Hispanic-Anglo Churches Blend Cultures and Languages
by Sandra Brands
It is not uncommon for a congregation to offer a language-specific ministry or to provide worship space within the church for a culturally different congregation. What is more unusual is for the two congregations to become fully integrated into the life of the church.
Such integration requires recognizing and welcoming the cultural differences between the two groups, introducing multilingual worship services, and inviting all the members to take leadership roles in the church.
That kind of relationship has been evolving at Norcross First United Methodist Church in Georgia. A large suburban church outside Atlanta, Norcross First UMC started a Hispanic ministry more than 15 years ago when the neighborhood began to change.
“Someone started an ESL class for people in the community,” said the Rev. Joel Rodriguez, pastor of the Norcross Hispanic Family Ministry and Bienvenidos a La Iglesia Metodista Unida de Norcross. “The ministry evolved from the ESL class, to a Bible study group, to a [Spanish-language] service, but the ministry was always intended to be part of the church.”
For the first 10 years of the ministry, the two congregations were predominately separate. Except for a few activities for youth and children and the occasional joint service, the Hispanic congregation was not participating in the Anglo church’s activities. That began to change when Rev. Rodriguez arrived in 2008.
“When I came to Norcross,” Rodriguez said, “I set about building a bridge between the Anglo and Hispanic communities. We had to do relationship building: bringing the Hispanic and Anglo congregations together, helping them get to know one another, and encouraging them to work together. It took effort,” he admitted, “to bring in the Hispanic congregation, to emphasize that it was part of the whole church, and to establish a shared leadership.”
Rodriguez made it clear that the creation of a unified congregation was very intentional. Not only did it entail a merging of two separate membership rolls into one but, more importantly, it also meant inviting and encouraging Spanish-speaking members to serve on committees, take part in church activities, and participate in the church’s stewardship campaigns.
The Hispanic members responded by contributing generously, Rodriguez said. “Once the Hispanic leaders began to recognize themselves as part of the whole church,” he added, “they realized that their role was not just to take what was offered but to give something back.
“It takes time to change people’s minds,” Rodriguez admitted. “But it works. We bring people together in fellowship. We have one common denominator: the love of Christ and the grace of God. Both sides understand that, despite the differences in culture and language, we are all children of God and members of the same worshiping congregation.”
From Outreach to Oneness
Like Norcross First UMC, the Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia, realized that pockets of its white, upper-class Atlanta suburb were ethnically changing. So, 38 years ago, the congregation decided to reach out to the Hispanic population moving into the area by offering a Spanish-speaking worship service. Still, it wasn’t until 2006, when the Rev. Rodrigo Cruz arrived as associate pastor at Northbrook UMC, that the church began to integrate its Hispanic ministry.
Rev. Cruz said that, when he arrived, the Hispanic ministry was separated from the main congregation. For the next few years, the church experimented with changing the ministry’s name—from Hispanic, to Spanish-speaking, to global ministry—the idea being to make the name inclusive of all communities. Cruz’s title also changed when he was named an associate pastor of the church.
The worship schedule was also changed on Easter Sunday 2012, with an English-speaking contemporary service held concurrent with the Spanish-speaking service in the early morning, and a bilingual service held later at the regular worship time. Since then, the attendance at the contemporary service has declined, while the number of those attending the bilingual service has risen to 180.
It took work by both communities to bring the two congregations together, Cruz pointed out. While he may not have liked the way the ministry began, he believes that those years laid the foundation for the congregation to become multicultural and bilingual. “It was a step-by-step process that has helped us become what we are today,” he said.
For the Hispanic members of the church, this six-year journey helped them evolve from feeling separate to understanding that they are loved, welcomed, and embraced. “They have been encouraged to take ownership in the church,” Cruz noted. “They have the same rights and responsibilities as the Anglo members. As equals, they too can bring gifts to the table.”
Language is only one of the differences that can cause misunderstanding and separation between people of different cultural and economic backgrounds. These differences can be a challenge for a minister when preaching. The pastor has to make the sermon relevant for two different cultures, two different religious traditions, two different lifestyles, and two different sets of social problems. Overcoming such differences has been helped along by providing opportunities for the two groups to get to know one another. Also, while youth and children’s activities have been completely integrated, the church continues to offer small-group opportunities in either English or Spanish. “Since the members’ faith journeys have been different,” Cruz observes, “it’s important to meet their special needs in a Spanish-speaking or English-speaking group. Members are welcome to come to either,” he says, “and we do have Anglos who come to the Spanish-speaking small groups.
“I don’t believe heaven will be segregated by race, by language, or by worship styles,” Cruz affirmed. “So let’s reflect our belief that we can create the kingdom of heaven here on earth.”
Hispanic Outreach to Anglos
Usually, it is the English-speaking church that reaches out to the community by offering Spanish-speaking worship services. But at Christ’s Foundry United Methodist Mission in Dallas, Texas, the opposite is true. According to the pastor, the Rev. Owen Ross, the congregation integrated English into the Spanish-speaking congregation to reach out to the next generation.
“For any community to be relevant,” Rev. Ross observed, “people need to speak the language of those around them.” For the congregation of Christ’s Foundry UMC, that meant adding bilingual services and classes to reach the English-speaking children or grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants.
Since Hispanic families have lived in the church’s neighborhood for more than a decade, Ross explained, “Their children are in school from morning to afternoon speaking English. Then they come home and watch English-speaking media. In our youth group and in the guitar classes I teach, everyone knows Spanish, but English is the preferred language.”
While the church still holds meetings and classes in Spanish, the long-term plan is to become a fully bilingual congregation. In fact, Christ’s Foundry UMC is beginning to attract non-Spanish-speaking members and is looking at ways to help them feel as much a part of the congregation as the Spanish-speakers are. “That’s going to be a process and a journey,” Ross admitted, “and we’ll only be able to do it by continuing to be intentional and mindful.”
Ross is working on a doctorate at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, focusing on the role of social services in Christian evangelism. He finds that it’s very important for a congregation to offer practical programs, such as English classes and food pantries, as well as worship.
“The number one mistake congregations make when approaching a new culture,” he said, “is to approach it with a social-service attitude. That sets up an unequal relationship at the outset. I always encourage congregations to start by providing religious services to the population they hope to reach with their social services. That makes it clear from the beginning that the church’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is why we also offer social services—because we are disciples of Christ.”
The alternative, Ross suggested, is to start by offering religious services alone and adding mission outreach later. That gives the congregation time to strengthen its leadership and to minister from within the community, as part of the community. That method, Ross noted, reflects the holistic nature of John Wesley’s ministry and the early Methodist movement. “It’s in that spirit that Christ Foundry’s ministry is holistic,” he said. “The classes, the outreach, the preaching, and the religious services are being extended as well as the social services. They are two wings of the same bird—designed to be connected but all too often divorced in our religion.”
A Multicultural Focus
Sometimes, a congregation’s good intentions in reaching out to a rapidly changing neighborhood lead to unexpected consequences. That happened at the Douglas Street United Methodist Church in Cartersville, Georgia. Members of a predominately white congregation located in Atlanta’s northwest suburbs recognized that the church’s neighborhood was changing. Wanting to reach out to their new Hispanic neighbors, they offered English classes and afterschool programs. At first, the response was overwhelming. Yet, eventually, the congregation decided to close the church because of membership decline.
Recognizing that the need for the ministry continued in the neighborhood, the North Georgia Conference voted to keep the church open for another year. The Rev. Angela Gilreath-Rivers was appointed pastor and given a year to make the church self-sufficient.
“We’re hanging on by a wing and a prayer,” Rev. Gilreath-Rivers said. “It’s hard to make others understand what it means to be in ministry in a multicultural church. We’re seeing growth, but the growth is slow.”
The church is a multicultural, multiracial congregation serving a community whose people come from a variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Worship is held in both English and Spanish, and classes, study groups, and outreach ministries are created to serve the growing Hispanic population of the church and its environs.
In 2006, the church’s average worship attendance was 21; today, it is 80. “We’ve been in the community long enough to have a lot of street credibility,” Gilreath-Rivers observed. “While other Hispanic congregations have opened and closed or have focused only on evangelism, we’ve been a continued presence.”
Still, it takes more than offering worship and programs in multiple languages to embrace the differences between cultures coming together under the same roof. Added to the standard liturgical calendar and classes are events like Los Posadas, a nine-day celebration, held during the Christmas season, in which people carry candles from house to house in remembrance of the Holy Family’s search for lodging in Bethlehem.
“Outsiders often forget,” Gilreath-Rivers said, “that within a Spanish-speaking congregation, not everyone has the same cultural background. Food, vocabulary, customs, and traditions are as different and varied as the countries in which they originated: Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. Think about New England versus Southern California,” she suggested. “There are a lot of cultural differences between the two areas. The same is true of Mexico.”
As the Douglas Street congregation works to incorporate a variety of Latino customs and traditions, it also reaches out to the Anglo members of the church. “About half of our congregation is bilingual,” Gilreath-Rivers observed. “Another 25 percent speak only English, and the remaining 25 percent speak only Spanish. There are also educational differences. Some of our members have six or fewer years of education and others hold graduate degrees. But we really try to act out our church’s vision statement—to love our God and to love one another. Some people aren’t comfortable with that, but others who have open minds find a home.
“Something different, unique, and wonderful is happening here,” the pastor concluded, “and it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, bringing people together.”
Sandra Brands is a freelance writer and editor living in Albany, New York. This article originally appeared in the September-October 2013 edition of New World Outlook magazine.
A participant and performer in the dedication of Christ’s Foundry United Methodist Mission in Dallas, Texas. Photo: WIL MURPHY
Jarilyn Gonnzalez shows her craft at the Norcross Vacation Bible School, Norcross, Georgia. Photo: Courtesy Norcross United Methodist Church
Bilingual and multicultural Douglas Street UMC in Cartersville, Georgia. Photo: Angela Gilreath-Rivers
Women prepare the meal at the Douglas St. UMC Father’s Day picnic, Cartersville, GA. Photo: Angela Gilreath-Rivers
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