Editor’s Note: The Florida Conference celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month and the many Hispanic and Latino Americans who have made important contributions to communities across the state of Florida. This year's theme is: "Shaping the Bright Future of America." This story examines some churches efforts to embrace our Hispanic neighbors.
As Florida’s population continues to diversify, multicultural congregations are becoming more abundant in the state’s United Methodist churches. But truly integrating people of various cultures into established churches remains a challenge.
|A celebration of Hispanic heritage includes stars and stripes and 'Made in USA' insignias at On Eagle's Wings UMC Hispanic Mission, located in Kissimmee.|
“In too many instances, Hispanic congregations remain an arm of churches, rather than part of the (main) bodies,” said Jose Nieves, pastor with Casa de Paz, a Hispanic mission and worshiping community of First United Methodist Church of Kissimmee.
“It has some challenges,” Nieves said. “Some members of the church see us as outsiders,” even though more than half of Kissimmee’s population is Hispanic. “Some don’t see us as one church. You have this dynamic you see with an aging community who feel disconnected from the community around them.”
And therein lies one of the challenges.
“A lot of United Methodist churches struggle to adapt with the changing community and have separated themselves,” he said.
Within Hispanic congregations themselves, there’s the added challenge of melding various cultures that include Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Each culture is glued by a common language, Spanish. But even in that common language, each region has its colloquialisms, said Sandra Santiago, Regional Stewardship Consultant for the Florida United Methodist Foundation.
“I visit the churches, send emails, I attend their assemblies,” she said. "One of the main problems is that they (churches) need to understand that Central America, South America and the Caribbean are different. Second, not everybody speaks Spanish the same way.
“When you struggle with the language, you feel people don’t understand you and are rejecting you,” said Santiago. “So some people tend to keep apart. It’s hard for them to be comfortable.”
Still, the effort goes on in earnest, said Lorena Barrero, chairperson of the Hispanic Assembly, which is composed of Hispanic churches and missions from across the Florida Conference. The Assembly’s goal is to promote unity within the Hispanic community, celebrate and plan ministries and promote various conference ministries to the Hispanic community.
“Talking of Hispanics is talking of diversity in the full sense of the word,” Barrero said.
“Although Hispanics come from a common historical background—and we share many similarities regarding food, music and language—at the same time, every group or country has its own particularities,” Barrero said. The same thing happens even within one country where dining schedules, speaking accents, words and cuisine tradition may also vary from one area to another.
“Although that (regional differences) may represent a challenge, some are taking the risk (to promote more unity),” Barrero continued.
Barrero described a young couple who came to Florida from Puerto Rico and Colombia and married. They began to realize their differences and were led to finding common ground. Barrero then described how they created a family lexicon that included various word meanings and uses representative to each of their birth countries.
Perhaps it’s a lesson for churches working to incorporate the Hispanic community into their congregations.
“They have found that open communication (offers) the best way in learning from each other’s traditions (to) develop a culture of appreciation,” Barrero said.
An outreach referred to as niceSERVE has formed as a multicultural ministry joining Casa de Paz and FUMC of Kissimmee. Participants complete mission trips and service projects that include visits to schools, along with shelters for battered women.
“Youth in United Methodist churches have much less of an issue connecting with each other than their adult counterparts,” Nieves concluded.
“Our youth group, before we got here to First United Methodist of Kissimmee, there was an assumption that there would be separate youth groups,” Nieves said. “We said, ‘No, we are going to put them together.’ (Today), we have a multicultural youth ministry, and it’s beautiful.”
One recent day, there were 34 in the group.
“For them, it is not an issue. Now, they are one family. They worship together, interact together,” he said.
Nieves’ church also has what is called a niceSERVE ministry to do service projects in the community, at schools and at shelters for battered women.
“That has been a good bridge,” Nieves said. “We are trying to define what it means to be one church. If you like tradition or contemporary or bilingual, we have them. By cutting grass together, we have built relationships.”
Hispanics are also challenged by younger generations who no longer speak in their native language. While the older generation tends to speak only in Spanish, their offspring are typically bilingual, and many younger Hispanics only speak English.
“All of this calls us to a serious reflection…of not letting our differences pull us apart,” said Barrero.
Barrero spoke of the challenge of remaining united without losing diversity.
“There are definitely lots of questions with no easy answers.
“I think it is time for the church to reflect, pray and make educated decisions that may help us…of being able to accommodate multicultural, multilingual and multigenerational Hispanic families all at once.”
--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.