Looking for Latino/a Liberation in a Prosperity Church: A case study

by Arlene M. Sanchez-Walsh

When I began studying the prosperity gospel among different ethnic groups, I wanted to see if the promise and proof of financial success were enough to convince adherents that they should make the leap to believing that God wanted people to be rich and that those stuck in poverty must be doing something wrong.

One of the churches I studied was Jesus Es Amor, affiliated with Kenneth C. Copeland’s Ft. Worth-based Word of Faith (WOF) movement, a subculture within Pentecostalism. The pastor of Jesus Es Amor is Luis Chacón, an Ecuadoran immigrant and former translator for Copeland who uses his considerable religious authority to push his 100-member church to adhere to the Word of Faith principles of claiming victory, believing that problems are already conquered, and that prosperity is already on the way—even if tangible evidence of that victory is not evident.

Chacón’s religious authority resides in the power of his personal testimony, his preaching skills, and his overt attention to validating the Latino/a immigrant experiences of his congregation. Chacón’s testimony of overcoming drugs, gang affiliation, and incarceration is compelling, and he uses that testimony as a starting point to argue for the power of faith to change every circumstance of people’s lives.  He has no formal theological training, nor does he desire any; he chooses to remain in a Spanish-speaking church, although he could easily make the jump to an English-speaking or bilingual church.  Part of his mission is to reach Latino/a immigrants through the culture.

Jesus Es Amor meets in a strip mall storefront on a busy street in La Puente, Calif., and is flanked by another church, pastored by an immigrant Latina who, according to Chacón, serves as his competition.  So far, in this religious marketplace, Chacón is slightly ahead—but not by much. The meeting room features a pulpit and a small worship area; in the back, several rooms are set up for childcare and a place where women prep lunch for after the service. Women play a major role in the success of Jesus Es Amor, making up most of the congregation, cooking the lunches, and running most of the ministries.

I arrived before the service to interview two women from very different economic circumstances to see how the WOF teachings affect their financial situation. One was the widow of a successful businessman whose death has left her with a large business to run on her own. The other woman was a refugee from El Salvador who witnessed firsthand the horrific effects of the civil war throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. Upon moving to the United States, she worked at a restaurant washing dishes and dealt with the arduous life of an immigrant, raising a family on her own and coping with the effects of war-related trauma and depression without the benefit of healthcare insurance.

Both women attested to the truth of the WOF teachings. The widow reported that her business acumen rose exponentially when she began following the teachings and that this gave her the ability to continue the business after the death of her husband.  The El Salvadorian reported that she was healed of her depression and that she views her promotion from dishwasher to manager of the restaurant staff as part of the victorious living Pastor Chacón is always talking about.

Like most of the people I interviewed for my research, both women love their pastor, consider him a godly man who loves his family, and credit his straightforward and impassioned preaching with helping turn their lives around.  Both women volunteer their time at the church, and the businesswoman tithes to help support it financially.

Women are the church’s economic engine. They are encouraged to make food, transport it, and help sell it at various community gatherings throughout Southern California.  This is viewed as their form of tithing, since their financial situations often prevent them from offering their diezmo (tithe). In order to bridge the disparity between the members’ financial realities and their spiritual mandate to believe, select testimonies signifying victory are crucial to maintaining this very pliable plausibility. Because any financial setback may break the congregation’s spirit and faith, Chacón reminds them them they are in a spiritual battle between good and evil and that this battle is not imagined but a palpable reality that makes it essential to keep the faith.

After my interviews, I attended the service. Worship was exuberant, lasting nearly an hour, with prayer and praise and open demonstrations of speaking in tongues, falling under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and the laying on of hands for healing.  Chacón is an imposing physical presence. A bodybuilder, he dresses well and maintains a pencil-thin mustache and a pompadour.  He is an animated speaker but often repeats himself, and his message, which was infused with multiple references to politics, lasted well over an hour.

Chacón’s religious authority extends over nearly all aspects of his church’s life.  He is a proud cultural warrior, reserving his most strident attacks for homosexuality and viewing the church as one of the last places where children can be protected from its influence, Chacón sees the church as a place where people find “supernatural strength, [a] vaccination shot for your kids against homosexuality, drugs, sex, etc.” In another service, Chacón blamed “…the homosexuals, the lesbians. …Especially the ACLU, there are a bunch of homosexuals in there who don’t want prayer in schools.”  Though these ideas have long been a staple of much of conservative evangelical politics, it is unclear why Chacón feels compelled to preach this message so often. His congregation is comprised of older women and few men, and they are mostly undocumented, so the impetus for the messages is not to compel people to vote.

Chacón, who moved from Foursquare, to Victory Outreach, and back to Foursquare, eventually settled into Word of Faith because, as he describes it:  “It gives you hope. It makes you dream and it keeps you on fire and alive.” For Chacón, the WOF subculture is a more vibrant, real, and engaging brand of Pentecostalism, one that seemingly takes the claims of Pentecostalism to their logical conclusion.

“If germs or viruses or infections are on my hands,” he peached, “they die in the name of Jesus.” Chacón mocks doubters who call him a fanatic. “You used to believe this,” he castigated the crowd, “but now you have forgotten.”  Faith requires demonstration.  For Chacón, becoming Pentecostal was not enough; the special revelation of the WOF, if accessed through simple faith, contains the literal treasures of heaven.

“You got to believe in your heart and say with your mouth what your future is, what you want for tomorrow, instead of thinking about the past,” he preached. Indeed, WOF adherents openly acknowledge that they are creating an alternative reality that does not yet exist, but they are exhorted to keep that imagined space free so God can loose there all the blessings and abundance that they can dream up.

For Chacón, Latinos especially should see the value and wisdom of these teachings, as they provide a way out of poverty. Passionate and convinced of the value of WOF to alleviate the community’s poverty, Chacón has invested in a Spanish-language television station that broadcasts to 15 cities in the US. “I want to be able to speak to the Latinos the full gospel. What a statement, to learn as one Latino to another that they can be free, they can live in prosperity.”

Part of what Chacón is creating here is this imagined community where words have the power to heal, create new realities, and slay demons—metaphorical or real.  But he is also creating Jesus Es Amor as a “haven in a heartless world” that confronts Latino/a immigrants where their lives have been criminalized. Chacón’s explicitly pronounces that within WOF teaching lie the seeds of Latino liberation. His view may be so individualistic that it lacks communal power for systemic liberation from exploitation and oppression, but WOF subverts the collective nature of liberation, working in this context because people believe it in a cultural context where they take control of their own theological definitions of liberation, freedom, and victory.

 

Arlene M. Sanchez-Walsh is associate professor of church history and Latino/a church studies at Azusa Pacific University in California. She is the author of Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society (Columbia University Press, 2003) and is currently working on a textbook on Pentecostalism in America as well as a monograph on race, ethnicity, and the prosperity gospel.

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