“It didn’t take five minutes of being there to know this was a place we needed to visit,” says Colón-Emeric, who, along with Troxler planned and led the event. “This village is remote and isolated, but it’s also very connected to us. People are coming from these kinds of towns to the United States and especially to North Carolina.”
Throughout the trip, the group worshipped and shared stories and meals with Mexican hosts. They played games and told Bible stories to children. Everywhere they went, they heard how many Mexicans continue to look to the United States for better opportunities.
The group included five Duke Divinity School students who are rural ministry fellows in the school’s Thriving Rural Communities program and have committed to serving the church in rural North Carolina after graduation.
Even before Encuentro, they knew that they would serve numerous parishioners from Spanish-speaking countries, especially Mexico, as immigration continues to shape the state.
North Carolina is currently home to some 640,000 Hispanics, approximately 46,000 of whom arrived in the last year, according to state figures. Those numbers reflect a national trend. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Hispanics now constitute about 15 percent of the U.S. population, making them the country’s largest minority group.
“How we relate to and understand this issue of immigration is of paramount importance to the church as we move forward,” Colón-Emeric says. “To truly know how to be in ministry when we have this population, we need to understand who they are. We can’t know who they are unless we have some sense of their home.”
Kevin Baker D’94 says that’s certainly true in his church. Baker, pastor at Reconciliation United Methodist Church in Durham and a participant in Encuentro, says about a third of his congregation is Hispanic, and most of that group came to the United States from Mexico.
“The connection we were able to make during this Encuentro is definitely good for my church,” he says. “It’s helped me to better understand a lot of my parishioners.”
Encuentro included stops throughout the country, ranging from the sprawl of greater Mexico City, with an estimated population of 23 million, to tiny villages such as Huitzapula with no running water. The group focused especially on places of worship, including a visit to the imposing Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but also visited cultural sites such as the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan.
The hospitality of their Mexican hosts—and the commitment to their fellow Methodists—was a constant, Troxler says. “Wherever we went, we found ourselves welcomed and called ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister.’”