Sometimes when I’m reading a book, I find myself wanting to assign it to people. This week, while reading Robert Chao Romero’s Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity, I wanted to grab every Christian I’ve ever known, get them in a room together, and talk about the contents of this book for hours on end. Reading it was like repopulating my brain, casting new characters into the story of Christianity in the Americas. You thought Christianity was one thing. This book is here to tell you that it’s another.
I’ve read more than my share of theology and religious history. For a while, I was an academic in religious studies, then a journalist covering religion, especially American Christianity. For years, out of a mix of professional habit and (sometimes morbid) fascination, I read basically all of the key Christian publications, from Christianity Today and Christian Century to First Things and Sojourners and Charisma and Patheos and On Faith and more. I contributed some writing of my own and edited lots more.
All that reading built a choir of voices in my head. Had you asked me, I would have told you that the choir had some racial diversity. Mostly white, sure, but with significant Black voices inflecting the sound and the story. I always made a point of reading African American literature and theology and talking to Black pastors and scholars.
But reading Brown Church, I realize just how much of the story I was missing. And it’s a terribly exciting and important story, one rich with its own theological insights and complex experiences of the faith. Sure, I knew about Gustavo Gutiérrez and Liberation Theology, and also César Chavez, but until now I probably would have placed them at the beginning of the story of Latina/o Christianity. In Chao’s telling, these are latter-day saints, and much more comes after them, too.
Chao’s chapters are a roll call, a half-millennium’s worth of padres, nuns, activists, scholars, and ministers of all kinds working and living in the borderlands, literally and figuratively. Bartolomé de Las Casas. Garcilaso de La Vega. Padre Antonio José Martínez. Oscar Romero. Franciso Olazabal. And many more—as I say, the book is a roll call, a cast of characters. Some of the names are foundational, and they belong in the story of North and Central American Christianity along with Jonathan Edwards or Frederick Douglass. Some are more minor figures, but I’m surprised never to have encountered them the way I encountered, say, Oral Roberts or Aimee Semple McPherson.
One more comment: Chao’s perspective throughout is rather odd—a mix of academic, activist, and pastoral. That’s part of what I like about the book, actually. He includes a note in the introduction about his positionality: “I am an Asian-Latino or ‘Chino-Chicano,’ historian, lawyer, and evangélico pastor.” He teaches Chicano studies and Asian American studies at UCLA and ministers to activists on the side. “I have lived my life in the in-between,” he says, and he expresses in-between-ness in his style. The book reads like a monograph at times, then like critical race theory. He sermonizes here and there, rallies the reader to gospel imperatives. He delivers quick historical overviews. He breaks into poetry. In the end, all of this is in keeping with Chao’s whole project: “Brown should be considered a fluid ’space,’” he writes, “…a liminal social, legal, political, and cultural space.” His book exists in that same space, and some may find it cacophonous. But Chao is giving us a fuller chorus.