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.
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?