Bishop Joel Martinez, born into an immigrant, farm-working family and nurtured in the Methodist tradition, is known as a defender of the poor and advocate for social justice. For more than half a century, he has courageously advocated against abusive labor practices and ethnic/racial discrimination -- while calling for justice for the needs of poor workers.
Bishop Martinez is the grandson of sharecropper farmers who came to south Texas at the turn of the twentieth century. He was born February 3, 1940, and baptized in the local Methodist church, La Trinidad Iglesia Metodista, in Seguín, Texas. As a young child and through his teenage years, he worked in the fields picking cotton with his grandfather. Working conditions for farm workers were brutal. Men, women and children were required to work long hours in the heat with no regular breaks, no access to clean water or toilets, and for less than forty cents an hour. Children often missed months of school working through the end of the harvest season.
With the support of his family, he received a college education, graduating from the University of Texas El Paso with a degree in history. During college, he met Raquel Mora, a Methodist pastor’s daughter. They married just before he began seminary at Perkins School of Theology, where he graduated with the M.Div. in 1965. He was ordained deacon in the Rio Grande Annual Conference in 1962, and elder in 1965.
In 1966, as a young pastor serving his first appointment after ordination as an elder, the Rev. Martinez joined other faith leaders in support of the rising movement among farm workers fighting for better pay and working conditions. That summer, on the Fourth of July, hundreds of farm workers began the 490 mile march from the Rio Grande valley to the capital city, Austin. In a sermon included in the book, Púlpito, edited by Dr. Justo González, Martinez remembers: “Their cause was justice and their demands modest ones: a minimum hourly wage of $1.25 and humane working conditions.” Throughout the summer, he walked with the marchers and helped gather food and clothing for the workers and their families to sustain them on the journey. On Labor Day, thousands of people finished the last few miles of “La Marcha” to present their demands for just wages and improved working conditions.
Fifty years later, Bishop Martinez helped lead the commemoration of “The March of the Hopeful.” He wrote, “They walked and marched, mothers and fathers, inspired by their faith and motivated by the dream of a new future for their children and grandchildren. They walked from the fields of honest and demanding labor, in the midst of desperate working conditions and humiliating wages to confront injustice and indifference in the halls of power at the seat of our state government.”
His advocacy continued throughout the 1970s, when he worked with Cesar Chavez, helped establish the first federally funded health clinic for the poor in El Paso, and supported the organizing of poor fishermen on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.
There were few Hispanic leaders in decision-making roles in The Methodist Church in which the Rev. Martinez was ordained or the United Methodist Church, formed in 1968. There was also little attention given to Hispanic/Latino congregations, few resources to support them, and little in the way of leadership opportunities for Hispanic people. Hispanic members of the church were largely unseen and their voices unheard. That led him with other Hispanic and Latino leaders to organize and advocate for representation and inclusion at all levels of the church.
The Rev. Martinez was a founding member of the National Hispanic Caucus in The United Methodist Church, known since 1970 by its acronym MARCHA (Metodistas Asociados Representando la Causa de los Hispano/Latino Americanos/as). He remained active in MARCHA and helped it bring about the denomination's focus on ethnic minority local churches, the National Hispanic Plan (now known as the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministries), established by General Conference in 1992. He fostered ecumenical relationships with the churches of Latin America and the Caribbean. His influence helped move the denomination toward inclusion, diversity and a commitment to be in mission with rather than simply for Hispanic people.
His leadership in local churches and as a denomination-wide advocate with Hispanic/Latino people led him to be elected as bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction in 1992. There, he served in the Nebraska and San Antonio episcopal areas until his retirement in 2008.
Bishop Martinez has been not only an advocate. He has been a leader in resourcing the needs of Hispanic and Latino worshiping communities. With his wife, Raquel, he created and helped to collate and publish many needed Spanish language worship resources, including the official Spanish language hymnal of The United Methodist Church, Mil Voces para Celebrar (Raquel was editor in chief of this hymnal) and Fiesta Cristiana: Recursos para la Adoracion, a volume of Spanish and bilingual acts of worship, songs, and musical settings for Holy Communion, a Spanish-language parallel to The United Methodist Book of Worship.
In his episcopal sermon to the 2000 General Conference, Bishop Martinez encouraged the global gathering of delegates to engage in boundary crossing ministry. “If baptism is our commissioning into mission, then it is by implication the globalizing sacrament. It makes us sister and brother to the whole family of God. You see, there are local gatherings of Christians, but no local Christians.... We are not whole without the gifts of all!”
Bishop Martinez continues to call out instances of injustice, exclusion and racism he has experienced in his life and which continue to pervade the church today. He reminds us that the church is not yet the “great multitude” in Revelation, including, welcoming and serving persons without regard to color, language and heritage.
Following the Wesleyan tradition of social justice advocacy and ministry with the poor, Bishop Martinez’s lifetime ministry has expanded boundaries to lift up the unseen and voiceless, attended to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised, and advocated for justice in the church and beyond.
This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.