The three field education sites in Hispanic ministry are each very different. Like many, Cristo Vive in Durham operates out of borrowed space provided by another United Methodist congregation. It is now in its third such location since its founding in 1997.
Reconciliation UMC in Durham was formed in 1997 as an intentionally multicultural and multi-ethnic ministry aimed initially at attracting white and African-American members. Three years ago, after a lengthy discernment process, the church began reaching out to the Hispanic community. The congregation of about 130 members is now a mix of white, African American, Hispanic and people of other ethnicities.
The poor are no longer “out there,” but sitting in the pews with everyone else, says the Rev. Kevin Baker D’98. Worship is a lively, even chaotic, affair, with sermons in English, simultaneously translated into Spanish through closed-circuit headsets. Hymns are in Spanish or English or both.
“We teach our folks that in worship our main criteria is not that you be comfortable,” says Baker. “God challenges our comfort level, and every Sunday, uniformly, something will happen you’re familiar with and something that you are not.”
More traditional Hispanic ministries can also challenge conventional United Methodist preconceptions about church. Meeting on Saturdays for tutoring and youth ministry and only on special occasions for worship, La Estrella, for example, does not look or act like a traditional UMC congregation, says Reinoso. La Estrella’s goal, however, is not necessarily to build up a traditional congregation, but to provide a ministry that is meeting needs identified by area Hispanics.
Such flexibility can require an openness to change, says Reinoso, but for many that is a frightening prospect.
“When you say I don’t want to change, that has deep theological meaning,” he says. “Jesus was always asking for change, for radical change. He wanted to open peoples’ eyes. These people are now saying in a loud voice, ‘Open your eyes and see us and understand.’ But a lot of people are scared and don’t want to change.”
Despite the difficulties, Hispanic ministry offers extraordinary benefits, many of which stem from the same conditions as the challenges—the poverty and need of the Hispanic/Latino community.
“It’s easy to romanticize the poor,” Panizo says, “but the fact is, the United Methodist Church needs to serve the Latino community because the poor are there, and because, in the poor, the presence of Christ is hidden.”
Panizo says she is sometimes frustrated trying to explain the importance of Hispanic ministry to the rest of the connection. The benefits for the United Methodist Church could be enormous, she says.
“We are doing ministry to the Hispanic community on behalf of our entire denomination,” she says. “But this ministry needs to feed the faith in return. This experience should not be an appendage to the rest of Methodism. What is going on should form our denomination in turn. Our experience, our theologizing, needs to inform the United Methodist Church as a whole.”
United Methodists, says Panizo, need to open their eyes and ears, see and listen more carefully, and renew their calling to ministry. In ministry to the Hispanic community, she says, United Methodists may find new salvation.
“We all are safe, or we all are condemned,” she says. “Our future as a denomination depends on this.”