With Hispanic ministry, ‘potenciamos unos a otros’*

If we were just counting numbers, then it would not make much sense for congregations in Northeast Tennessee to invest much effort and money in Spanish-language ministry.

Compared to the rest of the country, the region has a small Hispanic population: only 2.2 percent of Washington County’s residents, compared to 15.4 percent nationwide, according to a 2008 Census Bureau estimate.

Yet at least three area churches are making that investment. It’s not about numbers.

“Where two or three are gathered, God is there,” says Danilo Olivares, Spanish minister at First Christian Church. “We serve a niche inside the Spanish-speaking population, and we decided to give to this population. But our rolls are not fat.”

Olivares, 39, has been shepherding this flock-within-a-flock since 2006. More than 70 people are regulars in the Spanish ministry; about 55 typically attend worship on Sundays. Besides Spanish-language worship services, the ministry also offers Sunday school classes, a women’s ministry (led by his wife, Priscila), children and teen programs, midweek Bible studies and a leadership-training course.

The ministry reaches even more people in the community, such as by offering English classes and translation for hospitals and courtrooms, and sponsoring occasional registration days for immigrants.

The ministry, which started nine years ago, is integrated with First Christian Church, with Olivares a full-time minister. While other Spanish-language ministries in the area draw mostly Mexicans, more than 80 percent of the people in First Christian’s ministry come from other countries – at least 13 different nationalities. That diversity has proven to be one of the ministry’s biggest challenges.

Danilo Olivares

“I’m preaching and teaching to all these cultures at once,” explained Olivares, who is originally from Santiago, Chile. “Some words can mean different things, and South American style is different from Mexican style.”

For English speakers, it would be like working with a congregation that includes people from New York, Alabama, Wyoming, England, Jamaica and South Africa. Everyone may speak the same basic language, but so much else – from accents to cultural assumptions – is vastly different.

American culture is layered on top of all that besides, since most Hispanic members at First Christian are second- or third-generation Americans.

“They live here; they’re not in transit,” Olivares said. “A high percentage are in professions, like banking or medicine, and 95 percent are bilingual.”

That blend makes it easy to combine with the rest of the congregation, but it also raises the question of why offer a Spanish ministry at all.

Olivares explained by telling about one member, a local bank officer, who said he feels “contact with God” during a Spanish service in a way he never felt at other churches.

“Our relationship with God starts with the spirit,” Olivares said. “I feel closer to God when I sing or pray in Spanish rather than English. There’s something intimate in speaking, praying and worshiping in our own native language.”

In its early years the ministry probably attracted a large number of undocumented workers, although no one knew for sure because no one was asking. But that proportion has completely reversed, according to Olivares, with more than 90 percent being legal residents today. (In 2006, Oscar Olivares, the congregation’s first Spanish minister and Danilo’s uncle, thought most members were undocumented, a piece of old information I mistakenly repeated last October.)

Part of the reason for the turnaround is Danilo’s commitment to encouraging and helping immigrants to become legal residents.

“As Christians we need to respect the laws of this country,” he said. “We are here to help everyone, and I don’t care if they are legal or not. But if someone doesn’t have papers, part of my ministry is to help them do the right thing.”

Olivares himself never planned to move to Johnson City, a place he hadn’t even heard of until six years ago. But he comes from a family of church leaders, and he moved to Miami in 2004 to help a Spanish-speaking church there, intending to stay a few years before returning to Chile. Then the call came – literally, a phone call from his uncle – to East Tennessee.

He’s thankful for the unforeseen move, glad to experience firsthand how much good can come when North American and South American Christians work together.

“It’s not, ‘Give us this, give us that,” he said. “It’s what we can do for each other. It’s like there’s a good car engine in this room and a fine car body in that room. We put them together. We empower one another.”

* ‘We empower each other.’

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 9 Jan 2010.