Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens returned to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1921 and said, “I have been over into the future, and it works.” He was wrong. Journalists today see Miami’s ethnic and racial divides as the future of America, and some say it won’t work. Are they wrong? This week I’m reporting on different aspects of an electric city with a remarkable diversity and a relentless pursuit of economic well-being.
MIAMI—The sky here is like a mild lake pierced sporadically by bright orange streaks and tall palm trees. Minutes onto the highway from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami, luxury cars swerve around me. I grip the steering wheel and bolt for 95 North. When I punch on the radio, 92.5 FM lights up the screen in neon, instantly flooding my car with the roll and rumble of Spanish pop.
Welcome to Miami.
I spent last night talking with Rick Sawyer and his wife Yvonne. They set out grilled tilapia, summer squash, and homemade bread for a late dinner. Rick Sawyer is the director of Hope for Miami, where he brings together churches and helps them reach out to their neighborhoods with practical programs for children and families in need. But his work is difficult.
While many of the older churches have failed to adapt, newer churches are sprouting up in their place. But these younger churches are often economically strapped and eager to grow, making them susceptible to “prosperity gospel” teaching.
From the jump, I’m curious about church in Miami: How do evangelical churches counter these challenges? How do they face the complex legal backgrounds of their congregants? How do they face ethnic division?
It might seem an odd and complicated topic to pursue on a Monday morning, but after lunch at a loud Cuban market, I brave the highway to meet Pastor Al Pino at La Carreta, a classy Cuban restaurant in Hialeah.
With a red polo and khaki shorts, Pino isn’t your typical Cuban. For one thing, he’s light-skinned with short-trimmed silver hair. Sports sunglasses sit perched on top of his head; at his feet sits a backpack.
He jokes that many people are disappointed when they realize he’s a pastor. They expect him to wear a nice suit and drive an expensive car like the pastors on T.V. They also expect him to promise them the American Dream with its allure of material wealth and preach messages of self-empowerment and prosperity.
In reality, Pino, as the leader of a Reformed congregation, is a minority: Seventy percent of Hispanic immigrants here in Miami are Catholics. Hardly 2 percent of the churches are evangelical, and even a smaller percent of those adhere to Reformed theology.
Pino has been a pastor here for almost 17 years. He’s seen how Reformed theology, with its call for other-centeredness and submission to God’s sovereignty, can come across as offensive, but he’s also seen how it can inspire passion and racial reconciliation in a wildly diverse city. “If we move past what’s not important and get out of our comfort zones,” he said, “The tapestry [would be] so rich!”
Orlando Liscano works at Hope for Miami and is a member Pino’s church. At first listen, Liscano’s story seems a well-known tale. He came to America on his parents’ coattails after his father's struggling leather-supply business convinced him to uproot his family and come to Miami illegally.
His family life was close-knit, centered on hard work and consistent church attendance. But Liscano’s story diverged when he decided to start attending a Protestant church during college. It rocked his family. To break allegiance with the Catholic Church was like breaking an ancient family tradition. But Liscano said he couldn’t ignore the contradictions between what he read in the Bible and what he heard during Mass.
He ultimately converted, but even then, his path to solid theology was bumpy. It forked off temporarily towards a church that emphasized material prosperity, self-empowerment, and allegiance to the pastor as one’s spiritual father. He and his wife eventually left joined Pino’s Reformed congregation.
Pino said Reformed theology is such a tough sell to the immigrant community because most of them come from a Catholic background where hierarchy and tradition is important, but also backgrounds of economic distress, making them likely to flock to churches with a wealthy, central leader promising them prosperity.
Pino admits these cultural expectations are hard to change. So are the ethnic divides. But even there, he’s seen signs of Gospel reconciliation.
He told me a story about two men, one from Puerto Rico, the other from Cuba—two ethnicities that don’t usually get along. He spotted them during one service, the Puerto Rican man with his arm around the Cuban man’s shoulders. Later, the man told Pino: “I never thought I’d ever say that a Cuban was one of my best friends.”