Rev. Rhina Ramos founded Ministerio Latino, the first Spanish speaking church for the LGBTQ+ community in northern California.
Ramos was born December 14, 1968, in San Salvador. While her mother worked long hours to help support the family, Ramos’s grandmother and aunt cared for her, her brother, and two cousins. The family attended the Catholic church, and like so many other El Salvadorans in that era, she grew up listening to radio broadcasts of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s homilies. (Romero spoke up for the marginalized people of El Salvador as that nation slipped into civil war, and the Catholic church later recognized him as a saint and a martyr for the faith.)
In 1980, when Ramos had just turned 11 years old, she saw Romero speak in person. While she doesn’t remember the content of his words because she was a child, she remembers how the crowd clapped after each sentence he spoke. Later she understood that the people of the crowd were responding with such enthusiasm because Romero was denouncing the repression of the people. On the day that Romero was murdered, Ramos remembers that a neighbor came to tell her mother, and that everyone grieved in silence. People were afraid to speak about their grief because they worried that voicing their support would put them in danger too.
In 1983, when she was 14 years old, Ramos and her brother fled El Salvador because of the civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 75,000 civilians. Ramos’ mother and aunt preceded them to the United States, but her aunt returned to El Salvador to help Ramos and her brother make the dangerous journey. For a month, they traveled by various vehicles including buses, trucks, and a boat. In Tijuana, the family was arrested, jailed and interrogated, but after the police were persuaded by a bribe, they put the family into the hands of some very aggressive and dangerous smugglers, called coyotes. These coyotes were supposed to take them across the border into the United States.
Under the care of those coyotes, Ramos and her brother were arrested again crossing the border. To gain freedom for the family, her aunt paid another bribe and negotiated with these aggressive coyotes who threatened to kill the family if they parted ways with them. While her aunt negotiated with the coyotes, Ramos negotiated with God, praying for their safety and freedom. All the negotiation was successful, and the family gained their freedom. With the help of different and better coyotes, Ramos and her brother crossed safely into the United States, separately from their aunt for strategic reasons, and met up again with their aunt at a safe house in San Diego. At that safe house, their aunt nourished them spiritually and physically by saying prayers, lighting candles, and offering them a grilled cheese sandwich, the first meal Ramos had eaten in the United States.
When the family settled in New York, Ramos began attending Catholic church, but she had so many questions that were left unanswered by the priest, such as why there are so many religions, and which religion is best. When she saw a teacher of hers attending a Baptist church near her apartment, she began to attend that church, which was fundamentalist in its belief system. During that time in her life, she said she felt like she was being a great Christian, but in retrospect she felt that she was being condemning and self-righteous.
At that church, she met the man who she married when she was 19 years old. After several years of marriage, she told him that while she was holding him, she wished she was holding a woman. The couple sought help from a pastor who was also a clinical psychologist, and who helped Ramos with her coming out process. With that help, she was able to name her sexual orientation as part of the human experience instead of seeing it as demonic possession, as she had been led to believe. Although the pastor still seemed to hold out hope that Ramos could become straight, the help he offered was enough for her to end her marriage at age 26, come out as a lesbian, and start to lead the life she was meant to lead.
In retrospect, Ramos said, she wished she had been able to come out sooner to be able to enjoy life more fully without shame. The condemnation she felt for being a lesbian stayed with her for many years, and as a result, she felt like she was often harsh on herself. Although she found success in a career as a lawyer, it was hard for her to ask for what she needed in relationships.
To continue her growth past that sense of condemnation, Ramos moved away from New York to start fresh, attended a 12-step program for codependency and sought therapy. Close friendships and many other blessings also helped her heal, and at this point in her life, she is able to count her journey as a blessing.
Attending seminary also helped Ramos find peace with herself and freedom from condemnation because through that experience, she was able to reconcile being lesbian and being Christian. Ramos started attending Pacific School of Religion in 2000 without the intention of becoming a pastor. While attending that school, her faith transformed and flourished.. Instead of being expected to accept the tenets of Christianity blindly, she was equipped with knowledge and empowered. Learning about how Christianity often has been used to inflict horrific repression helped her liberate herself from a very rigid interpretation of the Bible and also separate herself from the sense of condemnation she carried because of the church.
Ramos’s faith and sense of call was also bolstered by being exposed to the thoughts of many theologians at seminary. For example, when she said that she didn’t feel like she could be a pastor because pastors were perfect, her teachers directed her towards the work feminist theologians who had a different vision of what it meant to be a minister. This opened up the door for her to imagine herself doing that work.
Still, she had been done with seminary for many years before she considered parish ministry, wondering whether any church would welcome her. At first she began to attend an English-speaking United Church of Christ congregation. The pastor supported her interest in becoming a ministry, and she went back to seminary to complete the additional coursework that was necessary for ordination.
In May of 2012, Ramos became an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “I was so happy!” she said. On that day, she completed a dream that she had been holding in secret. It was a momentous accomplishment for her, and she said that she felt that if she would have died on that day, she would have died knowing she had completed what she needed to do on earth.
Five months before she was ordained, Ramos started Ministerio Latino, a Spanish-speaking church for the LGBTQ+ community. As she pursued ordination, she felt clear that she was not called to serve a white church but that she was meant to minister to a church that would welcome her and people like her. She saw a tremendous need for a church like this in the lives of people who had no place to express their Christian faith, to be supported by pastors, and to pray in community. She said that while some English-speaking churches were open and affirming, and a few were LGBTQ+ friendly, there was not a church in the region that centered the experience and needs of the Spanish speaking LGBTQ+ community.
At Ministerio Latino, the LGBTQ+ community is integral to the church instead of being just an addition to the dominant community. This is evident in ways that are as simple as being very mindful of pronouns, which Ministerio Latino always does, but which is not always done in progressive churches that wish to welcome the LGBTQ community. Also, at Ministerio Latino, Spanish-speaking LGBTQ+ people are visible and in leadership. Centering this community also means that the church’s ministry extends beyond just church service and pastoral care.
Ministerio Latino often provides very practical support for the community. For example, Ramos described how the church ministered to a trans man who was pursuing an asylum case so he could live in relative safety in the United States. He transitioned out of unsafe housing and eventually moved to another state while Ramos and Ministerio Latino offered rides and assistance and moral support every step of the way. This man said that after experiencing so much condemnation from the church, he couldn’t believe that a pastor was helping him.
Because the immigrant LGBTQ community has been through so much trauma as a whole, Ministerio Latino makes emotional healing part of the church’s ministry. Ramos says this type of ministry takes creativity. Among other things, the church engages the help of a life coach from El Salvador who serves members of the community remotely.
The congregants of Ministerio Latino tend to move often, so while new people often join the congregation, others move away, and numbers remain small. Nevertheless, Ramos said it is evident that the church has made a profound difference in the lives of many people during its 11 years in existence. She dreams of a time when churches like Ministerio Latino could be serving the needs of the Spanish-speaking LGBTQ community in many towns and cities. With a laugh, she said, “I think I need two to three million dollars to plant Ministerio Latinos all over the United States where there are a high number of Latinx immigrants.”
She adds that it would also help if progressive Christian denominations were able to support aspiring ministers without requiring a seminary education. With more fundamentalist denominations, she said, it is not unusual for someone to feel the call to plant a church and fairly promptly start their ministry in a store front. However, more progressive denominations, like the United Church of Christ, have more requirements. As a result, some of the people who are best suited to start Spanish-speaking churches for the LGBTQ community are unable to secure the support they need to start their ministries. There must be a way to give aspiring religious leaders the comprehensive preparation and help they need to do ministry while also making that support accessible for everyone who has a call. “Something has to change,” Ramos said.
Ever since she was a child, listening to the homilies of Archbishop Romero on the radio, Ramos has been part of a movement towards change – a movement to bring healing and liberation to those who have been marginalized. Asked what message she would like to leave for people, Ramos said, “They are loved by God. It’s simple but profound for people.” She has worked diligently to spread that good news, and many lives have been blessed by her work..
(This biographical statement written by Elizabeth O'Sullivan for a directed study at United Theological Seminary from an interview with Rhina Ramos and was edited by Ramos.)
Biography Date: April 2023
“Rev. Rhina Ramos | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 28, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/rhina-ramos.