Embracing our Neighbors
The Mission Field is Here

By Bob Wells

On Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, about 25 people gathered at a tiny United Methodist church on Highway 97, in the Stanhope community, west of Rocky Mount, N.C. Inside stood a plain and spindly cross, made two weeks earlier by a dozen kids from a pressure-treated 2×2 they sawed in half, lashed together with twine, and then wrapped in chicken wire.

Wobbly and fragile, the cross wasn’t quite square, defying both plumb and level. The pieces met just a few degrees shy of 90, which, coupled with the warp of the upright, made the cross appear to be staggering slightly backward and to the side.

But in a worship service that began at 5 p.m., the homely cross burst into life and beauty as the children, their parents, and others covered it in flowers. Red and white azalea blooms. Baby’s breath. Dogwood. Long-stemmed roses, white, red and yellow.

Photo by Les Todd/Duke Photography
The Rev. Luis “Lucho” Reinoso leads worship
on Holy Saturday at La Estrella Resplandeciente Iglesia Metodista Unida, The Shining Star
United Methodist Church.

A decade earlier, after years of declining membership, the N.C. Annual Conference closed Stanhope United Methodist Church, and for several years it sat shuttered and vacant. But in 2004, with support from The Duke Endowment, the church reopened as a ministry for the area’s growing Hispanic and Latino population: La Estrella Resplandeciente Iglesia Metodista Unida, The Shining Star United Methodist Church.

“This is a historical moment in this area and in the lives of these people,” says the Rev. Luis “Lucho” Reinoso, 72, a “retired” United Methodist minister who pastors a three-point charge on Sundays and La Estrella on Saturdays. “They are here, with great needs, isolated from family and everything that is familiar to them. With La Estrella, we are telling them that ‘This is your place. This is your church.’ We are saying ‘You are my brother. You are my sister.’”

It is also, insists Reinoso, a historical moment for the United Methodist Church—indeed for all denominations in the United States. In a time of extraordinary demographic change and upheaval, amid often bitter political debate, how will the church respond?

Photo by Les Todd/Duke Photography
Worshippers process to flower the cross at the Holy Saturday service.

Located in a region of the country that, until recently, had few Hispanic residents, Duke Divinity School is not known for expertise in Hispanic ministry. But that could soon change. Building on strengths in racial reconciliation, international programs, and other areas, the school is launching or participating in initiatives that will help the church minister to the nation’s growing Hispanic and Latino community. A sampling:

  • This summer, Duke Divinity School will host the Hispanic Summer Program, a two-week ecumenical graduate program in theology and religion, taught by noted Hispanic and Latino scholars. Founded in 1988 with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the program rotates each summer among the more than 30 sponsoring institutions and will be held at Duke for the first time.

  • The school’s Office of Field Education has established four placements in Hispanic ministry settings, including La Estrella Resplandeciente, Cristo Vive UMC and Reconciliation UMC, both in Durham, and the North Carolina Conference’s Office of Hispanic/Latino Ministry.

  • To help students better understand the overall immigrant experience, the school’s Thriving Rural Communities program, with support from The Duke Endowment, has launched a cultural and language immersion experience in which selected students spend 10 weeks in Guatemala and El Salvador, living with local families, learning Spanish, and working in area churches.

  • This fall, the school will start a Hispanic Studies Program that will serve as a focal point for scholarship and research in Hispanic/Latino religion and theology. In addition to providing classes for students in Duke Divinity School, the program will also take theological training and education into the community for Hispanic pastors, who often lack formal seminary training.

Dean L. Gregory Jones says the initiatives collectively represent a new and overdue commitment to respond to the growing Hispanic/Latino presence in the United States.

“We’ve wanted to contribute more in this area for several years, and many people throughout the school have invested much time and thought into determining the best way we can do that,” says Jones. “All these people and programs have converged in a way that gives us a key opportunity to provide significant new ministry in a changing world.”

Edgardo Colón-Emeric, who will begin July 1 as director of the Hispanic Studies Program and assistant research professor of theology and Hispanic studies, says the school is ideally situated to do important work in the field of Hispanic ministry.

Prior to the service, children gathered spring flowers—dogwood, azaleas, roses—
for the ceremony.

Though Duke might be perceived as playing “catch up,” as recently as 1990 only about 76,000, or little more than 1 percent of the state’s then 6.6 million residents were of Hispanic origin. Current U.S. Census Bureau figures show that number has jumped to more than 533,000, or 6.3 percent of the state’s now 8.4 million residents. Indeed, between 1990 and 2000, North Carolina experienced the highest rate of increase in Hispanic population of any state in the nation, at 394 percent.

Those increases, obviously, are part of a much broader demographic change taking place across the country. Today, Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority group, at 44.3 million, or 14.8 percent of the nation’s total population. They are also, the Census Bureau reports, the nation’s fastest growing ethnic group and are projected to account for one-fourth of the U.S. population by the year 2040.

Amid this huge demographic shift, Methodists and other Mainline Protestants have had a difficult time figuring out how to minister to this new population, says Colón-Emeric. While in some areas of the country, particularly the border regions of Texas and the Southwest, Methodists have been in ministry to Hispanics for more than 100 years, in other regions, including North Carolina, such ministry is a new and different endeavor.

What role for Protestants?

Although the Hispanic population in the United States is heavily Catholic, United Methodists and other Mainline denominations have a role to play, says Colón-Emeric. Overall, about 70 percent of Hispanics in the United States are Catholic, 23 percent are Protestant, and 6 percent have no religious preference. Of the Protestants, most—about 64 percent—are members of Pentecostal or Charismatic denominations, according to a 2003 study on Hispanic Churches in American Public Life. Over time, those percentages shift, and by the third generation, almost a third of Hispanics are Protestant, the study found.

“To put these findings in national perspective, there are now more Latino Protestants in the United States than Jews or Muslims or Episcopalians and Presbyterians combined,” the study reported.

Cookie Santiago, director of Hispanic/Latino Ministries for the North Carolina Conference, believes the United Methodist Church could have great appeal to Hispanics if they knew more about it. In Mexico and many parts of Central and South America, the Methodist Church is virtually unknown. Nationwide, the UMC officially had only 45,417 Hispanic/Latino members in 2002, up 40 percent from 1996, but that number is believed to be significantly undercounted because it does not include Hispanic members in shared facilities, multicultural congregations, non-Hispanic/Latino congregations and new faith communities that are not yet chartered congregations.

Photo by Franklin Golden
The Rev. Rosanna Panizo D’98 pastors Cristo Vive UMC in borrowed space at St. Paul UMC in Durham’s Bragtown area north of I-85.

The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Santiago says she was drawn to Methodism as an adult because she found it an intelligent and appealing form of Christianity, a thoughtful middle way between Catholicism and Pentecostalism. Wesleyan notions of grace, she says, speak with particular power to an immigrant population, struggling to find its way in a strange and often graceless land.

Ultimately, however, the issue for United Methodists is not about numbers or evangelism or “marketing” to a fast-growing segment of the population, she says. Instead, it’s simply about what the church is called to do and to be.

“I might be a little idealistic,” says Santiago, “but ever since I was a little girl, I’ve believed that if we are to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, then it doesn’t leave much room for questioning who our neighbor is.”

Like Santiago, Colón-Emeric says the question Methodists need to ask is not “Should we be in Hispanic ministry?” but “Who is our neighbor?”

Increasingly, for many Methodist congregations throughout the United States, that neighbor is Hispanic, says Colón-Emeric. For more and more United Methodist churches, Hispanic ministry is parish ministry.

The Rev. Rosanna Panizo D’98, pastor of Cristo Vive UMC, a Hispanic ministry in Durham that meets in borrowed space at St. Paul UMC, knows what Colón-Emeric is talking about. The neighborhood around St. Paul—the Bragtown area north of I-85—has undergone great change over the past decade and is now about 30 percent Hispanic/Latino, she says.

“That’s God himself knocking at the door,” says Panizo. “The mission field is here. The world is my parish, and the world is here.”

Joey Shelton, co-director of field education, says the divinity school’s new efforts in Hispanic ministry are aimed at helping students prepare for ministry in that changing world right outside the door.

“It only makes sense that we give our students the tools to engage all people,” he says. “We’ve long helped all our students understand and appreciate the importance of varied church traditions and of worship with diverse people. Now, we need to give them more tools to engage the growing Hispanic population.”

The four field education placements and the overseas language immersion may not necessarily produce pastors who go directly into Hispanic ministry—though that would be wonderful, says Shelton. But in whatever context these students eventually serve, they will be equipped to help congregations work toward being in ministry with others.

“Wherever God is leading us,” says Shelton, “these students will be leaven for the long term.”

Photo by Les Todd/Duke Photography
Rey Mondragon D’07 takes a question during a Saturday afternoon tutoring session at La Estrella.
A native of Mexico, Mondragon is a United Methodist seeking ordination as an elder.

“It only makes sense that we give our students the tools to engage all people,” says Joey Shelton, co-director of field education.

Whatever the context, Hispanic ministry is difficult ministry, with many challenges rooted in issues of poverty. As a 2003 report on Hispanic ministry from Duke Divinity School’s Pulpit & Pew Project noted, “Overall, the Hispanic community remains disproportionately affected by poverty, low education levels, poor health and discrimination.”

At Cristo Vive, for example, the congregation is mostly first generation immigrants from Central and South America, working poor who are employed in area hotels, restaurants and construction trades. The church has 26 members and about 35 attend its weekly worship service on Sunday afternoon, but it serves about 129 families through various ministries including tutoring, English as a second language classes, adult literacy classes, preschool readiness, and children and youth programs.

Those served by the ministry live difficult and unstable lives, says Panizo. Many are undocumented workers, living “on the margins,” fearing deportation, and frequently moving in search of better jobs.

In some ways, the challenges of Hispanic ministry are the same as in any ministry, differing only in degree, says Colón-Emeric. Financial issues, pastoral formation, lay leadership and other challenges exist in all congregations, but are much more intense in Hispanic ministry. Few Hispanic ministries have their own building or the means to build one. Once started, such ministries are difficult to sustain.

The usual United Methodist expectations regarding a congregation’s ability to support a pastor and become self-sustaining don’t work in an impoverished community. While 100 members might support a typical Methodist congregation, that’s too few for most Hispanic ministries.

“You can’t expect 100 people who make $1,000 a month working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, to be able to support a pastor,” says Panizo.

An Urgent Need

But probably the most urgent need in Hispanic ministry—and the area where Duke Divinity School can most contribute—is formal theological education. Both the 2003 Pulpit & Pew report and a 2005 report for the Association of Theological Schools noted that the vast majority of pastors serving the Hispanic community have little or no theological education. In a poor community, few people have the education and financial resources necessary to enter seminary. In a nation that is now 14 percent Hispanic, only 3.9 percent of students in accredited ATS schools are Hispanic. Likewise, very few Hispanics are UMC pastors. According to the UMC’s National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry, 88.4 percent of UMC pastors are Caucasian and 11.6 percent are “racial/ethnic.” Only 1.2 percent are Hispanic/Latino.

As ordained, seminary-educated Hispanic United Methodist pastors, Panizo and Reinoso are rare. Throughout the North Carolina and other conferences in the Methodist Church, most Hispanic ministry is conducted by lay missioners—lay people, often volunteers, who have undergone basic education in Bible study and church ministry and who are mentored by ordained pastors.

Prior to her appointment as the conference’s director of Hispanic/Latino ministry, Santiago served as a lay missioner at a United Methodist church in Jacksonville, N.C., and will start working toward ordination this summer through Duke’s Course of Study program. She says the church needs to invest in Hispanic leadership and encourage lay missioners to explore ordained ministry.

One of the primary goals of the new Hispanic Studies Program will be to take basic theological education into the community, says Colón-Emeric. Plans are still tentative, but the program intends to explore new ways to provide educational support to lay missioners and other Hispanic pastors, perhaps through weekend retreats or other venues.

At the same time, the program will be the center of scholarship and research in Hispanic theology and religion for students in the divinity school. Plans include basic and specialty classes, lecture series featuring noted Hispanic theologians, and theological and cultural exchanges with theological schools in Latin America.

Whether in the academy or in the local church, this ability to be flexible and adapt is an essential aspect of Hispanic ministry. For United Methodists, it can mean challenging the most basic preconceptions about church and what it should look like.

Multiple Challenges

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.

Photo by Franklin Golden D’07
Worship at Cristo Vive UMC, which borrows worship space at St. Paul UMC in Durham. “The mission field is here,” says the Rev. Rosanna Panzio D’98. “The world is my parish, and the world is here.”

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.”