Rev. Pablo Canché had a dream. His dream was more modest than the one Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Canché, associate pastor of Roosevelt Park Community Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., didn’t necessarily envision a day when “every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. . . .” He just wanted to see a Sunday morning when Roosevelt Park’s two separate services, one for Hispanics and the other for mostly white and black churchgoers, would merge into one. After much prayer and a good deal of groundwork, that happened earlier this year.
“It is so much better when we are all together,” says Canché, who previously worked for many years as a missionary in Central America with Christian Reformed World Missions. “The service is mostly in English, but we insert some Spanish. The Bible reading is usually in both languages.”
Rev. Reggie Smith, senior pastor at Roosevelt Park, says the combined service is a success. “In his four years at our church, Pablo has taught us that separate worship services do not add people but distract from our mission. Now we have one service that seeks to include all people. Our church has embraced Hispanic members with joy and gratitude.”
Roosevelt Park is a good model for the Christian Reformed Church’s Hispanic ministry efforts, says Rev. Mariano Avila, a professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary.
Avila says that for many years the CRC tended to see ministry to Hispanics as a sideline, viewing Hispanics as a group to be reached and not necessarily including them in the full life of the denomination. But that seems to be changing, slowly, as the church grapples with the booming Hispanic population in North America.
For the CRC to survive and thrive in the future, says Avila, it will need to devote more time and attention to the changing face of church life.
“If the church has a vision to reach Hispanics because they are a significant portion of our population, the church needs to really be willing to carry out that ministry and work to develop strong churches,” he says. “We need to develop a vision and heart for [people] who come to this country with many needs, among them a need to know the Lord.”
No Easy Answers
Much more needs to be done, however, church leaders say. And it is important to understand that there is no “one size fits all” solution.
“We need to realize that this is not a monolithic group,” says Javier Torres, the Florida-based leader for Hispanic Ministries for Christian Reformed Home Missions.
While many Hispanics attend Catholic and Pentecostal churches, millions are in mainstream and evangelical Protestant churches. Some want Spanish-only services; others want a mix of Spanish and English; some are looking for a liturgical worship style, and others want the emphasis to be on solid preaching of the Bible.
Some Hispanics are recently arrived, while others are second- and third-generation residents of the U.S. and Canada. Some are particularly in need of English-language skills. Some simply need a new home—a refuge in a country that often treats them harshly.
“It is always a challenge when it comes to being strategic,” Torres notes. “Who do we send to a certain area? What type of ministries should we support? In order for us to really meet the demands of this group, we need a wider plan. We also need indigenous leadership if we want to ride this wave.”
With good, indigenous leadership, a church can carry out Christ’s mandate to bring peace and justice to the world. Good leaders inspire others to do God’s work.
Leadership That Works
One such leader is Pastor Juan Pablo Sanchez at Restoration New Life Center, Hialeah, Fla. Sanchez has broadened the church’s outreach by involving many members in a range of efforts. His church has been busy immersing itself in its community.
“More than 85 people received help through personal counseling, support groups, and different kinds of help to the community over the last year,” says Sanchez.
“During this last year, we also held a workshop and a seminar about domestic violence,” he says. “The goal for next year is to organize the programs so they can be more effective to help in the emotional, family, marriage, and addictions areas.”
In East Harlem, N.Y., Pastor Johnny Acevedo is focusing on second- and third-generation Hispanics living in the United States. Right now, he has no firm idea what shape this ministry, known as Open Door Fellowship of East Harlem, will take.
For the time being, a handful of people are meeting on Sundays for prayer and fellowship in the living room of the Acevedos’ apartment in East Harlem. Sunday school is held in their son’s bedroom.
As the son of first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants, Acevedo says he knows firsthand how people in his situation can be caught in the middle. They are not really part of the immigrant culture and yet they really don’t see themselves as being in the mainstream of North American society.
“My experience is that the younger generation is lost to the church unless the church responds to the new, emerging culture,” says Acevedo, whose ministry is being sponsored by MidAtlantic Ministries of Christian Reformed Home Missions.
“A lot of pain often goes with feeling like you don’t fit in,” says Acevdeo. “We want to be a rooted community church in East Harlem. . . . We want to build a bridge between persons who have lost connection to the first generation.”
Overall, he says, he wants his church to reflect the community and its needs. Looking to the future, he wants to be a leader who responds to the needs of people instead of defining for them, or dictating to them, how things should be done.
Leadership involving Hispanics ministering to Hispanics is, in fact, key. Without well-trained leaders, efforts to bring Latinos into and keep them in the CRC will ultimately fail, says Viviana Cornejo, small group program director for Home Missions’ ministry to Hispanics.
What Sanchez is doing in Florida and Acevedo is doing in East Harlem, and what others are doing in Philadelphia and elsewhere, is what makes her feel hopeful.
“One of the biggest needs for the Hispanic church is to have a voice—a voice that can be heard and given room so that we can be who we are,” says Cornejo. “If we really like to have multicultural congregations, let’s all try to live together, and we need to show that in the leadership too.”