David reached out to me one year ago after reading Brown Church. He was a young professor in the Southwest who had come to faith in a white Christian space, but he was facing an identity crisis. He appreciated the church which had introduced him to Jesus and had sincerely cared for him and his family for many years. David had come to a difficult realization, however: he had forgotten he was Latino. This was because, in order to participate in the life of his local church, he had had to check his God-given Latino cultural heritage at the door. In the face of this newfound awareness, David was asking, in the words of the nostalgic punk rock song: “Should I stay or should I go?”
As I’ve traveled the US through Zoom over the past year as part of more than 70 Brown Church talks, webinars, and podcast interviews for churches, diverse denominations, parachurch ministries, Christians colleges, seminaries, and academic conferences, I’ve found that David is not alone. Millions of Latinas/os, especially second-generation millennials, Gen Zers, and even a good number of Gen Xers like myself, are searching for a new spiritual home. We are fleeing our longstanding churches and ministries because we feel that our God-given community cultural wealth (Rev 21: 26)—and the distinct lenses and perspectives which we bring as a result—are not welcome or valued. We are in exile.
Praise Jesus that many are finding home in the Brown Church. “Brown Church” may be defined as the prophetic ecclesial community of Latinas/os which has contested racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States for the past 500 years. As such, “Brown Church” is a multivalent category, encompassing ethnic, historical, theological, spiritual, and socio-political dimensions. It is also worth noting that the Brown Church predates the Protestant-Catholic divide by nearly a decade. The Holy Spirit has been at work in issues of racial justice in Latin America long before our contemporary denominational divisions. The Brown Church predates the Protestant-Catholic divide by nearly a decade. The Holy Spirit has been at work in issues of racial justice in Latin America long before our contemporary denominational divisions. Click To Tweet
A Heritage of Justice-Seeking
The Brown Church was born in 1511 on the Sunday before Christmas on the island of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti/Dominican Republic). On that day, in a straw-thatched church filled with an audience of elite Spanish colonists, Dominican Friar Antonio de Montesinos preached the first racial justice sermon in the Americas. Condemning the Spanish conquest and indigenous slavery, and invoking the prophetic words and ministry of John the Baptist, Montesinos declared:
In order to make your sins against the Indians known to you I have come up on this pulpit, I who am a voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island, and therefore it behooves you to listen, not with careless attention, but with all your heart and senses, so that you may hear it; for this is going to be the strangest voice that ever you heard, the harshest and hardest and most awful and most dangerous that ever you expected to hear.1
This voice says that you are in mortal sin, that you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land…Are these not men…Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?2
In every instance of racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States since Montesinos preached these prophetic words, the Brown Church has arisen to challenge the religious, socio-economic, and political status quo. Collectively, the Brown Church has challenged such great evils as the Spanish Conquest and Spanish colonialism, the “sistema de castas,” Manifest Destiny and US settler colonialism in the Southwest, Latin American dictatorships, US imperialism in Central America, the oppression of farmworkers, and the current exploitation and marginalization of undocumented immigrants. Bartolomé de las Casas, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and Archbishop Oscar Romero are but a few examples. In every instance of racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States...the Brown Church has arisen to challenge the religious, socio-economic, and political status quo. Click To Tweet
Brown Theology: 500 Years Old
As a natural outgrowth of its prophetic advocacy efforts and praxis, the Brown Church has developed Brown Theology: a unique body of justice theology based upon the Christian Scriptures. It’s often thought that Christian social justice theology is a modern invention, perhaps flowing from Latin American liberation theology of the 1960s, or the contemporary Christian justice movement of the United States, or the “bogeyman” of Critical Race Theory; in fact, Brown Theology is a knowledge system which embodies five centuries of the Latina/o journey with Jesus. For the interested reader, Brown Church offers a historical introduction to this diverse, centuries-old tradition of Latina/o theological reflection on race, justice, gender, and Christianity. Brown Theology is not just for Latinas/os, but for all who currently struggle with deconstructing and reconstructing their faith in a way which centers Jesus, biblical justice, and the local and global church. Brown Theology is not just for Latinas/os, but for all who currently struggle with deconstructing and reconstructing their faith in a way which centers Jesus, biblical justice, and the local and global church. Click To Tweet
One of my favorite examples is that of “misión integral,” or holistic mission. The late René Padilla and Samuel Escobar developed misión integral in the context of the revolutionary civil wars and social turmoil of Latin America in the 1950s and 60s. Padilla and Escobar were pioneers of the Comunidad Internacional de Estudiantes Evangélicos (CIEE)—what we in the United States call InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. They were initially trained in US-based campus ministry models which emphasized personal salvation in Christ but which lacked a compelling biblical social ethnic. When they returned to Latin America and preached this individualistic gospel on university campuses, they were met with blank stares by students who said things like, “Why is this good news to me? My dad was killed last week by the US-backed military dictatorship, my uncle is ‘desaparecido’ (kidnapped and disappeared by the military), and no one on my block has food to eat. What does your gospel have to say about that?”
These student critiques stopped Padilla and Escobar dead in their tracks. The students were right. The gospel they had been trained in was incomplete. Yes, Jesus died on the cross for our sins and desires a personal relationship with us. That is profoundly important and should never be minimized. But, at the same time, US cultural Christianity lacked a social ethic which accounted for racial and systemic sin and was often wrapped in the American flag. In the words of Escobar, US culture-Christians were the kind of people who “oppose the violence of revolution but not the violence of war” and “condemn all the sins that well-behaved middle class people condemn but say nothing about exploitation, intrigue, and dirty political maneuvering done by great multi-national corporations around the world.”3 As ministry partners Padilla and Escobar read their Bibles, they came to understand the importance of distinguishing between what the Bible actually taught and the “ropa anglosajon” (Anglo-Saxon cultural clothing) of the gospel which had been exported to Latin America from the United States.4
The Brown Church Welcomes You
These deep questions led to the development of the method and theology of “misión integral”: the mission of the whole church to the whole of humanity in all its forms, personal, communal, social, economic, ecological and political.”5
In 1969, Padilla, who is widely considered to be the father of misión integral declared:
The proclamation of the gospel (kerygma) and the demonstration of the gospel that gives itself in service (diakonía) form an indissoluble whole. One without the other is an incomplete, mutilated (mutilado) gospel and, consequently, contrary to the will of God. From this perspective, it is foolish to ask about the relative importance of evangelism and social responsibility. This would be equivalent to asking about the relative importance of the right wing and the left wing of a plane.6
If these words resonate with you, and you long for home and a sense of spiritual belonging, the Brown Church says “welcome.” You are not alone. You belong to the 500-year ecclesial community of Latinas/os which has struggled for justice in the name of Jesus. We are God’s children, too. We are one of the tribes (Rev 7:9), and we belong to the family of God. ¡Aquí estamos y no nos vamos (“We’re here to stay, and we’re not going anywhere”)! If...you long for home and a sense of spiritual belonging, the Brown Church says “welcome.” You are not alone. You belong to the 500-year ecclesial community of Latinas/os which has struggled for justice in the name of Jesus. Click To Tweet
And even if you are not Latino, you are also welcome. The ultimate goal of the Brown Church is the Beloved Community of all (Rev 7:9; 21:26). The Brown Church is just a different entry point.
The following comment is emblematic of the responses I’ve received over the past year, and it is still my favorite. I hope that you can find yourself in these words:
I cried all night…I’ve finally found a home. What’s amazing is that home has been there this whole time…I woke up feeling so proud of being who God created me to be in such a time as this.
 Robert Chao Romero, Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2020), p. 51.
 Ibid, 51.
 Ruth Padilla DeBorst, “Integral Mission Formation in Abya Yala (Latin America): A Study of the Centro de Estudios Teológicos Interdisciplinarios (1982-2002) and Radical Evangélicos.” PhD diss., Boston University, 2016; 46.
 Ibid, 45
 René Padilla and Tetsunao Yamamori, The Local Church: Agent of Transformation: An Ecclesiology for Integral Mission (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Kairós, 2004), 9.
 David C. Kirkpatrick, “C. René Padilla and the Origins of Integral Mission in Post-War Latin America.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 67, no. 2 (2016): 351-71; 368.