Immersion experience breaks down barriers to ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Immersion experience breaks down barriers to ministry

July 23, 2008   News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0888}

An e-Review Feature
By Mary Huebner**

FRUITLAND PARK — Imagine waking up one morning and finding yourself marooned in a land where no one understands English. Instead, everyone around you, including those with whom you are marooned, speaks a language foreign to your ears.

“Pilgrims” from a variety of Christian denominations participate in Spanishtown. Photo by Yohanka Cabezas. Photo #08-0941. For longer description see photo gallery.

How would you survive? How would you express your wants and needs? How would you communicate with the very people on which you depend to get through the experience?

That is what a week at Pueblo Hispano, or Spanishtown, feels like on the first day for the pilgrims — the Anglo participants whose primary language is not Spanish. Fortunately, Hispanic volunteers called guides are there to help them “survive.”

In late April, 10 pilgrims and 10 guides arrived at the Florida Conference Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park for Spanishtown, a week of immersion in Spanish. The “all Spanish all the time” program included five hours each day of one-on-one conversation, group dynamics, devotionals, and sharing of traditions and culture. 

“The main goal of Spanishtown is to equip church participants for effective cross-cultural ministry in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ,” said Icel Rodriguez, associate director of the Florida Conference’s mission and justice ministries.

Rodriguez said the immersion week offers an environment where those who have been studying Spanish can overcome shyness and fears in order to communicate with confidence. It is also part of a “much wider series of important steps” the Florida Conference has taken in recent years to reach Florida’s growing Hispanic/Latino population.

“Both Hispanic and Anglo leaders feel the need to break down the walls of separation that will remain unless there is active communication and friendships being formed,” she said.

The Rev. Kevin Witt, a national executive with the General Board of Discipleship’s camps and retreats ministry who participated in Florida’s recent Spanishtown, said the immersion week is not “a Spanish class focused on books.” 

“The experience engages you in direct dialogue and friendships with native Spanish speakers who embrace you, who encourage your spiritual growth and who affirm your passion to make a positive difference as a Christian wanting to build bridges with Hispanic/Latino persons and communities,” he said. “The Spanish speaking ‘guides’ (guías) are amazing and key to the experience.”

The Revs. Aldo Martin (right), retired superintendent of the Florida Conference’s former Lakeland District, and Kevin Witt, director of the General Board of Discipleship’s camps and retreats ministry, spend time together as guide and pilgrim. Photo by Yohanka Cabezas. Photo #08-0942. For longer description see photo gallery.

The Rev. Aldo Martin, retired superintendent of the Florida Conference’s former Lakeland District, said he was “thrilled” with the invitation to be a guide.

“For me,” he said, “this was an opportunity to show that the church of Christ is meant to be not a divisive Babel tower, but a cohesive Pentecost.”

Martin said Spanishtown opens endless opportunities for ministry, becoming a means of grace beyond the learning of a new language.

That’s one reason the Rev. Kirk Reed worked with the Northern Illinois Conference, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and an advisory board to develop the program.

As pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Wilmette, Ill., and former chair of the Northern Illinois Conference Committee to Implement the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry, Reed saw the need for a program to help people feel more comfortable initiating conversations with Spanish-speaking people as they work in ministry with and for the growing Hispanic populations of their communities.

The Florida Conference’s hopes for Spanishtown are in line with that goal, according to Rodriguez.

“Spanishtown is a transformational experience to facilitate mutual understanding and appreciation for what each can offer to the Reign of God,” she said. “This experience transcends the desire to learn a language, though that definitely happens. Even more importantly, we learn to get to know one another, appreciate one another and admire each other mutually as people of faith with a common purpose.”

Participants attending Spanishtown had a common purpose: to gain skills that would help them in their ministries back home.

The Revs. Amparito Garay (left), Miguel Vélez (center) and Gary Garay portray a typical Puerto Rican scene. Sharing traditions and cultures is part of the weeklong Spanish immersion experience. Photo by Yohanka Cabezas. Photo #08-0943. For longer description see photo gallery.
One participant wanted to enhance his volunteer work in a local health clinic where helps Spanish speakers communicate with medical professionals about treatment options. Another participant teaches English to Spanish speakers and wanted to improve her Spanish-speaking skills so she can instruct her students in their own language.

Sherry Matthews, who says she went on a mission trip to Cuba and “fell in love” with the people there, attended Spanishtown to improve her abilities as an interpreter for United Methodist Volunteer in Mission groups from her local area going to Cuba as part of the Cuba/Florida Covenant.

Prepared for ministry

The night before graduation, pilgrims and guides shared highlights of their journey.

“Spanishtown challenged me as much as anything I have ever done in my life, but taught me more than anything I have ever done in my life,” said the Rev. Denny Huebner, pastor of the Church of God in Tampa.

Karen Kier, co-pastor of the church, said the weeklong immersion was “an opportunity to experience the Kingdom of God at work in the midst of a caring community dedicated to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the Hispanic people.”

“It is a challenging and inspiring opportunity to improve one’s ability to communicate in Spanish and to better understand Hispanic cultures,” she said.

For the Rev. Miguel Velez, one of the guides and pastor at Coral Way United Methodist Church in Miami, the experience enabled him to share views, personal experiences and family stories and become close to participants.

“I was excited because I had the opportunity to share for a long period of time in a language that is familiar to me, but not to others,” he said.

Tracy Zielinski, administrative assistant in the Florida Conference’s South Central District office, has been studying Spanish for seven months at Christ United Methodist Church in Lakeland. She said she felt like a big fish in a small pond in her class at the church.

“In Spanishtown I became a very small fish in a large Hispanic pond,” she said. “I was stretched beyond my limits, but thanks to the kindness of the people around me I became a better person for the experience.”

Eddy del Valle (left), a member of Nueva Vida United Methodist Church in Ocala, works one-on-one with Tracy Zielinski, administrative assistant in the Florida Conference’s South Central District. Photo by Yohanka Cabezas. Photo #08-0944. For longer description see photo gallery.

Matthews said “speaking in Spanish from dawn until dark every day” helped improve her speed and comprehension. She said the opportunity to “meet and develop friendships with Hispanic/Latino pastors and church leaders was marvelous and touched my heart.” 

“God has blessed me so much through this experience,” she said.

The Rev. Samuel Gonzalez, Hispanic director of the Florida Conference’s New Church Development office, said he enjoyed the week’s spiritual environment.

“Most of the one-on-one conversations included ministerial visions and dreams of the participants,” he said. “The space for intercessory prayer that we had each day after the conclusion of the activities provided a special opportunity to experience the Kingdom of God in a very special way.”

Individuals who would like more information about Spanishtown 2009, which will be held March 16-21 at the Life Enrichment Center, may contact Rodriguez at or 800-282-8011, extension 182.

The Rev. Kevin Witt contributed to this report.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Huebner is a member of Oak Grove Church of God in Tampa, Fla., and a participant of the Spanishtown experience.

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