Spanish.
Redeemer City to City | Washington Heights, New York
Why you should know him: As the New York City church planting catalyst for Tim Keller’s City to City network of church planting, Guerrero is the guy to know when it comes to starting urban churches. He’s planted a number of churches, both in the U.S. and Latin America, including Iglesia Comunitaria Cristiana in Santo Domingo. In his current capacity, Guerrero serves as a coach to new church planters — and has been working on a strategy to reach out to Spanish-speaking Latinos — in addition to being integral in City to City’s development of a Spanish training program/curriculum. He also co-founded the Coordinating Community of Del Camino Network for Integral Mission in Latin America.
National Latino Evangelical Coalition | New York, New York
Why you should know him: In addition to being the lead pastor of New York’s Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene, Salguero serves as the president of the NaLEC and as a member of the Latino Leadership Circle. The Huffington Post named him one of the seven most influential Latino-American religious leaders because of his work in racial justice and the development of indigenous leadership. Ahead of the 2012 election, he founded Nuestro Futuro, a voter-mobilization campaign that targeted Latino youth. Salguero has also been tapped to deliver invocations at the inaugural prayer service at the National Cathedral and the Democratic National Convention.
IslamInSpanish | Houston, Texas
Why you should know him: Fletcher, a gang leader during his teenage years, was raised Catholic, but became a Muslim in his mid-twenties. (Currenlty, only about six percent of U.S. Muslims are Latino.) So, in an effort to educate his friends and family on his new faith, he founded IslamInSpanish, a nonprofit that produces educational multimedia — including some 500 translated CDs (done by Fletcher and his father, who also converted to Islam), DVDs, 200 cable-access TV shows, and a radio program. His hope is that these Spanish-language resources counteract misconceptions about Islam and show Hispanics that the Muslim faith has historical ties to their culture.
Lincoln Park Jewish Center | New York, New York
Why you should know him: Rabbi Viñas founded a Spanish-language education and spirituality center, El Centro de Estudios Judíos “Torat Emet,” as a home for Hispanic Jews to pray and learn together. The center also serves as a resource for Hispanics of lost Jewish identity to return to their religious roots. Viñas also attempts to foster a deeper understanding and cooperation between the Hispanic- and Anglo-Jewish communities in America.
Image courtesy of Cliff.