What are the origins of Hispanic Mennonites in North America?
The Hispanic Mennonite Church (North America) took root in the early 20th century as the result of individual efforts of people—not as a planned North American outreach. The family of Manuel and Ignacia León immigrated to Chicago from Mexico in 1928 and became aware of the Chicago Home Mission through their children, who were invited to attend by two mission workers. The parents indicated they were Catholics, but allowed their children to attend and were soon won over by the acceptance they felt at the mission and the Mennonite emphasis on Bible study. The entire León family soon worshipped regularly at the mission, where services were conducted in English.
Then in September, 1932, J. W. Shank, a Mennonite mission worker on temporary assignment in North America from Argentina, began leading Spanish services at the mission. He and Manuel canvassed the Mexican community. Attendance soon fluctuated between 30 and 70 persons. In 1933, Shank returned to Argentina, and Nelson Litwiller, another mission worker temporarily in the U.S. from Argentina, consented to interim leadership while a full-time pastor was sought. Eventually, David Castillo, an able young man who often preached at a Spanish Pentecostal Church and was praying for an opportunity to work within his community, was contacted. Castillo took a theological course at Goshen College (Indiana) in January of 1934 and began leading the small congregation in Chicago a month later. On April 29, 1934, 100 persons gathered for the church’s first 9 baptisms. Just 18 months after Spanish services were begun, the first north American Hispanic Mennonite church, Lawndale Mennonite Church, was established with the first Hispanic pastor.
In other locations, Simon del Bosque, of Mexican background, participated in an English-speaking Mennonite congregation in Tuleta, Texas in 1916, and Hispanics were also contacted sporadically in La Junta, Colorado, during the 1920s. Also, the Mennonite Yearbook lists New Holland Spanish Mennonite Church as having its beginnings in 1910.
During the late 60s and early 70s, formal organization began to take place:
· 1973 First Hispanic Mennonite conference
· 1973 Women’s activities initiated
· 1974 Office on Latin affairs established
· 1975 National Council of Hispanic Mennonite Churches formed
· 1976 Programs of literature and congregational education begun
· 1979 Theological training in Spanish begun
Overall, the Hispanic Mennonite Church has experienced remarkable growth, with national backgrounds coming from practically all the Spanish-speaking countries of the world. It grew from about 185 members in 1955 to 3,471 in 1999, a growth of 33 percent. (The North American Mennonite church in general only grew one percent during this time.) As Mennonite church leader Gilberto Flores notes, “Hispanic Mennonites are not merely a reflection of someone’s missionary action. They are themselves a community mission, making an impressive contribution to the development of the church among Spanish-speaking people.”
As of 2001, the Hispanic Mennonite Church encompasses about 134 congregations in the United States and Canada, with membership around 4,191. While the average size of congregations is around 35 members, one congregation numbers 600. At the 2001 Mennonite convention in Nashville, two separate advocacy groups — the Hispanic Mennonite Convention of Churches (HMC) and the Mennonite Association of Hispanic Churches (AMIGA), were joined to form Iglesia Menonita Hispana. Juan Montes, who heads the Hispanic ministry at First Mennonite Church in Reedley, Calif., was named moderator. He called the new organization “a blessing to all the Hispanic churches,” and expressed hope for a future of unity.