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An enduring mission – and a new name – is energizing Hispanic ministry and scholarship

Hispanic immigrants are among the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States. Their distinctive cultural values are intricately linked to their spirituality, underscoring a need for religious leaders who can effectively represent and minister to them. However, according to Jorge Rodríguez V, Ph.D., associate director for strategic programming for a Latinx theological educational initiative, Hispanic Summer Program (HSP), those who are academically most qualified and culturally aligned to minister to this demographic – Latinx students – are underrepresented in theological and higher education institutions.

Throughout the 1980s, decades prior to HSP’s inception, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) initiated efforts to integrate the rapidly growing Hispanic-American population into mainstream theological education. ATS, along with the Forum for Theological Education (FTE), enlisted theological educators, most notably Dr. Cecilio Arrastía, a Cuban-born Presbyterian preacher and theological educator, and Dr. Justo González, a professor specializing in Latinx studies. Their research underscored a significant gap in the epistemologies, pedagogies, and scholarly expertise of the Latinx community. Thus, on June 25, 1989, HSP, an intensive, two-week, three-credit, graduate-level program, was established to strengthen Hispanic ministry by educating Latinx students and those serving Latinx communities.

“[The summer program] provided an opportunity for Latinx faculty members to teach courses in a Latinx majority classroom on topics relevant to the distinctive Hispanic community,” says Rodríguez.

Since its inception, the initiative has received an overwhelming response, prompting HSP to introduce additional programs beyond the original coursework. Under the leadership of HSP’s executive director, Dr. Daisy L. Machado, the program has significantly broadened its historic vision and mission.

In 2018, HSP was awarded a planning grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to conduct further research with key stakeholders and Latinx ministers, focusing on the program’s rapidly evolving instruction. This expansion included additional master’s-level education and year-round programming, as well as workshops for Latinx faculty members to acquire teaching tools, and instructional courses in finance, fundraising, philanthropy, sermon delivery, and chaplaincy. A governing board was also introduced, which currently comprises 39 members from sponsoring schools, who host various HSP programs onsite at their institutions.

The Rev. Dr. Kristin Johnston Largen, president of Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a board member and appreciates HSP’s efforts to expand and develop leaders in this ministry.

“I am grateful for the friends I have made through the HSP, and how my awareness has been raised about the barriers to theological education, which many Latine students face,” says Largen. “Listening to so many different first-hand experiences and learning from the fruitful work other schools are doing has informed my own strategic planning with our faculty and staff as we seek to create a climate of belonging and success for Latine students at Wartburg Seminary.”

By 2020, the program’s success and growth highlighted the need for rebranding. Rodríguez explains, “We realized that our name didn’t match who we’ve become. While our mission has remained the same, our impact has seen incredible expansion. If we’re going to have long-term growth, we need a name that more clearly communicates that. The Hispanic Scholars Program better reflects our vision while still grounded in our original mission.”

The rebranding includes new programming, the addition of full-time staff members, an expanded flagship summer session, workshops, an alumni network, online curriculum, chaplaincy courses, and fundraising instruction. Future considerations include expanding and tweaking current credit-granting programs, professional development programs, and discernment programs.

Brenda Crespo, M.Div., director of grants at Greater Somerset County YMCA, participated in an HSP program in 2018 in Dallas, Texas, and the El Semillero program in April 2023. Her experiences with the program helped her learn how to incorporate faith and values into her work seeking funding for programs and services to low-income and vulnerable people. “I show God’s love and kindness in every action I do,” says Crespo.

“Part of what we’re saying is that our community has changed dramatically, and unless we’re at the vanguard of documenting and providing resolutions for that change, we can actually move forward as a community,” says Rodríguez.

More than 1,800 seminarians and graduate students from 40 institutions in master’s or doctorate programs have participated in the initiative. Future plans include a pilot program for undergraduate Latinx students and additional regional workshops.

Rodríguez is hopeful for HSP’s future, and the role it plays in equipping Latino students with the education and knowledge they need to minister to the faithful. “HSP has been able to meet the challenges of an ever-evolving Latinx community – one that is more religiously and linguistically diverse – by continuing to shape the next generation of Latinx theological and academic leaders.”     

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