When some members of Amor de Dios United Methodist Church in Little Village elected to move a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe into the sanctuary last year, the icon spawned an exodus.
Turned off by the introduction of a Roman Catholic tradition to a Protestant congregation, most of the church’s 15 founding parishioners drifted away. To them, venerating the Virgin Mary and reciting the rosary did not belong in a Methodist church.
Pastors of other Hispanic Methodist congregations objected too. They said praying to the Virgin equaled idolatry.
And Roman Catholics in the neighborhood worried that the church might be selling itself as something it was not.
Still, Rev. Jose Landaverde allowed the statue to stay. He says he sees no harm in embracing a tradition–the Virgin is an unofficial national symbol of Mexico–that might bring people closer to God.
“It’s coming from the people, which is the real presence of the Holy Spirit,” said Landaverde, 31, a student pastor from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. “You cannot bring theological debates to the people when they need spiritual assistance.”
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Since his arrival in June 2003, the congregation has swelled to 150 members and about 100 regular Sunday visitors.
This month, parishioners celebrated their first novena in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe by parading the 2-foot-high statue around the neighborhood, singing songs and reciting the rosary. About two dozen parishioners weathered the chill each night to deliver the statue to a different living room, where it was surrounded by garland, twinkling lights, roses and poinsettias.
On Sunday, parishioners will commence the traditional Feast Day for the Virgin of Guadalupe and, through prayers, mariachi music, drama and dancing, pay homage.
“The Virgin understands our suffering and she accompanies us everywhere we go,” said church member Oscar Hernandez, who grew up Roman Catholic in El Salvador but now considers himself a Methodist. “We don’t want to take away the faith that this community has, but we want to nourish it.”
But even some other Latino pastors do not approve. Rev. Enrique Gonzalez, pastor of El Mesias United Methodist Church in Elgin–one of the five largest Hispanic Methodist congregations in the United States–said icons do not belong in the Methodist church and neither does the veneration of the Virgin.
“It is against the fundamental doctrines of the Methodist church,” he said.
Indeed, since the Reformation in the 16th Century, most Protestants have rejected the Roman Catholic notion that Christians can rely on the Virgin Mary or other saints to orchestrate a relationship with God. They say that praying to intercessors too closely resembles idolatry and that the Virgin Mary’s significance has been promoted by man-made traditions, not by evidence in the New Testament.
Gonzalez said veneration of the Virgin Mary also has no place in the Latin American congregations because, for him, the Virgin Mary symbolizes oppression. In Mexico, he said, Protestants are a minority constantly being silenced by the majority–the Roman Catholic Church.
“The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers liberation,” Gonzalez said, not customs such as venerating saints. “Behind the tradition, there is nothing.”
Landaverde says that if the church’s mission is to make disciples for Jesus Christ in transitional communities, it must embrace cultural traditions.
Rev. Peter McQuinn, a Roman Catholic priest at nearby Epiphany Parish in Little Village, questions Landaverde’s methods. He said many of the church members might not fully understand they are part of a Protestant church.
“It’s kind of like pirating a Catholic tradition that’s been part of liturgical celebrations and part of our theology for millennia,” he said. “It does seem a little bit out of place with the United Methodist Church. They rejected that clearly.”
The atypical approach to Methodist worship comes at a time when churches of all denominations are vying to serve the growing Latino community in the United States. Though Latinos are a traditionally Roman Catholic population, more have been gravitating toward evangelical and mainline Protestant churches in recent years.
Landaverde said as long as churches are working toward the same mission–“to make disciples of Jesus Christ and work for social justice”–denomination should not make that much of a difference.
Rev. Oscar Carrasco, director of connectional ministries for the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, said exploring practices such as venerating the Virgin Mary can further the ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and Methodists.
“What has been important is that this symbol of the Virgin of Guadalupe came with the people,” he said. “It’s so etched in their hearts because of the struggles the people have gone through. They have suffered many things–hunger, poverty, health, lack of jobs. Every time they try to seek the divine, this symbol has been present.
“God through the Virgin said to the poor native population, `I am with you in your suffering and I am with you in your pain,'” Carrasco said. “That cultural value still has significance today.”
The Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared in 1531 to an Indian named Juan Diego, asking him to build a chapel in her honor. When the Spanish bishop asked him for proof, the Virgin instructed Diego to fill his robe with roses–which were out of season–and pour out the flowers before the bishop. The bishop fell to his knees when he saw the Virgin’s image imprinted on Diego’s cloak, which today is enshrined in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Although skeptics say the story was a Spanish ploy to persuade more indigenous people to convert to Christianity, Nancy Villafranca, director of education for the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Pilsen, said the Virgin has evolved into a symbol of empowerment.
“She was really there for them, understanding their struggle during the tough decades when cultures so different were living in the same space,” Villafranca said. “Most Mexicanos really do believe in her.”
That is precisely why Landaverde welcomed the Virgin into his church. An activist for migrant workers and a former Roman Catholic seminarian, Landaverde joined a Humboldt Park Methodist church in 1998.
In 2000, he organized the Latino Union, an advocacy group for Chicago day laborers, and in 2003 he enrolled in Garrett-Evangelical to become a Methodist pastor. There, he continued his advocacy work. Except now in addition to fighting for day laborers in City Hall, he and other members went to the corners where laborers gathered for work to offer prayers.
Many of the Roman Catholic workers and families that he helped have joined Amor de Dios. By August, membership had grown from 15 to 80.
The parish council discerned that something was missing–the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“Since I was little, it’s always been right to have the Virgin Mary in the church,” said Olivia Serrato, 40, one of the original parishioners who decided to stay after the Virgin was introduced. “It’s now a great honor to bring the Virgin Mary to my Methodist church. Before I didn’t feel complete.”