The Distillery

What are the dynamics shaping the role of immigrant churches in the United States? 

Show Notes

In this episode, we speak with Dr. João Chaves, Assistant Director for Programming at the Hispanic Theological Initiative at Princeton Theological Seminary, about his book, Migrational Religion: Context and Creativity in the Latinx Diaspora. We talk about his work and focus on his case study of a network formed by communities of Brazilian immigrants who formed a unique ethnic association within their host country. Listen as he shares his extensive ethnographic research, done over six years, in eleven congregations across the United States.


João Chaves, assistant director for programming at the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI), received his Ph.D. from the Department of Religion at Baylor University, where he studied the history of Christianity and sociology of religion. João is the author of three books, including Migrational Religion: Context and Creativity in the Latinx Diaspora (Baylor University Press), which investigates how migration shapes the theological forms and functions of transnational religious networks. His forthcoming book, The Global Mission of the Jim Crow South (Mercer University Press, May 2022) traces the history of how missionaries from the Southern US helped shape Latin American evangelicalism according to Southern theocultural and racialized assumptions. João is also finalizing another manuscript—co-authored with Dr. Mikeal Parsons—that focuses on the development of transnational constructions of religious legacies. In addition, João is a member of the Commission on Racial, Gender, and Economic Justice of the Baptist World Alliance; associate editor of Perspectivas—the Journal of the Hispanic Theological Initiative; and editorial board member of Perspectives in Religious Studies. 

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The Distillery podcast explores what motivates the work of Christian scholars and why it matters for theology and ministry.

What are the dynamics shaping the role of immigrant churches in the United States? Dr. Jo~ao Chaves is the assistant director for programming at the Hispanic Theological Initiative and author of "Migrational Religion: Context and Creativity in the Latinx Diaspora." Dr. Chaves graduated with the Master's of Theological Studies from George W. Truett Seminary and received his PhD in Religion from Baylor University. He has presented and published his research broadly, both in English and Portuguese. Joao has served as a unit chair for Latinx Religions at the American Academy of Religion Southwest Region since 2018 and is currently a member of the Commission on Racial, Gender, and Economic Justice of the Baptist World Alliance. In this episode, I speak with Joao about his book and work and focus on his case study of a network of Brazilian immigrants who established a unique ethnic association within their host country. With me, he explores his extensive ethnographic research done over six years in eleven congregations across the United States.

You're listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary.

distillerypodcast
Well first, Dr. Chaves, thank you so much for being with us today. I'm grateful for this interview, grateful for your time. I'm excited about this work, your work. This work is completely new and unique. We have never talked about this on The Distillery before. So what I really love about it is how unique and how interesting and how vibrant this work is, so thank you first and foremost for being here.

Joao Chaves
Oh, thank you very much for inviting me. I've been following the podcast and I'm just honored to be part of such a meaningful and wonderful innovative work here in the podcast and I mean again I'm just thrilled for our talk.

distillerypodcast
Awesome and I feel like this work is very personal in some ways. So I have a lot of questions, but I did want to just talk about any background story that you could share with us, like your personal story that led you to this work.

Joao Chaves
Oh thank you, thank you for that. Yeah, I begin the book with my own story as an immigrant, particularly as an immigrant from Brazil. Just landing in the US without a community or a network that you know could open doors for opportunities for friendships and for just you know and imagination of a future community, I mean, like when I came I did not have that. I had a few friends that I knew but beyond that and not a very robust kind of social network and it was my involvement with an immigrant church in Florida that I can begin. Having no church life——of course, I was already a Christian in Brazil——but coming in here in the US I found out how different the immigrant church was. It was a church comprised mostly of Brazilian immigrants, most of them undocumented. and via my relationship with that church and then with other churches that I got to participate in different cities and in different states as I moved for different reasons. I got to really see you know how different from a church in our host country——the immigrant church was——and as I began to read more and learn more about other immigrant communities as well, especially other ethnic churches, I got to see many overlaps and also many differences between different ethnic groups and that the interest I had particularly was in paying attention to how the migration process and migrational dynamics change immigrant faith communities here because, again, in my own experience in immigrant churches in the US, over time I saw how those dynamics made the immigrant church something almost sweet-generous. Not necessarily what the church is in the host country of folks who go to immigrants who go to church in the US, but also not the same kind of entity. If I could put it that way as national churches and also is that liminal space and that the immigrant church inhabits as I tried to show in the book that I was interested in kind of really looking at what are the elements that make that? They make that happen? So this was my attempt to kind of account for that. This book was.

distillerypodcast
So set the stage for us by telling us a little bit more about the history of the Brazilian Baptist Church and how Brazuca Baptist churches originated.

Joao Chaves
It could be a fairly surprising story in some ways. So, it connects to the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention begins in the US in 1845 because of an issue regarding slavery. It attempts in the 50s, in the 1850s, they talk about Brazil as you know, being a potential mission field. They end up sending a missionary who was formerly in Nigeria to Brazil. In 1860 when the missionary gets there he speaks Yoruba so he can preach to the slaves but he can't preach to the free population. So he gets in trouble for preaching to the slaves and the authorities think that he's trying to organize slaves for a rebellion——that and a few other things get him into trouble. He ends up going back to the US and then after the Civil War when the Civil War ends in 1865, and that is an exodus of former Confederates to Brazil in large part because Brazil remains a slaveholding country until 1888. So 23 years after the end of the Civil War is when Brazil abolished slavery. So it is among that exodus of Confederates. So in communities——ethnic communities, ethnic enclaves of former Confederates——that the first Brazilian Baptist Church——the two first Brazilian Baptist Churches——begin. And then it is from those churches and their connections with the Southern Baptist Convention that the work begins to spread. And you know the churches just start being formed and the denomination begins to grow. But very much for most of its history, it is a Southern Baptist-dominated. And in the 1980s, fast forward almost a hundred years there, in the 1980s a church in the Southern Baptist Church in the East Coast in New Jersey——in Newark, New Jersey——begins having conversations with the World Mission Board of the Brazilian Baptist Convention about sending missionaries to preach to the Portuguese communities or the Iberian-Portuguese communities in New Jersey. And that coincides with a broader migration pattern that Baptists at that time, Brazilian Baptists, were not aware of. Which was these mass migrations, of these waves of mass migration of Brazilians to the United States that happened in the 80s, in the 90s, and then in the early 00s as well. So these missionaries began noticing that, although initially, the work was to reach the Iberian-Portuguese, there are many Brazilian enclaves or are Brazilian immigrant enclaves and I call them "Brazuca"——just to differentiate between Brazilian and Brazuca is a term that is already in the literature, primarily so among sociologists. It just means Brazilian immigrant or Brazilian-American in the US. But again then these churches begin to shift to focus mostly on Brazilian immigrants. Although in reality there are people from many nationalities that go to these churches. But they remain for most of their history mostly Brazilian, and they start to spread across the US and again the book traces some of that history too. But those are some of the main connections there. You know a convention that starts, mostly informed by/for former Confederate exiles that go from the US south to Brazil because they want to——as I say the book——recreate the old South in a country that still allows for slavery for over two decades. And then as the story develops, a migration pattern is formed, the way in which people move across the globe, that same connection with the Southern Baptist Convention, kind of opens the doors for missionaries——Brazilian missionaries——to be sent to the US and then, you know, begin forming communities that first try to cater to Iberian-Portuguese immigrants. But as mass migration from Brazil happens at the same time they kind of shift towards a more concerted effort to reach Brazilian immigrants instead.

distillerypodcast
And you know, I'm picking up on the importance of the missionaries in this. Can you talk a little bit about who were these missionaries——the Southern Baptist missionaries that come to Brazil, and then the Brazilian Baptists——who are these people? Who were they?

Joao Chaves
The missionaries who go to Brazil, they are mostly, not exclusively, but mostly Southern men and women educated in the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention who are——depending on how we use the terminology of course. But I think according to most people would fall within the terminology of evangelicals meaning that they were conversionists. They wanted people to convert. There's has not been much change in over a hundred years in what is considered to be a Southern Baptist orthodox, you know? The inerrancy of scripture; baptism by immersion; the alleged independence of the local congregations. Those are all things that the missionaries brought with them. Again, mostly Southern white men and women went to Brazil throughout these years. And they pretty much shaped the denomination in Brazil along similar lines. They were really effective in disseminating Southern Baptist convictions which for them was hard to separate from Southern American Convictions. The first president of the Mexican Baptist Convention of Texas, for example, is C.D. Daniel——Charles Daniel was his name. He went to Brazil as a young man, as a teenager, with the wave of Confederate exiles. So became a missionary after that in Brazil then came to the US because he spoke Portuguese——that was close enough to Spanish——and worked among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Texas in doing several things again. He started the Baptist Convention of Texas and also translated Ku Klux Klan material into Spanish. So we have that kind of race/religion intersections there. But then the Brazilian missionaries who come in the 80s specifically to plant churches here, are more often than not trained in theological institutions in Brazil who have been dominated by Southern Baptist missionaries who have taught Southern Baptist theology. And although they are Brazilians and they have been born and raised in Brazil, theologically they are very, very close, almost indistinguishable from, US Southern Baptists.

distillerypodcast
I'm interested too in the kind of unique context of the Brazuca churches and how they differ from the Brazilian Baptist churches and the Southern Baptist Convention Churches. Can we can you share a little bit and describe that context then?

Joao Chaves
I think the major thing I would say, and I devote one chapter of the book to that, is the amount of the percentage of undocumented immigrants in these churches——people who either were or are undocumented. So this issue of having to pastor undocumented folks is one that brings a number of differences from——of course——the Brazilian context in which a lot of these missionaries or these pastors of Brazuca churches here had been pastors in Brazil and they mentioned these differences, you know, about just pastoring. They were not trained to pastor undocumented immigrants who might need a sort of communal and legal and a kind of social network support that churches in Brazil do not focus on necessarily or in ways in which Southern Baptist or national churches here in the US, in general, do not need to do. And some of that kind of social dynamic that is heavily informed by immigration status. Pastors learn really quickly here that the draw for immigrant churches off of Brazuca churches particularly but I think this is it could be generalized as not as much theological conviction as is ethnic solidarity——that is people go to a Brazilian Baptist Church not because they are Baptist but because they're Brazilian. I mean it could be both. But the emphasis there is in ethnic solidarity other than doctoral commitment. So what happens is that sometimes in a lot of these Brazuca Baptist Churches are pioneers——they are the first Brazilian Church in the city or in their neighborhood. And because of that they draw folks from different denominations and different religious backgrounds. But in terms of the internal dynamics, they are radically different in the sense that the denominational makeup of the members themselves is more often than not——one of the pastors I interviewed said "salade de fruitta"——they're like a fruit salad. And also this is particular to the Southern Baptist Convention or at least in some sense is the issue of women in leadership——that the Southern Baptist Convention has and continues to adamantly kind of deny space for the ordination of women and for full gender equality in that sense not to speak about other senses. And these Brazuca churches for different reasons, a couple of them already ordained women. And here is the one point where the Brazilian Baptist Convention is different from the Southern Baptist Convention. The Brazilian Baptist Convention allows for the state or the state orders of pastors to recognize or not women ordination whereas the Southern Baptist Convention is a full-fledged "No, we won't accept it." But even then you know talking with these pastors and following these churches for some time you could see that the migration patterns and the pentecostal influence also inform the way in which they have come to look at how they will adapt to their reality in terms of open space for full gender equality. So those are kind of the 3 main things that I would say make these churches unique. And again, these are not unique to Brazuca churches——I think some of those elements can be applied to a broader conceptual understanding of some immigrant groups. But the number of undocumented immigrants——the fact that it's ethnic solidarity rather than doctrinal conviction that it is a strong, that gives a stronger sense of unity and belonging in these churches and the pentecostalization and all that comes with that is what makes these communities different from the same denomination that the leaders of these communities belonged to before they left their home country and even the denomination into which these churches are themselves affiliated in the US——that is the Southern Baptist Convention.

distillerypodcast
So, talk to us about women in leadership and any additional insight you have on how women who lead Brazuca Captist churches navigate, then, their association with the Southern Baptist Convention. How does that work?

Joao Chaves
Well I think first I should also say that leadership of women——it's not limited to in these churches, in Baptist churches, in Brazil, in the Baptist Convention, you know and whatever else——is not limited to any denomination's willingness to accept their ordination right? I mean now I think women lead in churches I think it's safe to say much more than men, either they are ordained or not and that's certainly true in Baptist churches in Latin America, it's true in immigrant churches here and in many many many denominations that again may accept or not women ordination. First of all, a lot of these women and men in these churches could care less if they are part of the Southern Baptist Convention right? Many of them are, like I mentioned a minute ago, are not Baptist, do not want to be Baptist although they are members of a Baptist Church. But the churches that have decided to ordain women that I did encounter——it didn't seem that the fact that they were part of the Southern Baptist Convention created a major crisis. I did talk to a couple of pastors who'll say something that may illuminate part of the answer. One of——I quote this pastor in the book——and I'm paraphrasing him here, he says, "You know, we respect the Baptist Convention or the Southern Baptist Convention——it is our big mama." He actually calls the Convention "big mama." "But when we try to work with them. We have problems." Another pastor went on and said, "You know if they came here and saw the way we work they will kick all of us out." Meaning that there is recognition there, that they value that connection. They are thankful for the fact that that connection exists. This is partially because they are most of them theologically conservative. But even those who might be framed as being theologically conservative recognize that they cannot act the same way and that although they might act the way they act in ways that they don't advertise broadly, you know, to Southern Baptist state conventions or even the national convention with whom they cooperate, I didn't see major crises happening when they had to diverge on things. Even the issue of ordination of women.

distillerypodcast
You wrote about some of the pastors that you interviewed and worked with——their perspective on immigration changing. Can you describe some of that, the sort of evolution of those pastors' perspectives?

Joao Chaves
So I think that the most powerful example is one of the pastors who actually when he came to the US and found out that there were so many undocumented members in his church he actually called immigration. And again I mentioned this in the book and he asked, "What can I do?" And the immigration officer gave him a pastoral lesson——the immigration officer asked, "What is in the sign in front of your church?" And the pastor said the First Baptist Church. And this immigration officer told him, "Well then, pastor your people and let us deal with immigration issues. You don't have to get involved." And this pastor went from that to advocating for his congregation to vote for Hillary Clinton because of what Donald Trump would do to immigrants. And I asked him, "Weren't you fearful that you would lose your tax-exempt status?" And he said, "No, I would sacrifice anything for my people." And I show different examples of pastors engaging with their communities in terms of how they're reading scriptures, how they're looking about law. And that is a big shift from equating legality with morality. The pastors that I talk to anyway make a sharp distinction between what is legal and what is right. And for them, yes, these people are, you know, a lot of these people that come to the churches are illegal. But that demonstrates, not their immorality but the immorality of the legislation system. To use what one sociologist——to use a term that she used——Brazilians, undocumented Brazilians are in a state of illegality but not illegitimacy. It is also a testimony to the oppressive structures that are always around us and we have been numbed to in different ways. But they can't be numb to——they have to deal with kids being left home when parents are deported. "How do you come to terms," is a question that they had to struggle with——come to terms with the fact that a lot of folks around us——even the denomination to which we belong——want us to condemn this people.

distillerypodcast
I wanted to ask you about the Brazuca Baptist churches and the relationship with being described as Hispanic or Latinx

Joao Chaves
The one thing that I think is important to recognize is that these are socially constructed terms, right, and with definitions that might be arbitrary to some or not. Every single Hispanic or Latinx group or every single Hispanic or Latinx immigrant will prefer——research shows and suggest strongly that we prefer——there are national identifiers to a pan-ethnic identifier, meaning a Venezuelan wants to be a Venezuelan before she wants to be Hispanic or Latinx. My Colombians, Mexicans, Brazilians are no different. I talk a little bit about that resistance against pan-ethnic terms that is generalized in some ways, especially in first-generation immigrants no matter where they're from. But the definition, there, of Hispanic and Latinx that was going by is people with heritage in Latin America, which is one of the definitions that is used by the US government. A lot of Brazilians——the overwhelming number of Brazilians and Brazukas might resist that, not only because of the fact that you have to, in a way, get socialized into these terms that are imposed upon you, right? But also because I Think the Brazilian leaders, politicians, and leaders in faith communities have begun to see the attractiveness of being included in a pan-Ethnic group that by definition they should belong to even if they tend to resist. But just because it being counted into a group of Hispanic/Latinx, there is a strategic element to it. You have a bigger voice; it's a larger community. And——I criticized the "Brazuca community" in general for this——Brazilians also found out that it is socially advantageous for them——to be Brazilians more than some other countries for different reasons. The US dominant culture tends to romanticize Brazil and its culture right? So lots of sociologists have associated that, you know, the dominant culture, we talk about Brazil, they think about soccer and samba and hard workers and it's very different than the majority culture's general impression of Hispanic, which is distorted very much both ways. That's an imagined Brazil that sanitizes all kinds of things that Brazilian culture and society have to fix, but also one that is a perception that also imposes on the Hispanic label several biases that are——as I say in the book——are born out of the anxieties of white supremacy. And insofar as some Brazilian immigrants tried to distance themselves from pan-ethnic terms as an attempt to capitalize in the perceived social benefits of being romanticized by the majority culture, they are incorporating a version of white supremacy that ultimately, it's not only evil but is also not as beneficial as they might think.

distillerypodcast
I am so curious about your actual research process——like what does this take?

Joao Chaves
in order for me to see if how these churches were different, or if they were different from churches in the home country and in the US, I really had to study about a century of history and ecclesiology in both Brazil and the US because I am trained as a historian. So the West part I could incorporate into my own PhD and in the graduate school training for the dissertation, I went back to just really study the history of the church. And then, looking at migration patterns, I had to take classes in ethnography and sociology or get acquainted with research in oral history and, again, there is no archive that houses some of these sources. So I had to go to visit churches to get the material. And then after I did that and interviewed the first round of interviews with many pastors and being in many of the meetings with the leadership, I then stepped back in and looked at what were some of the major themes that emerged out of that which I did. And after writing them down and coming up with a general understanding I went back to a select number of those pastors to see if their interpretation aligned with mine if they thought that these dynamics were being interpreted in ways that they thought that it was fair to the communities. Now we had exchanges about that and then of course, like, revised and revealed, I did not as much as——kind of——there are some dynamics that they couldn't see because there're——again, you know, looking at one community whereas I was stepping back and looking at a lot of them. But I just wanted to touch base to see also what they thought about that was——and then, so I did that and then in dialogue with the research on this lot of sociological research about Brazilian immigrants. So that was kind of my main dialogue partners there as well as looking at the literature on other Hispanic groups in which Brazilians or Brazucas are often not included. But also, looking at concepts and histories that had been documented that could inform my understanding of this group in particular. So that's kind of how this developed.

distillerypodcast
My last question was just any advice you have for others who are looking at a similar theological position or framework where they're not adequately represented? Like, how do you do this work? How do you offer this beautiful work that you're doing——like, how can others follow what you're doing? How do we do this?

Joao Chaves
I think that the number one thing I would say: just do it in community. And by "doing in community" I mean so many people did this work before it was out so that I could fix it and tweak it and maybe disagree better——clarify, you know——and some, not many, but a few of them were the very people that were being written about. Most of them were scholars in different fields. So I had to reflect on that——so my section about race, I asked the sociologist of race to read it. So, of course, for you to do that you have to have fostered already a community of people who you trust and whose scholarship you trust. It drives me to ask people who I know are better than I am——and those aren't all hard to find——and just let him read it and tell him honestly, "You will help me if you just give me your worst criticism." I know he's not personal, I know, but I just want to see. Your question in terms of writing stories about groups that are not so represented in the literature right?

distillerypodcast
Thank you very much because I think that people will be really interested in the nuance of all your answers. So thank you very much.

Joao Chaves
Oh thank you, you're very gracious and I appreciate the invitation and the conversation has been amazing.