When Anibal Reyes moved to Brandon with his wife and two children about five years ago, the Cuban immigrant couple hadn’t been churchgoers for years.
Adjusting to a new culture far from their roots and extended family was stressful, though.
“We were having difficult times, and we both felt the call” for emotional attachment to a church, he said.
When they took their kids to a local Easter Egg hunt, they were surprised to meet a Latina organizer and find that it was a project of New Hope United Methodist Church, a long-established church in Brandon, and it now offers services in Spanish to serve the growing East Hillsborough immigrant population.
“The pastors are Cubans” in the Spanish service, he said. “There were many Cubans, also people from other countries. We felt at home because of the culture.”
|A bilingual service is held at Nueva Vida Iglesia Metodisa Unida in Ocala.|
They quickly became regular New Hope attendees, active in several ministries. Their older son is now grown, but their daughter, 8, is in the dance ministry, and they bring a new baby to the church.
Reyes and his wife, Yahima Ballesteros, are part of a huge demographic shift in Florida—one that Bishop Ken Carter believes The United Methodist Church in Florida needs to address.
Because of that, Carter created a new Conference-level position, director of new church development, and Hispanic/Latino ministries. He appointed Rev. Dr. Rinaldo Hernandez, or “Rini,” to the post.
A refugee from Castro’s Cuba whose family endured imprisonment and forced labor for their religious devotion, Hernandez has been a church-founding pastor and Methodist district superintendent in both Cuba and Florida.
His new job is to stimulate the formation of Latino-oriented churches and encourage existing churches to connect with the growing Latino communities around them, as New Hope has done.
The Florida United Methodist Conference has made Latino outreach efforts before, but Hernandez said Carter is taking it to a new level.
“Here’s the difference,” Hernandez said. “The Bishop wanted me to be part of his appointive cabinet,” a group of the conference’s top leaders, including the eight district superintendents and the assistant to the bishop.
“This is sitting at the table where the decisions are made,” he said. “The Bishop has asked me to be at a level where I can work directly with district superintendents as colleagues.”
Asked to talk about his mission, he quickly jumps to numbers:
The population of Florida is now 26 percent Latino, but only 1 percent of those Latinos are connected to The United Methodist Church.
Of the 840 active Methodist clergy in the state, only 59 are Latino.
Of about 650 United Methodist churches in Florida, there are 37 whose first language is Spanish.
“A typical church is white, surrounded by Latinos, and they don’t know what to do about that,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the projections are telling us that the percentage will only keep increasing. By 2054, by some calculations, Latinos will be a majority in Florida.”
New Hope UMC has reacted to the change, senior pastor Rev. Jamie Westlake said.
For years, it provided meeting space to a separate Latino church, but the situation called for something deeper.
“There was always an us-and-them mentality,” he said. “It just felt like a rental. Nobody liked that, but we weren’t sure what to do.”
The two merged about five years ago, and New Hope also took over a failing Anglo congregation in Dover on the condition it began an outreach to the growing migrant worker population nearby. It now draws about 80 to worship and offers English classes and children’s programs.
Language is still a barrier.
“One thing that’s always a struggle is how do we do things together,” Westlake said.
|Hernandez family photo. L to R – son Andy D. Hernandez, Rini Hernandez, daughter Judyth Hernandez de Lopez and wife Magalis Hernandez.|
Fall festivals and other such events are staffed with both English and Spanish-speaking volunteers. In Logan Hall, the multi-purpose room of Brandon campus, flags of a dozen or so Caribbean, Central and South American nations hang from the walls, representing the nationalities of the congregants.
There are combined English and Spanish services on occasions such as Christmas Eve and Good Friday. Despite the language difference, “We know what’s going on because we know the story,” Westlake said.
Hernandez’s personal story is one of carrying the Methodist message despite obstacles.
Three previous generations of his family were active in the church in Cuba.
When Castro came into power, a hundred American missionaries were expelled; and Cuban pastors were sent to forced labor camps, leaving many of the 120 Methodist churches leaderless. The government took over Methodist-linked colleges, clinics, an orphanage and a Havana seminary.
“People were threatened with the loss of jobs if they went to church or baptized their kids,” he said. “We weren’t really allowed to do anything outside the church property.”
Lay people stepped up to replace the absent pastors, and Hernandez’s father was one of those ordained as what was called a “lay elder.” He eventually was sent to prison for six years, and Hernandez, then in seminary, was sent to forced labor in sugar cane fields.
Despite the oppression, or maybe in response to it, a revival blossomed and is continuing, he said.
The church grew from about 10,000 members when Castro took over to more than 40,000 in more than 1,000 churches, many of them just small groups gathering in a rural home. Hernandez himself organized many such churches.
Eventually, the oppression began to affect his children. Both talented musicians, they faced discrimination in their schools and weren’t allowed to go to music school.
“After 23 years of service in Cuba, I decided I had to provide them a better future,” he said.
That meant a move to Florida in 2001.
Hernandez founded La Nueva Iglesia Cristiana del Doral, a Methodist church in Miami, and eventually became district superintendent in the state’s southwest region.
Today, his daughter Judyth Hernandez is the music director at Comunidad de Fe Ministries in Hialeah Gardens, and his son Andy D. Hernandez is associate worship director at Christ Fellowship in Palmetto Bay.
He misses his homeland but hasn’t tried to go back to Cuba.
“My nightmare is to go there, and they won’t let me return,” he said. “Sometimes, I visit my favorite beaches, my relatives’ houses, on Google Earth. That’s how I visit Cuba.”
|A band that’s part of the Hispanic ministry plays at First United Methodist Church of Homestead.|
The biggest challenge Hernandez faces in his job is broadening the culture of existing churches to include Latinos and provide them a sense of community.
That community, replacing the families many of them left behind in a culture that intensely values family ties, is one thing new immigrants look for in a church.
“It’s finding a place to belong, a support group in the midst of the many challenges immigrants have to face,” he said.
“At the same, time they look for relevance to their culture—their style of music, their style of worship, which typically is very much alive, very enthusiastic, music with guitars and drums.”
New Hope’s bilingual associate pastor, Rev. Roberto Chaple, also works along with his wife, Rev. Yamiley Martinez, at United Methodist Church of Sun City Center. It advertises itself on its web site as “an inclusive community for all … a multi-generational and multi-cultural Christian Family.”
Separate Spanish and English are good, but including all cultures in a single service or program is the best way to unify the church.
“When there are people with different skin colors on their platform, when they have hymns in both English and Spanish, read the Bible in both or have a preacher that can shift from English to Spanish during the sermon, then they are saying we’re open to the community,” Hernandez said.
—William March is a freelance writer based in Tampa.