By Néstor A. Hernández Zambrana
“I disagree with the conclusion that to have this conversation is to cater to Western culture.”
It is obvious the Church of the Nazarene is at a crucial point in its history. However, I continue to notice how the global reality of our denomination is weaponized by some within their arguments. This is my humble attempt to add my voice, that of a third generation Nazarene born and raised outside the USA Canada Region who served for over a decade in ministry, worked for Nazarene Compassionate Ministries at the Global Ministry Center, translated all of nazarene.org to Spanish in 2016, and served as a Spanish translator/interpreter for global Nazarene events. It is also a loving response to fellow Nazarene Rev. Brian Powell’s expressions in “Conservatives vs Progressive Visions of the Church of the Nazarene Part II”, the most recent episode of the podcast titled “More to the Story with Andy Miller the III”. To clarify, I believe many of the things discussed in the aforementioned podcast are powerfully addressed in “Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be LGBTQIA+ Affirming”, so I will focus on that which pertained to the church outside of the United States.
Within the first twenty minutes of the podcast, Rev. Powell says the following referring to the current Nazarene statement on Human Sexuality: “Of all those sins mentioned, homosexuality gets more than double the attention in our current statement. … In other words, we devote a whole lot of space to homosexuality and little space to all the others, and in my mind, logic will tell me that the reason (for that) is that we have the propensity to cater to Western culture.” Part of the argument here is the assumption that most of the Nazarene church outside the U.S. would disagree with the denomination becoming fully LGBTQ+ affirming. While I agree that this might very well be the case, I disagree with the conclusion that to have this conversation is to “cater to Western culture.” Especially when the fact that many Nazarenes outside of the US are conservative, and too often fundamentalist, not because of something intrinsic within their cultures, but because of the influence of white American missionaries who sought to not just evangelize the Global South, but also Americanize it.
Despite how uncomfortable it makes us at times, we cannot erase history. Christianity: Catholic and Protestant, was a crucial part of the colonization of Latin America, Africa, and other world areas where Nazarenes are now present. Let me use the example of my native Puerto Rico, part of the Mesoamerica Region of the Church of the Nazarene, although it has been a territory (i.e. colony) of the United States for over a century. I am saddened by the systems that under the guises of “honoring God” have and continue to oppress and destroy. In 1493, Christopher Columbus “discovered” Puerto Rico. Supported by the Roman Catholic Spanish Empire, the Spanish tried to convert the indigenous Taínos in the name of Christ. When they decided to rebel, they were nearly exterminated. Later on, enslaved Africans are brought to work the fields since the indigenous had been the one’s enslaved up to that point, and they needed the forced labor. Attempts to convert them also occur. After many years, many Puerto Ricans embraced Catholicism, but not without first making it their own by merging it with Puerto Rican culture. However, another master was on the horizon, soon to come to our shores also in the name of Jesus.
On July 25, 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war. Later on, Puerto Rico becomes a “territory” of the United States under the “Treaty of Paris” with Spain. Shortly after the United States gained possession of Puerto Rico and other lands, Senator Albert J. Beveridge said the following during a congressional hearing:
“God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. … This is the divine mission of America. … We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace. The judgment of the Master isupon us: ‘Ye have been faithful over a few things; I will make you ruler over many things.’”
This idea of “Manifest Destiny” was central in early Protestant missions in Puerto Rico. The majority of American missionaries who went to the island “called by God” to evangelize and Americanize the poor, pagan, Catholic Puerto Ricans were ethnically white, conservative in their politics, and fundamentalist in their theology. This is especially the case for the Church of the Nazarene. After Puerto Rican minister Lebron Velázquez started the denomination’s efforts in Puerto Rico and had planted five local churches, Nazarene Missions decided that he was too ecumenical and liberationist to lead the church. By all practical means, they excommunicated him and replaced him with a white American missionary as District Superintendent in 1952. From 1952 to 1971, every district leader was American, and their approach to ministry on the island is clear in the conclusion to the current Puerto Rico East District Superintendent’s Master’s Thesis on the History of the CotN in Puerto Rico.
“One difficulty that the church faced with the North American missionaries was the imposition of North American culture. This was most noticeable in the dynamic of worship. For the missionaries, the only instruments allowed in the church were the piano and organ. Any other musical instrument was strictly prohibited. This imposition limited people (i.e. Puerto Ricans) from identifying with the church. In short, by discriminating against our Latino culture and limiting its expression, whether this was done consciously or unconsciously, it in turn limited the growth of the church by not being accepted by Puerto Ricans who saw it as something very far from their reality as a people.”
He goes on to mention how pastors were banned from the ecumenical Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, which is recognized as one of the top tier seminaries in Latin America, and is where Methodist theologian Dr. Justo Gonzalez, one of the pioneer voices in Hispanic Theology, started his teaching career. This was the case for his uncle, my great-uncle, who was told he could either be a Nazarene minister or study at the seminary, but not both. He chose the CotN and became one of the first Puerto Rican ministers from the island ordained in the denomination. There were even some who weren’t allowed to attend Nazarene Theological Seminary. They could only go to the Nazarene Bible Institute which was run by missionaries on the island. This ensured that none of the pastors went astray and they could be indoctrinated not just into the gospel, but into conservative white American culture. This vision was clearly stated by District Superintendent Lyle Prescott in 1957.
“I thank God for the progress we see in standards in our district. We long to see the time when all our women stop wearing lipstick, and when both men and women stop adorning themselves with jewelry and rings, except the wedding ring. Our pastors should be conservative in accepting into church membership people with a worldly attitude, appearance or behavior, remembering that the true Nazarene standard is always quality before quantity.”
The last words sound to me like, “it’s best if we have less people as long as all the ones that we have think just like we do”. And for the entire period that white American missionaries led the district, the CotN in Puerto Rico lacked both quantity and quality. It is proven by statistics that the denomination on the island hit its stride once Puerto Ricans were allowed into district leadership. This Nazarene attitude is a clear example of colonial missionary endeavors in Puerto Rico. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier notes in her book “Atando Cabos”:
“This new wave of missionaries gave greater expression to an “otherworldy theology” that was influenced mainly by premillennial fundamentalism. It described dualism between world and the spirituality that Christians were to have. Practices included a series of legalisms and withdrawal from the world. Miguez Bonino observes that these practices cause significant doctrinal distortion, and that this paralyzes the people, keeping them from places of liberation while also dividing them from one another.”
As I have gotten to know Nazarene leaders from many parts of the world, I have learned that this story isn’t unique. It was the unfortunate norm in Nazarene missionary endeavors, which too many times resulted in keeping many “from places of liberation while also dividing them from one another.” In the meantime, ten nationally respected Nazarene institutions of higher education were developing in the United States. US pastors had more access to theological education both within and without the CotN. This resulted in many Nazarenes and Nazarene churches in the U.S. that are challenged and continually growing in their theological understanding, while many Nazarenes in the Global South seem like they are frozen in whatever year the missionaries first arrived. Thanks be to God, Nazarenes in all parts of the world challenged these early missionary attempts that sought to preach Jesus while demeaning their nation and culture. We have a diverse array of Nazarene theological voices, that both disagree and agree with me on the issue of becoming affirming, but are more than willing and capable to participate in this dialogue. “Catering to Western culture” is what the CotN did for many years. The Global South does not need white Americans to speak for them and use them as a weapon for conversations amongst themselves. Instead of assuming what “they” think, we should welcome their voice and experiences.
That said, the assumption that the conversation itself is just an American issue is also misguided. Rev. Powell goes on to say, “The Church of the Nazarene, we’re global … in addressing Human Sexuality it seems to me that we should consider that there are cultures around the world where other forms of sexual temptation are a more significant problem.” Later on, he says, “I feel that decluttering in light of the global context makes sense”, referring to the nuance on LGBTQIA+ issues in the current statement on Human Sexuality. He goes on to talk about the prevalence of polygamy in Africa. Let’s continue in that line of thought then. It is true that polygamy is a larger issue in Africa, and even some parts of Latin America, than it is in the US. However, to my knowledge, this is a culturally accepted thing. No one is being incarcerated or murdered by the state for being polygamous. In fact, for some women it provides financial stability and physical security, which adds nuance to this topic. So yes, it is important to address these issues from our stance on human sexuality. But it is not as life or death as LGBTQIA+ issues are in, let’s say, Africa.
According to a recent Reuters article, there are currently three countries in Africa where the maximum penalty for being LGBTQIA+ is death and seven where you get from 14 years to life in prison. In many other African countries, LGBTQIA+ people are criminalized and victims of constant violence. Now let’s go back to Puerto Rico as an example of the realities of Latin America. From 2019-2021, Puerto Rico led the ranking of murders against trans people in the US. The only Latin American territory of the US has continually led the nation in anti-LGBTQIA+ violence. The most unfortunate part is that a lot of the violence towards the LGBTQIA+ community on the island is shrouded in Biblical “machista” language, in line with what the missionaries taught us. Isn’t it even more crucial then to have this conversation with our Global South Nazarene sisters and brothers? At the very least, can we affirm the beauty of the current specific call in our statement on human sexuality to love those who are the target of such violence and discrimination? Should we not listen to our leaders in the South African context, which in 2006, under its second black African president, became the first country in the southern hemisphere to legalize same-sex marriage, almost a decade before it was legalized in the United States?
I will end with a quote from the already mentioned Dr. Justo Gonzalez, one of my personal heroes and in my opinion one of the greatest Wesleyan theologians to have ever lived. In his book “Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective”, he says:
“God who created the world in the first place is about to do a new thing – a thing as great and as surprising as that first act of creation. God is already doing this new thing, and we can join it by the power of the Spirit! Mañana (i.e. tomorrow) is here! True, mañana is not yet today, but today can be lived out of the glory and the promise of mañana, thanks to the power of the Spirit.”
He specifies that what characterizes this Reign of God is a Reign of love. My question to my dear Church of the Nazarene is, will there be space for actual voices from the global church, whether they agree with me or not, to participate in bringing about this hope for “mañana”? More importantly, will we allow love to guide us as we continue to dialogue, not just about an issue, but about the well-being of LGBTQIA+ sisters and brothers who speak all the languages of the world? Some days I don’t have the patience to wait around for the answer, but today I cling to the hope that was passed on to me through this troubling Nazarene history which God used despite its imperfection to save my life and that of my family. I dream with the day that many more are included within the fold of this beautiful family that I truly love and can’t seem to let go of.
Néstor A. Hernández Zambrana lives with his wife in Nashville, Tennessee. A third generation Nazarene from the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, he spent over a decade in ministry through the Church of the Nazarene at the local, district, and global level. He currently serves as the Patient Care and Enrollment Manager for a non-profit that provides access to specialty healthcare to the uninsured and underprivileged in Middle Tennessee. He has an MDiv from Nazarene Theological Seminary.