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Mi Casa Es Su Casa: Starting a Hispanic Ministry

Learn from non-Hispanic churches across the country that are practicing the Gospel of hospitality and intentionally reaching Latinos in their community.
 
Speak Spanish? Know anything about the Latino culture? If you answered no to one or both of these questions, you may think that starting a Hispanic ministry at your church would be too difficult or even unsuccessful—and you’re not alone. Many non-Hispanic churches shy away from doing ministry with Spanish-speaking people out of fear and ignorance. But the explosive growth of the Hispanic population in the United States offers the Church an opportunity to reach an increasing number of people both practically and spiritually.
 
Hear from non-Hispanic leaders serving at small and large churches who have found ways to provide successful Hispanic ministries. Each one knows this outreach is crucial to reach the changing population of their areas. Although the majority of their congregants may not share the same skin tone, cultural background or language with the Hispanics in their community, these churches have found ways to communicate through a universal language—Christ’s love.
  
Bishop Eddie L. Long 
As senior pastor of 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga. (newbirth.org), Long has seen the church neighborhood’s Hispanic population grow from 1% to 9% since 2000. To reach the community, the predominantly black congregation hired a full-time Hispanic pastor and added a Spanish worship service to their Sunday schedule.
  
Al Brausam
When Brausam became pastor of First Baptist Church of Forest Hill, Texas, in May 2006, the 100-year-old church averaged 40 attendees with a median age of 70. Desperate to keep their building, the members of Forest Hill rented out their basement to a small Hispanic congregation, ultimately adopting the church. As a result, First Baptist now draws about 125 attendees each week.
  
Sally Bevill 
As coordinator of Hispanic/Latino ministries for the United Methodist Church’s Seashore District, Bevill helps churches minister to Hispanics in the Gulf Coast area.  She also senior pastors 130-member Beauvoir United Methodist Church in Biloxi, Miss., and helps run Trinity Mission Center, a lodging place for immigrants.
  
Danny Perkins 
Perkins became director of operations for Willow Creek’s Hispanic ministry, Casa de Luz (willowcreek.org), two years ago. The ministry began as a Hispanic small group worshipping regularly at Willow Creek, but eventually transformed into a full-blown Hispanic ministry drawing more than 300 people each week.
  
Jym Kay
At Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (calvaryftl.org), Kay oversees The Refuge, a church outreach started in August to serve a surrounding community five miles away. Each weekend, a team of Calvary volunteers sets up a tent, chairs and generators to provide church and fellowship in an open field for the 50% Hispanic neighborhood.
  
What was the impetus for starting a Hispanic ministry in your church or community? Why did you feel it was important even though your congregation is not Hispanic?

Eddie L. Long: For us, there were several reasons, the first one being the changing demographics around us. We had a lot of complaints about our traffic because we are such a large church and so many cars come and go through the neighborhood on Sundays. So I asked myself, If our church burned down, would our neighbors miss us or just be happy that the traffic was gone? I wasn’t so sure about the answer. And because of that, I knew that we needed to better reach the people in our community. But more and more, the people in our community didn’t look like us. The Latino/Hispanic population is rapidly growing. So, reaching our neighbors meant reaching the Hispanics in our community. Secondly, more and more Latino, Spanish-speaking people were visiting our church and requesting translations of the messages so that they could better understand them.

  
Al Brausam: When I got to First Baptist Church of Forest Hill, they were running between 35 and 40 people. I think the median age was about 70. We were like an old couple losing our big, old house. We liked living in our house, we didn’t want to move, but to stay we were going to have to rent out a room. The neighborhood has changed drastically during the years—there are more Hispanics than Caucasians. And we learned of a Hispanic group, Iglesia Bautista Roca Firma, that was looking for a place to meet. They were a church only in name, not incorporated. So I met with their pastor and told him that we didn’t want to just rent out our space, but rather adopt them—that we wanted them to come in and be a part of our church. So we set up a three-month trial period to see if it could work. It did. In fact, they quickly grew out of the chapel we created for them in our basement. 
  
Sally Bevill: Since Hurricane Katrina, the Hispanic population in the Gulf Coast area has grown from about 15,000 to more than 50,000. A lot of Hispanics came in or were brought in as responders to help with the cleanup effort. And now a couple of years later, the labor demand is more for construction work. With such an influx of people, one of the huge needs is affordable housing. It’s nonexistent. Many Hispanics will put a lot of beds into one apartment, and they rotate sleeping, depending on whether they work the day or night shift. Some are even renting out storage units as places to live. So the Church as a whole has a great opportunity to help.
  
Danny Perkins: Our Hispanic ministry Casa de Luz (House of Light) began as a small group back in the ’90s. When it got bigger, it turned into a night of fellowship that was held at Willow Creek once a month, and that soon became twice a month. And finally in 2005, Casa de Luz hired its own full-time pastor and began worshipping each week. Now, the ministry brings in about 300 people. The growth really isn’t surprising though, because within a 20-minute walking radius of our church, there are more than 120,000 Hispanics. And that number is from the 2003 census, so it’s definitely more now.
  
Jym Kay: We were doing event outreaches in a community about five miles away; we’d give away food for Thanksgiving and Christmas, things like that. We realized though that these people weren’t coming to church, even though we were inviting them and trying to build relationships with them. So we asked ourselves, What if we bring church to them? And we’ll do it with a tent, 50 chairs, solid biblical teaching and worship. But then we also realized that half the community is Spanish-speaking, so we’ll need to do this bilingually.
  
It sounds like changing demographics in your community have been a driving force for many of you, and change always brings a certain amount of fear or anxiety. So, what have been some of your biggest concerns in starting a ministry for people who speak a different language than you?
  
Bevill: Well, I think you’ve hit on the biggest fear—the language itself. Many churches fear the language difference will prevent two different groups from being in ministry together. But we cannot let language be a barrier. Another issue is that we’re really living in a time when many people harbor anger and hatred toward immigrants. Someone came to my office the other day and just said that the letters W-W-J-D stood for “Who Would Jesus Deport?” If Jesus returned today, He’d be hanging out with immigrants. He’d be hanging out  in our communities where the Hispanic population is growing. And we are called to be hospitable just like Jesus.
  
Kay: For us, the language barrier isn’t the biggest deal, because we’re in Florida. So many people here are bilingual already. I think the teaching may always be a great challenge. All of our illustrations and stories need to relate to people in their own situation. We need to say, “OK, I’ve got to really step into the world of the homeless or the migrant worker.” For example, maybe you want to use the metaphor of your cell phone battery running out and liken that to losing hope, but your listeners don’t have cell phones. Although that metaphor and meaning comes so naturally to me, it’s not going to relate to my listeners.
  
Long: We had to challenge ourselves to make the standards the same. You have to give the same excellence to your Hispanic ministry or service as you do your regular ministry or service. If you visit a regular service and then a Hispanic service, you shouldn’t notice any difference. The caliber of musicians, music, print literature and preaching should all be the same. People aren’t stupid. They can tell if your whole heart isn’t in a ministry.
  
Perkins: I strongly feel that one of our church’s biggest fears was that the Hispanic ministry would eventually become its own church and end up doing its own thing. Together we’ve had to work very hard to build a really good bridge so that we’re doing ministry together as one united congregation, not as two separate entities simply sharing a building.
  
What specific practices or attitudes help non-Hispanics and Hispanics do ministry as one entity? 
  
Perkins: One way is through regular communication. Our Casa de Luz Pastor Hector Hermosillo meets with Willow Creek’s Director of People Services Tammy Kelley each week. Hector informs Tammy about what we’re doing and what’s going on at Casa de Luz. Then she informs him about what’s going on at Willow. This helps keep both of us accountable. For example, Willow Creek did a message series based on the book of James called “Fuel.” The whole idea was to incorporate all ministries—from kids to youth to adults—for five weeks, during all services. Casa de Luz was included. So before the series started, we had to work with Willow Creek’s video ministry to do translations of all the videos. 
  
Brausam: We worship together on the fourth Sunday of each month. It’s a bilingual service, and our Hispanic pastor interprets while I preach. Then we have a luncheon for people to get to know each other better. We’re working on getting our youth groups together, because although many of the adults aren’t bilingual, the kids can speak English. 
  
Bevill: I think working with the children is really important and a great first step to knowing your Hispanic community. Most children are bilingual and if they’re not, they’ll become bilingual soon.
  
Perkins: Kids ministry is one way we build bridges between our ministries. In the beginning, we said,OK, Willow already has all these existing ministries, so why should we duplicate something that’s already there? So, with the kids, who already know English, we send them to Willow’s children’s ministry, Promiseland. And Casa de Luz is following Willow’s small group structure. We only had two small groups in the beginning but now we have 15, and one is for teenagers.
  
Besides offering a worship service, or lending your space for a Hispanic congregation to worship, what other things are you doing to reach your Hispanic community?
  
Perkins: We offer a free English as a Second Language program through Willow’s international ministry. We also do lots of free events, which is key. Hispanics are trying to make a living. Many of the families around us can barely make rent, so if you say, “Come to this event for $15,” you’re only going to push them away. Events need to be free. We recently hosted a well-known singer from Mexico and had more than 2,000 people show up. We’re also planning on hosting an immigration seminar to provide information for Hispanics needing help filling out immigration documents or wondering how to get healthcare.
  
Bevill: I’m a trained immigration advocate, so we’re able to help fill out immigration forms and other paperwork. We do monthly community empowerment meetings. The Red Cross, FEMA, the police and other agencies come to share information with the community. This just helps these families feel empowered, better educated. We also have one-on-one translation services for people needing to go to the doctor or court.
  
Kay: There are so many practical needs to meet for the migrant workers in our area, and kids are very much the key to this. The truth is, I think, that a lot of parents are looking for safe places where their children can connect. It doesn’t matter to them if you’re a large or small church, English-speaking or not. Many Hispanic families in our area can’t go to the movies or carnivals or things like that. Financially, it’s not possible. So we’re really trying to provide opportunities to come together for fun. And unlike other cultures where often it’s just the mom bringing the children, with Hispanic families, it’s the whole family—mom, dad, kids, grandparents. We just did a back-to-school event in the area giving away new backpacks and supplies, but we also provided games, food and a bounce house to make it a whole family day.
  
Long: We are going into the community, rather than just trying to pull these families into our building. We just had a barbecue and offered haircuts, manicures and pedicures, and gave away clothing. But they’re all the same things that we normally do in the African-American community—just meeting their needs and making friends.
  
If you were giving advice to another non-Hispanic church interested in starting a Hispanic ministry, what would you say was critical for success? 
  
Long: You have to make a total financial commitment with your resources. You can’t go in halfheartedly because it might be something nice to do. You’ve got to make sure God has assigned you to this particular ministry. And ensure that you’re investing all resources and not cutting corners. For example, we bought brand-new buses for our Latino community, rather than giving them used ones. 
  
Brausam: You’ve got to be flexible.Our church was so used to doing things the same way. And when our Hispanic church outgrew its space downstairs, we had to decide if we were willing to give up our regular worship time and space. We had a church counsel meeting to knock it around a little bit. We eventually compromised, adjusting our worship and Sunday school times, but in the end we were all in full agreement.
  
Kay: Look for a bilingual team of two or three people who can begin translating your literature and worship. And if that team isn’t ready, just start meeting practical needs, reaching out and loving on people, praying for people. We’ve found that most Hispanic people are very open when it comes to hearing about Christ and the Gospel. The more ways we can look to serve the community, the more doors will open.

How do you know if your Hispanic ministry is working?

  
Brausam: Our church now has young people with energy that we didn’t have before. It wasn’t that long ago when our congregation wasn’t growing, and we didn’t think we’d be able to stay on our property. But now this church has a vibrant  future.
  
Kay: Seeing a great desire among Hispanics to reach out to their own people is really powerful. They have the means to reach their own people better than we do, and it’s important for us to help equip them do that. But you should come back and ask in a few months how we’re doing because we just started, so we’ll see.
  
Bevill: The stories I hear. There was a man—Juan from Cuba. He had won a Visa lottery to come to the United States. He had a brother who lived in Forest, Miss., and was working in a poultry plant, and Juan needed a place to live and work, too. So, he was trying to purchase a ticket to Forest at a bus station in Florida, but the person selling the tickets didn’t know where Forest was. Someone behind Juan in line did, though. She told him how to get there and to go immediately to Trinity Mission Center once he arrived because churches would help him. He went there. Juan already spoke pretty good English because he was a teacher in Cuba, but at the Center we helped him translate all of his documents. He became a U.S. citizen, got a teaching certificate and took a position in a high school. Even though he’s an atheist, he has connections to the center and to our church.
  
Perkins: One story that I just learned about … Gerardo is from Mexico and in his late 20s. He was on the verge of committing suicide. Somebody had told him about Casa de Luz, and one day he came to the service. He felt God speaking to him during the message. So, three weeks later a small group leader in Gerardo’s neighborhood called Gerardo, and as Gerardo’s cell phone was ringing, he was speeding down the road at 100 mph hoping to kill himself. The leader told Gerardo that the group would love for him to join them. Gerardo pulled over the car, went to the small group two days later and is now actively involved in Casa de Luz.   
 
Now writing for Outreach as a freelancer, Heather Johnson is a student at Bethal Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and is the magazine’s former managing editor.

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