A Place to Belong

I fearlessly accepted the call, I really had no idea what I was doing. What I did know was that God does not call us out to fail. So off I went into a little island in the middle of nowhere in Southeast Alaska. I arrived to an empty church building with the desire to grow a church plant.

I, a second generation Mexican, born in beautiful sunny California to two loving Mexican parents set out by myself, without family, friends, culture, language, and all things that I once thought defined me, into a completely different world, in the middle of winter. There in that little island completely out of my element, God taught me a valuable lesson on belonging, one which I will be sharing with you through a story.

Everything was covered in white, and although I had been advised as to what clothes to buy, and what to wear, nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock I experienced my first weeks in Alaska. I felt so alone; I felt like I didn't belong; everyone and everything was so different. I looked into the faces of strangers searching for any kind of Hispanic resemblance only to be found with the unfamiliar. Instead of focusing on what I didn't have, I decided to embrace my new post with gusto and bring my Mexican-American cheerful love of life and all things Christ, into this little island. I decided to do what we do best in our Hispanic Churches, focus on friendship and fellowship.

I knew exactly where to begin, my neighbor across the street. You see I lived at the church, and the church had polarized windows, the kind that you can look out from but not look into; the perfect setup for an avid people watcher like myself. God convicted me that it was time to stop idly watching and it was time start doing something.

So I did what I saw my mother do time and time again. I carefully planned and made an irresistible meal and walked across the street with a plate full of delicious Mexican food. I had taken the time to make mole, rice, and freshly handmade flour tortillas. I knocked on my neighbor’s door, and when the door opened, my heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to jump out of my chest. I introduced myself and said “Hello I’m your neighbor from across the street and I’ve brought you some Mexican food.”

I had no other plan; I hadn't prepared a lengthy speech or Bible study. I just wanted to introduce myself and bless him with a hot meal. I wanted to give him a taste of my culture.

He invited me to come in and visit for a while. Bingo! I’m in! I was so happy. While he ate we talked about his life, the death of his wife, his children and his faith. He had once been active in his church but felt let down by the lack of support following his wife’s death. I listened, and we prayed, and then I invited him to make the journey across the street and visit me.

My interactions with my neighbor and his family continued. Eventually he started crossing the street every Sabbath morning at 10am for Bible study and 11am for Worship.

My neighbor was a second generation Hispanic. Mr. Silva’s parents had emigrated from Mexico to Alaska in the early 1940’s to work the fisheries. He had grown up in an island that is predominately Scandinavian, in fact is often and lovingly referred to as the Little Norway. Mr. Silva wrestled his whole life with two cultures, he looked Hispanic with his dark curly hair and brown skin, however he spoke only a handful of Spanish words. He was born and raised in the Island yet never truly felt like he belonged. He had never visited his parents’ homeland of Mexico but was referred to as ‘the Mexican’. He loved his parents culture but identified with the American culture. At 56 he still remembered how he it felt to be discriminated upon while attending high school, and how he didn't fit in anywhere, one of his deepest wounds was one made by his community, it was the would exclusion.

Can we ask ourselves if we too have fallen into creating wounds of exclusion, have we given our second, and third generation Hispanics the message that they don’t belong?

Maybe we have by creating churches that only cater to their parents or grandparents; by continuing to use the same evangelistic methods, liturgy, music, and sadly, preaching.

It’s not easy being a second and third-generation Hispanic, I’m going to mirror a sentiment felt by many when I say this… as a second generation Hispanic Adventist I have to know the lyrics of Shall We Gather at the River and Mas Alla del Sol.

I need to know about the Heritage Singers and Jose Ocampo,

I need to know how to make veggie loaf and vegetarian chorizo,

I need to know about Friday Night Vespers and Sociedad de Jovenes

I need to know that the book of James is el libro de Santiago in Spanish

I need to know how to pray in English and Spanish - and no it is not the same.

Some of our Hispanic youth and young adults don’t feel like they belong in their parents churches, they love God, their parents and church family however the church has been doing very little to include and engage them.

Most second-generation Hispanics identity largely with the Latino-American culture, since they were born in the states and attended to school here. Third-generation Hispanics are those whose parents were also born U.S. but whose grandparents were born in Latin America. They may know a few words in Spanish but 71% don't feel it necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Hispanic according to a recent Pew Research.[1]

In October of 2013 the Texas Conference called me to plant the Infinite Life Church lovingly called iLife for 2nd and 3rd generation Hispanics in the city of Edinburg, located in the Rio Grande Valley. The RGV already has thirty-two churches, companies and plants. However, no church had been specifically targeting second and third-generation Hispanics. With an estimate of 55 million Hispanics living in the U.S. and 10.4 million of those living in Texas.[2] The Rio Grande Valley was a prime location for this second and third-generation church plant to thrive, and thrive we did.

We set out to create a church in which anyone from anywhere could walk in and understand what was happening and why. We focused on four key elements of worship. Worship through music, prayer, giving and biblical preaching. We stripped everything else out of the Worship service. Everything that we did was intentional, from the music set list, the greeters at the door, the dimmed lights in the sanctuary, the interactive welcome where we invite everyone to stand up to greet and welcome each other, the communal intercessory prayer where we invite anyone who needs prayer to come forward while the worship band continues to sing so we can pray for their needs. Ending with solid biblical preaching that only lasts 25 minutes.

Wait what? Twenty-five-minute sermon? How? By being very intentional and preaching in series. Why must we try to fit everything in one 45-minute sermon. The average youth and adult are unable to maintain a focused attention span for more than 20 minutes.[3] Yet we insist in preaching for twice that amount of time.

My very practical suggestion to all pastors is edit, edit, and then edit some more. Be intentional in the passage and verses read, in the illustrations and anecdotes you chose to share, then drive your ONE point over and over again. Create a series of two, three, four or five weeks. I noticed that our church attendees loved series, they knew what to expect and they could invite their friends and family accordingly. Working in series also helped me as a pastor plan out six months in advance, it helped the worship team know and chose praise and worships songs that went along with the topics which made our worship time so impactful. 

We also made a conscious decision not so shy away from preaching on current hot topics and social issues, and cowardly acts of terrorism. We saw it as our responsibility to address these current events and speak life and hope from the pulpit. By doing this we purposefully stepped out of the bubble that many have accused our church of living in. We allowed God’s word to speak and be the moral compass. Our church family appreciated that we were tackling the difficult but important subjects.

God blessed iLife’s sincere efforts and has brought people through our doors that had felt left out and unengaged. We had many prodigal sons and daughters return and recommit their lives to Christ. We’ve made meaningful efforts to reach out in our community and through the generosity and hard work of our church members we’ve made a significant impact in our surrounding neighborhoods. We’ve hosted back to school kids fairs where we’ve handed out hundreds of backpacks filled with school supplies to low income families and free haircuts. We hosted a Father’s day BBQ where we invited our friends and local neighbors to come out to our church parking lot for a Texan BBQ to celebrate Dad’s, it was a hit!

Embedded in iLife’s DNA is fellowship and friendship with God and each other. In the two and half years that I served as Pastor of iLife we baptized 13 people out of the 13, 11 attend regularly, 1 is homebound, and the other moved out of town, we have a 100% retention rate, of those that are physically able and living in town. 

In spite of some unique challenges, such as meeting in a funeral home, we have 82 church members but the average attendance at iLife fluctuates from 135-150. Because we rent the Funeral home we are unable to host evangelistic meetings so all of our visitors and attendees are invited by friends, family and word of mouth.

I want to challenge you to create a place of worship where everyone belongs.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy we certainly faced a lot of challenges along the way, but let me tell you it’s been worth it. Many of our church members went from being passive Christians to being on fire for Christ. Young adults winning over their college classmates for Jesus, church members unashamed to invite their co-workers to worship, children inviting their friends to children's church. It’s possible to ignite your church through church planting! My hope is that you will just do it!

Lizeth Momana is enrolled in the Masters of Divinity program at Andrews University Theological Seminary

This article first appeared in CALLED Digital Magazine for Pastors and is used by permission

 

[1]http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/19/is-speaking-spanish-necessary-to-be-hispanic-most-hispanics-say-no/

[2] http://www.census.gov/popest/methodology/index.html.

[3]Dianne Dukette; David Cornish (2009). The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team. RoseDog Books. pp. 72–73. ISBN 1-4349-9555-0