LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Growing up Catholic in Mexico, Jovita Torres was raised with the tradition of celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe every December. Commemorating the appearance of the Virgin Mary to St. Juan Diego, an Indigenous man, in Mexico in 1531 was especially meaningful, because, said Torres, “it comes from our ancestors.”
But Torres had become disillusioned with the Catholic Church since moving to Stockton, in California’s Central Valley, feeling that the “sacraments were for sale.” If you couldn’t afford a Mass for your dead loved one or for a wedding or baptism, she said, “there was no celebration.”
Around 2019, Torres and her husband instead began attending a Lutheran church with a Latino congregation after hearing of a pastor who was known to give sermons “that left you in good spirits.” They felt a connection with the pastor, the Rev. Nelson Rabell-González.
Being Lutheran doesn’t mean she’s stopped honoring the Virgin. On Sunday, Dec. 11, the day before the feast day, her independent Lutheran congregation — Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina — hosted Aztec dancers and mariachis who blessed and serenaded a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
For Torres, it’s meaningful that, now, even as Lutherans, the church “allows us to celebrate the Virgin.”
Though celebrating the feast of the brown-skinned Virgin, the patron saint of Mexico, has long been connected to Latino Catholicism, Protestant churches, particularly Episcopalian and Lutheran congregations whose liturgical traditions are adjacent to Catholicism, are venerating Our Lady of Guadalupe, part of a slow but steady migration of Latinos out of Catholicism, both in and out of Latin America.
The Rev. Norma Guerra, during a celebration of the Virgin on Sunday (Dec. 11) at St. Clement’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in South Orange County, admitted that, as a cradle Episcopalian, “I could not understand this devotion toward La Guadalupana.”
In recent years, Guerra told her congregation, “This is a tradition that I have come to love and have come to adopt here in the U.S.”
“I would have never imagined loving her this much, or wearing her stole when I was back in Guatemala,” she said, referring to a ceremonial garment festooned with images of the Virgin. “It is because I have heard the experiences of the people, and I have seen and witnessed the love for her, that I have come to love Our Lady of Guadalupe this much,” she said.
While Protestant theologians dating back to the Reformation have called Mary a central figure in any Christian’s faith, in practice Protestant churches have historically reduced her importance in salvation and in the daily life of the church. “The further away we move from a Catholic veneration of saints, the less likely we are to encounter a veneration of Guadalupe in a positive context,” said Lloyd Barba, a professor of religion at Amherst College.
But the presence of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Episcopalian, Lutheran or other Protestant spaces could be more commonplace in Mexican American neighborhoods, Barba said, as the result of “ecumenical efforts or shared religious understanding.”
And, he added, “if Latinxs are converting, and if you don’t have to give up Guadalupe, that would be a big sell because that’s also a major barrier to conversion.”
These new connections have sometimes come as mainline Protestant churches respond to the immigration crisis. Barba recalled the story of Elvira Arellano, an undocumented Mexican immigrant and activist, often called the founder of the Sanctuary Movement, who took sanctuary inside Adalberto United Methodist Church in 2006 to avoid deportation. The church’s pastor allowed her to build a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Rev. Alfredo Feregrino of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena said that in celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, their congregants honor how “God intervened into our lives through this specific event in history.”
During their service for the Virgin on Sunday, Feregrino, who grew up Catholic in Mexico City, noted that the original description of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s apparition was written not in Castilian, Latin or in Spanish but in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people.
The story, Feregrino said during the service, “can transport us to a place beyond the intellect … taking us to a place of flowers and song, where the poetic and the beauty exist, an event of this miracle of God’s love.”
At Rabell-González’s Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina in Stockton, the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe has special significance. Last year, the church’s Guadalupe service was disrupted when the Rev. Megan Rohrer, then-bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Sierra Pacific Synod, announced that Rabell-González had been fired in response to “continual communications of verbal harassment and retaliatory actions,” Rohrer said at the time. (The pastor denies the accusations.) After moments of confused chaos, the congregants processed out, carrying their statue of the Virgin with them.
Rohrer has since resigned as bishop after being criticized for removing Rabell-González on one of Latino Christians’ most sacred days, and leaders of the denomination have apologized and promised an investigation that appears to be underway.
And on Sunday at the congregation’s new church, Santa María Peregrina (Saint Mary the Pilgrim in English), a number of ELCA bishops attended, including the Rev. Claire Burkat, Rohrer’s successor.
“Father Martin Luther said that everything that belonged to Christ was ours, too. The Virgin Mary was his mother. Therefore, she is our mother in faith,” Rabell-González said at the festivities on Sunday.
“The Virgin of Guadalupe was present in our midst a year ago when we marched against injustice, carrying her image along the streets of Stockton,” Rabell-González added. “That’s why we are called Santa María Peregrina.”
While there are theological differences between the Lutheran and Catholic faiths, Rabell-González finds it beautiful, “that at a time when Christianity has identified so much with white supremacy, there’s an opportunity to elevate the devotion of our Indigenous communities.”
“We’re a Latino church, and we value the faith of the community,” he said.
For Torres, Sunday’s celebration was a path forward for their church, which was nearly filled with attendees. The community is coming back, she said, and bishops’ presence was significant because it shows that “we are important as a community.”