Latino Ministry Builds a “House of the People”
By John W. Coleman*
The Sunday morning Culto de Alabanza y Adoración (Service of Worship and Praise) at Casa del Pueblo, in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles north of Philadelphia, commences with a prayer and lively music in Spanish. As families stand to sing, children come forward and grab favorite hand-percussion instruments from a backpack to play.
While a young man plays keyboard, several teenagers play guitar and drums alongside their adult music teachers. Meanwhile, young liturgical dancers perform a graceful dance they have learned, and children perform a comedic skit, both offered in loving tribute on this Mother’s Day.
Casa del Pueblo (“House of the People”), the Latino Ministry of Lehman Memorial United Methodist Church, is a house of worship, but also of learning, fellowship, ministry, and leadership development. A house of many homes, it shares the love of Christ with Latino families throughout its community and beyond.
The congregation of about 80 is intergenerational but also international, with members who have immigrated to the U.S. from 10 Central and South American countries. Here they continue to cross borders, forming friendships with one another and expanding their ministry into other communities.
Several church leaders leave Hatboro on Sunday afternoons to conduct worship with Latino neighbors six miles away in the sanctuary of predominantly white St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Warrington, Pennsylvania. They also gather weekly in residents’ homes in several communities for Bible study and prayer, conversations, making crafts, and building relationships.
That’s not all. The ministry also provides:
• diapers for mothers and clothing for families;
• English translation and other assistance for immigrants interacting with courts, immigration offices, and other public agencies;
• legal advice for those seeking to resolve or change their immigration status;
• affordable psychotherapy, especially for children who struggle with social adjustment and anxiety from fears that undocumented family members may be apprehended and deported; and
• Anawim, a two-year-old music and dance school at Lehman where students of all ages learn to play guitar, piano, drums, and other instruments, while youth also learn and perform liturgical and folkloric dances.
A Shepherd for the Flock
Casa del Pueblo’s pastor, the Rev. Lilian Lucrecia “Luky” Cotto, is at the center of all these ministries; and her vision for developing new ones keeps growing. She has been building this “house of the people” for 10 years, aided by family, friends, Lehman members, other supporters, and the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. Moreover, her cadre of developing leaders in the congregation—many of whom have been trained and certified as lay ministers—also keeps growing.
National Plan missionary, the Rev. Lilian Lucrecia “Luky” Cotto, serves as the pastor of Casa del Pueblo, the Latino ministry of Lehman Memorial United Methodist Church. PHOTO: JOHN W. COLEMAN
Cotto, born in Guatemala, is a missionary with the Global Ministries National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry. She is assigned to the Eastern PA Conference and appointed as a part-time local pastor to Lehman Memorial and Casa del Pueblo. The mother of three adult sons started planting the ministry a decade ago with as many as five house churches meeting in residents’ homes.
Today, two “communities of faith” in Warrington and nearby Warminster meet in apartment homes two days a week for worship, Bible study, and conversation about family and community life. Another group meets at Lehman for Bible study. Weekly attendance varies but can number several dozen or more. Soon Cotto may add another location in nearby Abingdon, where many residents are moving.
But as attendance grows inside the homes, so does the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents patrolling outside. With an ICE truck visibly parked at the entrance for months now, agents try to catch and arrest undocumented residents going to work, provoking the constant threat of deportation and family separation. Some residents have been caught and deported, forcing their families to either leave with them or live without them.
Primarily for that reason and the need for more space, “moving our group to St. Paul’s in Warrington last year was a blessing,” said Cotto, who spent months negotiating and awaiting church leaders’ cautious approval. Churches are still unofficially off-limits to ICE intrusions and considered safe sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants and their families.
Casa del Pueblo engages in advocacy and justice ministries on behalf of its members. Above, members protest at a Berks County (Penn.) Detention Center. PHOTO: JOHN W. COLEMAN
St. Paul’s reportedly had little interaction with its Latino neighbors. But it welcomed this Casa del Pueblo outpost, a new United Methodist faith community of young, Latino families with children, led by Cotto’s brother-in-law Efrain Cotto and several other lay ministers. The families, who gather there for Sunday school and worship at 2 p.m., have also participated in various ministries, including St. Paul’s Vacation Bible School, Easter Egg Hunt, and Live Nativity, according to the Rev. Janet Saddel, pastor.
Casa del Pueblo families share in the free, donated bread that the church receives weekly to distribute to area families and schools, as well as clothing and coat drives, Saddel said. Casa families often take what they receive to share with their neighbors in need.
Cotto’s husband and supportive ministry partner, the Rev. Irving Cotto, a district superintendent, will become St. Paul’s new pastor—a cross-racial appointment—in July, as he leaves the conference cabinet after six years. While he will become the young faith community’s host pastor, it will remain a satellite ministry of Casa del Pueblo officially and thus, of Lehman Memorial. But with a new bilingual Latino pastor, St. Paul may well start to see some diverse faces in its own morning worship services.
Immigrant Support Programs
Back in Hatboro, Love in Action, a United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation located next door to Lehman Memorial, represents another fruitful collaboration for Casa del Pueblo.
Luky Cotto has engaged the help of a lawyer, Christina Galvan (left), to work with families needing help in immigration matters. PHOTO: JOHN W. COLEMAN
Luky Cotto wanted to purchase the adjacent multi-use building for ministry, but she lacked the needed funds. The UCC congregation that bought it and relocated there in 2017 wanted to offer ministries to serve the fast-growing Latino community. So, the UCC pastor, the Rev. Josh Blakesley, invited Cotto to use available space there in a ministry partnership.
Now Casa del Pueblo and Love in Action cohost two significant immigrant support programs in the building as well as occasional events. On Saturdays, thanks to Cotto’s networking, Christina Galvan, a young bilingual attorney, assists low-income immigrants in need of legal advice on behalf of Solow, Isbell & Palladino Immigration Law Services, based in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Casa also provides immigrant families with affordable counseling from Sharyvette Matos, a bilingual psychotherapist. With growing anti-immigrant threats and attacks happening, the therapy meets a grave need, especially for troubled children and youth who struggle with social adjustment or fear their undocumented parents may be arrested and deported at any moment.
“We have had some kids show hyperactive behaviors because of their anxiety,” said Cotto. “We had to get them some help; and some are showing improvement, thanks to the counseling.”
Cotto co-chairs her conference’s Immigration Rapid Response Network, which connects nationally with other advocates seeking justice and mercy for immigrants. Trained and resourced by the General Board of Church and Society, they educate supporters and promote direct action campaigns to respond to immigration injustice in policies, practices, and incidents.
Seeking more resources to bolster her work, Cotto also applied for Casa del Pueblo to become a project in the Global Ministries Community Developers Program. She obtained a start-up grant in 2016 to help organize Casa’s board—with church and community members—apply for nonprofit, 501c3 status, and develop a strategic plan for community development and empowerment ministries.
The project so far has focused on its supportive services to immigrants and its community organizing and justice advocacy efforts. But its primary and most popular work is Anawim, the music school that enhances the church’s worship life and its focus on families. Anawim, a Hebrew biblical name, refers to the poor who depend on the Lord for deliverance and whom Jesus blessed in his beatitudes.
A visitor to Casa del Pueblo on Friday evenings hears the ubiquitous, at times dissonant sounds of music being learned in rooms throughout Lehman Memorial’s sprawling building. Dozens of students, from age four up, and even a few adults, are discovering their fledgling talents on guitars, piano, drums, and the Cajon, a Peruvian, box-shaped percussion instrument.
Students of all ages gather for lessons and recitals at the Anawim music and dance school, part of Lehman UMC’s Latino Ministry. PHOTO: JOHN W. COLEMAN
Rehearsals follow classes for those who will play during Sunday worship, while others participate in Bible study and other activities. Popular liturgical and Latin American folkloric dance classes are taught on Tuesday evenings.
“There’s nothing else like this available for Latino youth,” said Cotto. “Parents say their kids are improving in school and have more incentive to learn and do well there. And several of our shy students have really flourished with self-confidence because of the school.”
Funding, mostly from donations and modest fees, is tight, affording little to pay teachers or buy instruments for families that cannot always afford them. Cotto got the idea for this escuela de música in 2015, when a visiting pastor shared the popular guitar instruction ministry for youth of his Latino church in Dallas, Texas.
But Anawim is a dream she has had for a long time. Her father directed a music conservancy in her hometown in Guatemala. “He always wanted me to be a music teacher,” she said quietly. “I’m the only one of his four children who doesn’t sing or play an instrument. But like him, I now run a music school.”
Cotto sees results when her young students play for recitals and worship services, and when their grateful parents come to Casa del Pueblo to celebrate and support them. But she envisions Anawim becoming “an umbrella” community development center with more programs. She wants to see this house of the people welcome and bless neighbors from many homes and many countries who yearn to see glimpses of the Kingdom of God shining in their midst.
*John Coleman is the director of communications for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Summer 2018 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.