Indianapolis Star: Religion makes a difference for Latinos

by Edwin Hernandez

The much-anticipated demographic shift has officially been announced: The 37 million Latinos in America are the largest minority group. No longer can America think about race in exclusively black-and-white terms or ignore the contributions and challenges the Latino community brings.p. There is an untapped resource in the Latino community that can make the difference between hope and despair, family unity or disintegration, educational success or failure. That resource is religion.

Latinos encompass diverse ethnic and cultural groupssome successful and flourishing, others impoverished and struggling. Despite these differences, one of the community’s most important shared values, and perhaps its greatest asset, is its deeply rooted religious faith.

Churches are among the most visible and dynamic institutions in the Latino community. They provide grounding in religious, cultural and civic values while nurturing leadership skills and encouraging constructive involvement in society at large.

Remarkably, Latino congregations manage to inculcate community responsibility in some of our nation’s most alienating urban landscapes. And, as new research reveals, religion plays an important role in protecting Latino youths from failing academically.

One-third of U.S. Latinos are under 18 years old, representing 15 percent of the school-age population. While this young Latino population continues to grow, its educational achievement persistently lags behind that of the rest of the nation. Only 55 percent of Latinos 25 years and older have completed high school; just 11 percent of Latinos have a college degree. Up to 40 percent of foreign-born Latinos of school age are not enrolled in school, and in 1999, dropout rates were nearly double those of non-Latino whites.

Despite the overwhelming presence of the sacred in the Latino community, researchers and policy makers have largely ignored religion as a source of strength, and in particular as a predictor of educational success among Latino youth. Yet recent research supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts at the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame shows that religion does contribute to improving the educational outcomes of Latino youth. Among the findings:

Church-attending parents have greater educational aspirations for their children, engage them in extracurricular activities more often, are more likely to read to them and help with homework.

Latino teens who attend church regularly are more likely to exhibit greater educational aspirations and stay out of trouble than teens who don’t attend church. Those with higher levels of religiosity get significantly higher grades in math and science than their peers.

Evidence suggests that the health and well-being of this rapidly growing minority is directly related to the strength and vitality of its religious institutions. Regardless of denomination, the church environment provides important educational opportunities outside of school and reinforces the importance of learning and discipline in achieving educational goals. Religiosity strengthens the social capital resources for families and children, giving them greater access to organizations within a broader community and more information about what educational goals to pursue and how to achieve them.

The overlapping networks of family, church and school that are generated through involvement in a congregation may have the additional benefit of strengthening the social-control mechanisms that keep kids out of trouble.

Faith-based organizations have received much attention lately as a potential resource for addressing some of our nation’s most intractable social ills, including teen pregnancy, gang activity and homelessness. While adhering to the established principles of the separation of church and state, Latino churches have an important role to play in addressing the urgent economic, educational and social needs of our most disadvantaged and blighted neighborhoods. At the personal level, being religious and participating in a faith community have positive educational effects for parents and children alike.

If we care about the quality of the future work force of America, finding ways to strengthen these valuable community resources makes good public policy and philanthropic sense.

Hernandez is director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

February 8, 2003

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