As the small tour bus traveled hour after hour through the dusty mountains of southwestern Mexico, Edgardo Colón-Emeric and his companions began to wonder whether anything good would come from this leg of their 10-day journey.
The group was in the middle of a project dubbed Encuentro (which can be translated “encounter” and “I find”)—an effort last May to learn more about the land, culture, and faith of the people of Mexico. The visitors, most from Duke Divinity School and all deeply interested in Hispanic ministry, sought inspiration through the witness of Mexican Methodists and a broader understanding of the church as the international body of Christ.
But perhaps this visit to the remote hamlet of Huitzapula and a nearby mission—serving Methodists and the unchurched from the surrounding countryside—was simply too much.
Colón-Emeric, assistant research professor of theology and Hispanic studies, recalls that anxiety built even further as the group noticed cross after cross along side the deserted bumpy road—memorials to people killed in traffic accidents—and, most ominous of all, the deserted wreckage of a bus at the base of a steep cliff.
By the time the 10 road-weary travelers reached their destination, they could think of little more than gratitude for their safe arrival and a chance to stretch their legs. A warm welcome from the local pastor and a crowd of women and children, a hot meal, and some time for prayer and fellowship helped revive the group.
But that welcome only hinted at what the travelers would find farther up in the mountains, Colón-Emeric says.
The tiny mission was empty when the group arrived the next morning. As the visitors from North Carolina began singing hymns, word quickly spread in the village that guests had come. Soon the mud-walled building was packed with men, women, and children.
Jeremy Troxler, director of the Divinity School’s Thriving Rural Communities initiative, began to preach. Colón-Emeric translated Troxler’s English into Spanish. A woman from the village translated his Spanish into the regional language of Tlapaneco.
The previous day’s fatigue and anxiety were quickly forgotten as prayers ascended in three languages, overcoming differences in culture, dialect, and nationality. As he translated English to Spanish, Colón-Emeric says he realized that this kind of shared experience was exactly what he and Troxler had hoped to cultivate during Encuentro.
“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.’”
Across what might have been insurmountable barriers of race, culture, and experience, it was a time of communion, says Troxler. “The oneness in Christ was palpable.”
The reach of that hospitality became clear on the first night of the trip. When the group stopped in Ozumba, just outside Mexico City, their guide invited them to a special service led by the women of the Methodist church where her husband was pastor.
Although they expected to hear only a brief word of welcome, the visitors were led to the altar, where members of the church laid hands on them and prayed over them.
“Everywhere we went we were offered hospitality,” said Leah Skaggs D’09. “But more than the hospitality one would expect to find while traveling on a pilgrimage or mission, we also found community through the connection to our Wesleyan heritage.”
Methodists, a tiny minority among a Mexican population that is 95 percent Catholic, share a powerful bond, says Colón-Emeric.
“It’s something we [Methodists in the United States] sometimes take for granted,” he says. “We move in many different societies and groups: school, church, sports leagues, and other groups.”
In a population of more than 100 million Mexicans, the country’s Methodists number fewer than 100,000. For them, says Colón-Emeric, “Methodism is the primary social identity.”
An important aspect of the trip was the group’s effort simply to learn and experience fellowship, Troxler says. They did not come to Mexico to teach or build houses, or to dispense medicine or clothes.
“So often on trips to other countries, we’re there as the givers and the people we’re visiting are the receivers,” he says. “I think people realized that we were there to listen. That was our posture: ‘We really would like to learn from you.’ Not ‘We’re here to save you, build a church, give you money.’”
That was especially clear in Huitzapula, where the leader of the mission instructed the group from North Carolina not to give away material things.
“Pastor Manuel called us to come and share the gospel with his people,” Skaggs says. “He did not ask us to bring things or money. ‘First bring the gospel,’ he said. ‘Then, the resources will be through the sharing of that good news.’”
Colón-Emeric hopes the success of Encuentro will lead to other trips and closer relationships between the Divinity School and Mexico’s Methodist Church.
In addition to their exposure to Spanish, other languages, and Mexican culture, visitors from Duke can learn and draw inspiration from the great diversity within Mexico’s Methodist Church.
“It’s more charismatic in the north and more traditional in the south, but it’s strong in both places,” says Colón-Emeric. “I thought that diversity was important for us to see. People here sometimes think Hispanic Methodism can only thrive if it’s Pentecostal. But it’s diverse there.”
Baker, a member of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church task force on Hispanic ministries, notes that many North Carolina Protestants view Hispanic Methodist churches here as missions with weak connections to Methodist tradition and practice.
During Encuentro, he saw successful Methodist churches that emphasize doctrine, he says. “I felt like I was at a Methodist revival. It tells me we can successfully reach out to Latinos here.”
Already Baker has begun to act on what he learned in Mexico.
For starters, he has established a quarterly meeting of his own congregation to share stories about its members and their backgrounds and diversity. At the first such gathering, which he also called Encuentro, speakers included a woman from rural Mexico and an African-American woman.
“I saw this as a way of helping them encounter each other and build friendships,” Baker says. “Our church really needs this space for sharing stories and getting beyond inhibitions.”
Colón-Emeric expects the spiritual invigoration of the first Encuentro to have lasting benefits.
“To see the desperate poverty and need—but also the richness and joy—challenged and moved us,” he says. “It left in many of us a conviction that we need one another to walk more faithfully. When I’m among my brothers and sisters in the Methodist Mexican Church, I am re-energized in being Methodist.”