Crossing Borders Within Our Own: On Ministry with Latinos
Few Christians would disagree with Samuel Escobar when he says, "The heart of 'mission' is the drive to share the good news with all, to cross every border with the gospel." But when pressed with the need to cross ethnic borders within our own national borders, many are perplexed. They have a burden without a vision. This was certainly the case for pastor Paul Martin.
When Martin began praying about reaching Latinos in his area, he had little idea how it could be accomplished. All he knew was personal burden. Martin is co-pastor of McHenry Alliance Bible Church (MABC), a Christian & Missionary Alliance church in McHenry, Illinois---a diverse factory town 50 miles northwest of Chicago. Unbeknownst to Martin, he was not alone in his prayers; Hector Morales, founding pastor of Iglesia de Cristo Church of Christ in Long Grove, Illinois, also had a burden to reach Latinos in the area. These two pastors were simultaneously praying for the same thing.
Now, 15 years later, both men look back and give God credit for shattering walls of segregation in their community. Through their story, we will observe several principles for reaching out to local Latinos.
When he arrived in McHenry, Illinois, in 1985, Paul Martin was not an expert in multicultural churches, or the product of a diverse biography. He simply had a burden. Hector Morales was looking for an opportunity to plant a daughter church when he met Martin through a mutual missionary friend. Both men knew they would receive pushback from Latinos and Anglos averse to change; they did not yet know the way forward, but they knew God's heart for mission. "I was never afraid because I believe the character of God calls me to work with every group---regardless of ethnicity," Morales said. (All of Morales' quotes are translated from Spanish by the author.)
The pastors' first church launch was a false start. They began with a typical model where the larger, English-speaking church provided space free of charge for a separate Spanish-speaking service. The two churches were like proverbial ships passing in the night; members rarely interacted. In those 10 years, MABC's daughter church went through five different Spanish-speaking pastors.
"There was no longevity, and the church was up and down like a roller coaster," Martin said. "At one time it got up over 100, but couldn't sustain it." When the Hispanic congregation waned to 11 members in 2003, the churches made the difficult decision to close the doors of the Latino daughter congregation. Martin and Morales, however, did not surrender---they simply reloaded.
"Hector and I began praying about restarting the church with a different model," Martin said. "It has always been my conviction that we should not segregate along racial, cultural or language lines." With a common vision, the two pastors refocused.
One Church, Two Languages
In 2005, Paul Martin relinquished his sole claim on the senior pastorate to make room for their shared vision. Hector Morales then joined staff as co-pastor. "In doing that, our heart was to create a model where there would be one board, one budget, one church, one organizational structure, and we would worship together as often as possible," Martin said. Together, they weaved unity into the fabric of operations. Now, MABC has both English- and Spanish-speaking services that occur simultaneously. Weekly, they connect before and after services. Together they celebrate quarterly communion, monthly fellowship meals, and special Sundays such as Holy Week and Christmas. They share one children's ministry and youth group. Since 2005, the church has maintained stability and experienced six-fold growth of Latino members. After trial and error, risk and reward, their burden has given birth to a beautiful reality: they are truly one church with two languages. As a result, the MABC community tethered their burden to a biblical vision of unity.
How your ministry addresses multicultural realities will be unique and context-specific. It may not look exactly like MABC. Yet certain lessons must be mined from stories like this in order to unearth a burden with a vision.
1.) Find a ministry partner.
As the title of Ivan Fortushniak's painting reads, the "lone ranger is a dead ranger." Isolated senior pastors and transient leadership hindered progress at MABC. Equal partnership finally allowed the church to gain ground. If you are an Anglo leader, reach out to a local Latino leader before embarking on the journey.
"I think it is hard for Latino churches to try to establish a relationship with an Anglo church," says Roberto Cambrany, pastor of Iglesia Plenitud de Vida in Libertyville, Illinois. "Yet, if an Anglo church takes the first step toward a relationship or partnership, I believe the Latino church will respond positively." Laboring toward unity, then, requires extending a hand of friendship and not simply a handout.
2. Create intentional space.
Creating an intentional space for interaction is also paramount to unity. When MABC followed a traditional model---two separate churches within one building---there was no room to share life stories. An unintentional gulf prevented mutual learning. In the absence of shared space, stereotypes often remain unchallenged. Most of the congregational pushback at MABC (from both Anglos and Latinos) was not racism but ignorance, Morales said.
"Many people are simply accustomed not to racism, but to a failure of comprehension," he explained. "People are simply comfortable with their ways and opposed to changes."
Combating ignorance requires an environment where lives can intersect. This cannot be reduced to a call for a new program. It demands an intentional culture shift, driven from the front by gospel-centered teaching. This will certainly require courage and boldness.
3. Take a risk.
Seeds of risky love planted in the name of unity will always yield gospel fruit. Unity is impossible without risk. Indeed, the status quo is always to remain separate. Allowing a Latino congregation to use your building is a nice gesture, but not necessarily bold. Creating space for cross-cultural friendships---that is a risk. Paul Martin and Hector Morales trekked through unknown territory, packing only a burden. The gospel demands crossing every frontier in the name of Jesus. May we trek boldly within our own borders.