Language, Gender, and Context in an Immigrant Ministry: New Spaces for the Pastor’s Wife

Ann M. Detwiler-Breidenbach

Ann M. Detwiler-Breidenbach [*]

It’s Sunday morning in a tiny town, nestled in the Green Hills of northern Missouri, home of Premium Standard Farms, a center of corporate hog farming. As I walk around the deserted town square, I notice a storefront advertising the Calvary Chapel Bookstore. Through the windows I see Christian paraphernalia in both English and Spanish. On display are “Yo Quiero Jesus” bumperstickers and books in English by Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel. I take special note of the Santa Biblia/Holy Bible: a bilingual version of the Bible. One storefront, in particular, stands out. It is the local Mexican grocer, Mexico Lindo, an unusual site for northern Missouri. Its windows advertise Mexican foodstuffs, phone cards, and money grams. I’m in Florence, my site for the Missouri Rural Church Study. [1] In the evening, I will attend the Hispanic service at the United Methodist Church. Walking around the quiet streets of downtown draws my attention to what the people who aren’t attending the morning church services are do ing…some are apparently wandering aimlessly around the town square. That’s me, alright. My tablet, pen, and Bible are tools for the time I spend safely in the church pew. But what “research tools” do I have indicating my role as researcher while wandering around the nerve center of this little town? In the center of the square is the austere county courthouse. It is surrounded by grass, sidewalks, and wooden benches. Many of the benches are occupied by men with skin the color of cinnamon, a shade not frequently seen in these parts till just recently. I feel so obvious, being the single female strolling around the square. Even in my Levi’s I feel somewhat exposed, and ray light skin and brownish blonde hair may as well be glowing, considering how obviously different I feel I look to the others in town on this Sunday morning.

I imagine feeling different is not an uncommon feeling in this little town. In the last two years the demographic profile of Florence has shifted dramatically, thanks to the recruiting practices of the local corporate hog farm. Florence, described by a member of the local clergy as having been, “the whitest place I’d ever seen,” changed shades seemingly overnight with the arrival of a Hispanic labor force. [2] A further characteristic of this new subgroup is its gender composition. The absence of women on the town square seems representative of the larger picture. One can only hope that the billboards, which greet visitors on the highway into town, are practicing truth in advertising as they claim to be “Missouri’s Friendliest Community.” Some of the local churches are attempting to live up to that statement. [3]

As I enter the church, walking toward me is a woman. Very openly and warmly, she extends her hand to me and says, “Hello, I’m Maria. My husband Arturo, and I — we’re the pastors here.” She welcomes me to the service. I take a place at the end of a pew, near the back.

A group of men walk in to the sanctuary. Each shakes my hand as he walks by me on his way to a pew. Their hands are rough; handshakes are firm yet welcoming. Their smiles are engaging, even if somewhat shy. Then comes a man who seems different from those in the stream of handshakes. This man is somewhat more well-dressed, has an air of ease as he walks down the aisle, surveying the church like a conscientious host would survey his party to make sure his guests were all comfortable and enjoying themselves. Maria sidles up beside him and they come in my direction. Through Maria’s translation between Spanish and English, she introduces us. This is Arturo, the other half of the pastoral team. Again, I am welcomed. Arturo conducts the service alone. Maria is at the back of the sanctuary, running the sound system. Physically in the background, I soon realize that running the music is no small task. The music seems to be a significant catalyst for the mood of the service. At one point during the 2-hour service, Art uro decides that he wants to play a certain song, but Maria can’t locate the CD. He has her run home and get it. Run home and get it? Home, as it turns out is just next door. She returns and we praise the Lord to a song about an eagle. I soon learn that this is a favorite symbol for Arturo in capturing the ecstasy of the relationship with God, con Dios.

Leaving a service to go get music? I guess that’s the luxury of having two pastors. Over the next several months I will witness Maria doing a number of tasks that don’t fit into the conventional model for a pastor, as she introduced herself to me that first day. Nor does she seem to fit a tidy profile of the indispensible, yet invisible (and inaudible), pastor’s wife. As I witness Maria’s role within this ministry, I see an individual who is needed by, yet never eclipsing of, the official pastor, her husband. In public functions such as services and conference events, Arturo is the “pastor” of this ministry. Over time, however, I gain an awareness of the critical nature of Maria’s position within the ministry, and the opportunity for having a voice that seems to come with being the wife of this particular pastor of this particular ministry.

At this point in her life, Maria is the bilingual wife of a Spanish-speaking evangelical minister within an immigrant ministry. Like the evangelical women that Nancy Nason-Clark (1997) writes about, one might expect to find in Maria a submissive woman, relegated to the domain of the home. While she is a very nurturing individual with respect for her husband’s work, “submissive” does not come to mind. Indeed, she is my point of entry into this ministry. From our first meeting Maria has introduced me to others as “our friend, Ana.” After services, at the parsonage, I sit with Maria in the kitchen, drinking coffee, while the men gather in the livingroom, listening to music, loudly talking, and laughing. It is at Maria’s kitchen table that I learn about the ministry. Though Maria often leaves her place at the kitchen table to make sure that the coffee cups of the men don’t go empty, all the while she maintains a conversation with me about the ministry, new congregants who have arrived in Florence, word from thos e who have returned home, the latest interviews she and Arturo have done, and the latest round of affirmations about their ministry. Often her sentences about the ministry start with “We believe …” or “We do ….” She then modifies her words and says “Arturo believes …” or “Arturo does ….” In spite of this modification of subject, I experience this ministry as Maria’s too.

While I see Maria operating from a place of agency in her marriage, and in this ministry, I must admit that my own experience with her husband contradicts this. While he has literally welcomed me with open arms, he has seemed to place me in a specific female role. “My hija,” he calls me, “my daughter.” This man is less than 10 years older than me! Further, he has become preoccupied with finding me a husband. I wonder if this is an attempt to place me in a traditional female role which is familiar to him, taking me out of the role of the single female pursuing an education and a career. Though I have been able to get answers to my questions, I doubt that I’ll be able to see this ministry directly through Arturo’s eyes. While Maria has always been present, to translate, my sense is that “la estudiante” has been assigned to the pastor’s wife. I decide to look at this as just one more way Maria has voice for this ministry.

Indeed, Maria’s facility with the dominant language places her in a strategic position in this ministry. There is a definite division of labor that comes out of this fact. “Maria is Arturo’s connection to the white church,” one resident describes their partnership. Arturo may give Maria the initial script in Spanish, but she breathes the life into it for the English-speaking audience, and it is to her they listen. This audience, not insignificantly, includes the District Conference, the governing body of this ministry.

Beyond language, by virtue of her gender, Maria can transform this ministry from a single man’s ministry to a family ministry. According to the official “plan” for this ministry, authored by the Anglo church, [4] family is noted as being a trait of the Hispanic culture upon which the host church would like to capitalize. As wife and mother, Maria provides a public image of “family.” She inherently places family at the forefront of this ministry, perhaps putting the long-term congregants at ease about sharing their sacred space with foreigners.

While, according to my interpretation, both language and gender are vehicles through which Maria is able to assert power and influence, context also seems critical. In this particular context, Maria participates in the intersection of two distinct cultures in the name of religion, which creates the opportunity for her to step out of a more traditional, supporting role of wife of an evangelical pastor. It has been at this very intersection between culture and religion, in past immigrations, where change in the church has taken place as need dictated (Smith 1978). Maria is needed as the voice of this ministry. As one Anglo clergy member observed, “Arturo could not be Arturo without Maria.” This ministry, led by a man to a predominantly male congregation, needs this woman’s voice for legitimation.

Finally, Maria seems to be in the position of negotiating between the stated mission of this ministry as defined in the “plan,” and the mission of her husband, who continues to focus energies on single men. One may assert that while Maria is tending to the public facet of the ministry, Arturo is free to tend to the souls of the single Hispanic laborer. One must ask, however, if Maria herself possibly has her own unstated mission for this ministry? As I read the words of Latina sociologist, Ana-Maria Diaz-Stevens, writing about Latina Catholicism, I begin to glimpse Maria and the position of agency and power from which I interpret her to be coming. Diaz-Stevens writes, “… upon closer examination of how power unfolds, it becomes clear that women exercise a productive function in religion; one that subverts and transforms social values” (1993: 61). As the bridge between two cultures, with a voice in each, in Maria I see a woman of active faith who has the capability of using her place as a pastor’s wife to st ep out of the definitions set forth by the evangelical Christian culture, and to be the author of her own profile of the pastor’s wife.

(*.) Direct correspondence to Ann M. Detwiler-Breidenbach, Department of Sociology, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211-1100.

(1.) This note is part of an ongoing ethnographic study, the Missouri Rural Church Research Project, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. The Florence site was chosen as an opportunity to study the church’s response to the shift in demographic composition prompted by the arrival of corporate agriculture.

My work has been influenced by the writings of Patricia Hill Collins (1991) and Dorothy Smith (1987) who have created a lens through which the location of the researcher and the intersection of race, class, and gender are brought to the foreground. I have also been influenced by the tradition of feminist methodology that emphasizes the giving of voice to women, especially those who are outside of the dominant power structure (Anderson et al. 1990).

(2.) Some estimates place the number of new residents at 500, a 25 percent increase over the original population.

(3.) In this particular town, prior to November of 1998, there were 10 churches. Since then, at least 6 new ministries have sprouted up, each making an attempt to reach out to this new segment of the community. This is reminiscent of the church expansion during the immigration of the early part of the 20th century (Wuthnow 1988). These ministries are often supported structurally, by a larger, ongoing denomination, but have their own clergy, service time, and to a large degree, identity.

(4.) This plan, the “United Methodist Hispanic Plan for North Central Missouri,” authored by the governing body of the ministry, offers a rationale and vision for this ministry. It notes certain characteristics of this population on which to draw, such as “strong families.” Further it states “The purpose of the United Methodist Church in the Hispanic plan for North Central Missouri is to … help assimilate Hispanic people into the established United Methodist Congregation … and into our culture.


Anderson, K., S. Armitage, D. Jack, and J. Wittner. 1990. Beginning where we are: Feminist methodology in oral history. In Feminist research methods: Exemplary readings in the social sciences, edited by J.M. Nielsen, 94-112. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Collins, P. H. 1991. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Diaz-Stevens A. M. 1993. The saving grace: The matriarchal core of Latino Catholicism. Latino Studies Journal 4(3): 60-78.

Nason-Clark, N. 1997. The battered wife: How Christians confront family violence. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Pena, M., and L. M. Frehill. 1998. Latina religious practice: Analyzing cultural dimensions in measures of religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37: 620-635.

Smith, D. 1987. The everyday world as problematic. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

Stevens-Arroyo, A. M. 1995. Discovering Latino religion. In Discovering Latino religion: A comprehensive social science bibliography, edited by A. M. Stevens-Arroyo and S. Pentoja 13-40. New York: Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies.

Warner, R. S. 1998. Immigration and religious communities in the United States. In Gatherings in diaspora: Religious communities and the new immigration, edited by R. S. Warner and J. G. Wittner, 3-34. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Williams, R.B. 1988. Religions of immigrants from India and Pakistan: New threads in the American tapestry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wuthnow, R. 1988. The restructuring of American religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Association for the Sociology of Religion

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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