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.

Christmas in 30 seconds (give or take a minute)

If someone asked you what people should keep in mind this Christmas – and you had about 30 seconds to answer – what would you say?

That’s the question I asked several Christian leaders in Johnson City, Tenn. While their replies touch on familiar themes, they also offer insights that are eye-opening and often challenging.

So what shall we remember at Christmas? Here’s what they said.

“Keep in mind the importance of relationships. Relationship is the key. This summarizes the commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor. The basis for my answer comes from Luke 3, when three groups of people asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’ The simple answer is that relationships to others is the key.”

Anietie Akata, pastor, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church

“In some way focus on the fact it is (Jesus’) day, not our day, and do all the things we need to prepare. Spend some time reading the Bible, and make sure they’re in church. Make sure they do something totally generous and off the wall in giving to someone who’s not family or a friend. Focus on someone who can’t pay you back. Do something in the name of Jesus Christ, rather than focus on our own needs.”

Clint Andrews, senior minister, Crossroads Christian Church

 “I would ask: How are you dealing with the fact that sometimes things seem so futile, that things sometimes seem to be going places you don’t want them to go? How do you deal with the fact that in the end we’re going to die? That’s the human existence. If you stop and think about it without all the attempts to anesthetize ourselves, life seems empty.

“So Christmas is about this: God understood the fact that humans had gotten themselves into a horrible predicament of futility, emptiness and death. And so he has come to save us from ourselves. He didn’t do that by ignoring it or tossing it away but by absorbing it into himself, and now all existence is full of life. Even the things that seem most dire, empty and futile are now shot full with life. Every moment we make a choice: We either deal with suffering without any assistance, going in the direction of anesthetizing, screaming or whining. Or by the choices we make, we incarnate within ourselves the truth of Christ – that everything is full of life, even suffering, and we can redeem all of it. This is what Christ has come to do.”

Neal Hughes, deacon, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Christian Mission

“What is the greatest virtue you can think of, and how can you make it real for someone else? If your desire is to make Christmas meaningful for yourself, then it also should be shared with others. If there’s something of value to you, then make it real for someone else. In so many words, that’s the theology of the incarnation: that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Part of the incarnation is that the life of Christ makes its seat in us who believe, and therefore it must be manifest in life.”

Hal Hutchison, rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church

“Christmas is the time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was God who came to earth, and that was a step of moving out of God’s comfort zone to where we are. To show us God’s love, to celebrate Jesus’ birthday properly, we should go to others and show them God’s love. That could mean staying in Johnson City or going somewhere else. It could be going to heal relationships that are disintegrating. At Christmas, people tend to be more giving, open and loving. The trick is to make every day like Christmas. Every day we should be reaching out with God’s love.”

Louis Imsande, pastor, First Presbyterian Church

“At Christmas we should think about the essence of the gift, which was wrapped in swaddling clothes. But the gift was that God gave us reconciliation – reconciliation between God and man, between man and man and man with himself. With Christ we have the opportunity to be put back on track in our relationship with God. With that on track, we have our relationships with each other. And reconciliation always works best when a person is reconciled with oneself.”

Danny Johnson, pastor, Thankful Baptist Church

“In one way, Christmas seems to be all about us: God loved us, Christ took on flesh for us. Later he died to forgive us of our sins and rose to give us everlasting life. But Christmas is a celebration of what he did for us. We celebrate by loving him, praising him and serving him by serving others. For example, a man in our church found a homeless man sleeping in the cold, just out on the concrete, and took him into his home. That’s a great example of serving Christ by serving others, especially at this time of year – but we can do that any time of year.”

Greg Salyer, pastor, Southwestern Baptist Church

“If someone were to ask what I think, I’d say that for me, Christmas is God with us. It promises me that no matter what our condition, God is with us. Christmas is more than hanging out with my family and opening gifts. It’s the very fact that God broke through the chaos of the human condition and companioned with us. For people in the hospital, this is good news. It means we’ve not been abandoned, we’re not alone.”

Debbie Shields, Washington County senior chaplain, Mountain States Health Alliance

“Christmas from the beginning has been a celebration of God’s amazing love for all people. I think we should try to communicate that message louder than any others. When God sent Jesus to earth, he didn’t owe us anything. He did it out of his graciousness to us, and in response we need to do this for one another. We need to get past the patterns of acting out of misplaced indebtedness and treat other people with grace, whether they deserve it or not.”

Michael Sweeney, president, Emmanuel School of Religion

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 Dec 2009.