And that is Church

By Alicia Hagar

As the hand-wringing about the decline of the Episcopal Church continues in so many quarters of our beloved Communion, Episcopalians in my small neck of the woods have been learning that church can be a very different thing.

If we are willing to be brave, if we are willing to be vulnerable, if we are willing to throw ourselves into something that doesn’t involve a guarantee, we will find that whether or not the church is declining, the more important truth is that the church is changing and that changing in the church may yet be our very salvation.

We have a thriving Latino ministry at my home parish, and we call that ministry El Corazón, or, “The Heart.” The name is intentional. We did not want to have a Spanish worshiping community at the edges of who we are as a church. Rather, we wished to place them at our very core, our very heart, at Nuestro corazón.

We started about two years ago, with a demographic study using resources from the Greater Ottawa County United Way, along with detailed breakdown analysis from MissionInsite, a demographics analysis organization that partners with The Episcopal Church. Through our study, we found that there were over a thousand Latinos within a 15-mile radius of the church. We looked at what other churches in the area were offering and realized that the only offering came from a Catholic church holding a seasonal Spanish mass for the summer migrant workers.

The demographic data also helped us realize the extent of the segregation in our area. One report found that this part of West Michigan is the 20th most segregated area in the entire country. In our small town, the Latino population, as a percentage, is quite low within the city of Grand Haven, but then doubles when you look five miles out of the city center, triples another five miles out, and increases by tenfold at twenty miles out.

We sensed a calling. We sensed that perhaps by creating a year-round worshiping community in Spanish (though we expected it would not likely become a massively large group) we might begin to break down those walls of segregation. It might encourage more diverse families to live nearby. It might make our area more diverse, more reflective of the richness of God’s creation. We knew that would be a long-term goal, one that wouldn’t produce immediate fruit but the work called to us.

Our priest – my brother – spent many years becoming fluent in Spanish, including spending a few weeks completing an immersion experience in the Dominican Republic. He came back to Michigan with a heart on fire for Latino ministry, and in his wake came Deacon John Infante.

John – originally from Bogota, Columbia – met my brother during his time in the Dominican. It just worked out, the spirit breathed, that John would come to us. And, once he was here, John spent every waking minute pounding the pavement of our small town, Grand Haven. He stopped and spoke with any person who looked like they might speak Spanish. John had a message for them: there was a place for them at St. John’s, a place where they could worship in their native tongue every Sunday.

Together with our rector and many other parishioners, our church built from nothing a community that had their own mass entirely in Spanish. Deacon John brought in Yolanda and Daisy, Ricardo and Susy, names that I now can’t imagine our church without. These two families became our starting group, our seed, nuestra semilla. As we added to the adult community, our Sunday School and Youth Group expanded in both body and spirit.

I spent months trying to talk with Deacon John, to Yolanda and Ricardo and Susy, and together, speaking our own stilted Spanglish, we would mime or act out our thoughts to each other. Our coming together has been constant practice in making room. Making room for people whose life experience is far different than ours. The preexisting, predominantly white members of our church worked with our Latino semilla, and together we built this community called El Corazón.

We worship together as a bilingual body several times a year. Initially sermons were delivered in English. After some time, we invested in a translation device, allowing our folks talented enough to simultaneously hear in English and speak in Spanish, to translate the sermons in real-time into the ears of our Latino members.

When we worship together, we hear readings in English and in Spanish (with translations of both in the bulletin).  When we receive communion it may be in Spanish or English, knowing that the meaning is the same. Our dedicated choir has just about mastered the service music we sing in Spanish.  

Through a grant from The Episcopal Church, we were identified as a Mission Enterprise Zone. This enabled us to call John as a permanent staff member. He sold everything he owned in Bogota and came to our sleepy town with his suitcases and a dream. John, a long-term transitional deacon, will be ordained to the Priesthood on October 28th, and plans to take over our third Sunday mass, ministering to the people that he raised up.

Don’t be misled into thinking this has been easy. It has not been. Many times our own whiteness, our inner prejudices and assumptions of how church should look and sound, have had to be addressed and sometimes those conversations have been painful. Even now the language barrier can at times be real and can lead to serious misunderstanding. But we are a church committed to being church and we are working to meet each other where we are, to hear each other, to accept our own responsibility when we have gone off track.

And there are steak and chicken tacos in the kitchen for sale, and a tamale fundraiser coming soon. And a Colombian man in a collar who walks everywhere, and a community that has just recently baptized one of their own.

That first December, two years ago, we offered a bilingual Christmas Eve service during which I sang a Spanish duet, a lullaby to the baby Jesus. As I looked at the Spanish service music for the first time, I was overwhelmed. So many words I didn’t know, so much I couldn’t translate, so much that was difficult to pronounce and with unfamiliar rhythms. Whole notes became half notes, 3 bar rests became four count rests; it was confounding.

My own confusion at suddenly being confronted with music I didn’t recognize, in a language that was foreign to me, is the same confusion that our Latino members experienced every time they walked into a predominantly white, mainline church. Music that didn’t sound the same, played with an organ and not a guitar, with words they could pretend to sing but didn’t understand… that wasn’t church and wasn’t community for them.

Church is a place where you come in the doors and see the faces of people light up because you are there. Church is a place where language doesn’t matter, because your personhood is so valued that small things like language stop dividing, where you figure it out, you will look it up, you will ask your iPhone to translate for you, so important is what you need to say or hear.

We are grateful that in the midst of our small, segregated West Michigan town, we can offer a place for all Latinos that long for a community that talks like they do, where they can sing the Agnus Dei in Spanish, where they can worship our Lord, in their own language.

On the Saturday of Grand Haven’s Coast Guard Festival we held a fundraiser for El Corazón. As I stood in the crowd and navigated the deep lines of people queued up for authentic Latino foods, a friend in an ironic “Border Patrol” hat offered me a beer. We talked and joked and I gazed out at the crowd of people in the midst of generosity of food, generosity of gifts, and generosity of spirit.

Maybe it wasn’t an altar rail; maybe it was beer and a large man with a mustache wearing an ironic hat. Maybe it’s a small man in a collar who has lived through oppressive government regimes in his native land to come here and build something new. Maybe it is Daisy in her skinny jeans or Reyna, so fierce in her devotion to our kids and her roots, or Gloria, who loves so deeply and prides herself on her food.

I know that I took communion that day from a red solo cup, surrounded by people who didn’t speak my language, whose life experience I cannot hope to understand. I was fed.

That is church.

I tried hard not to cry, as I stood about three feet from Juan a few weeks ago as he was asked in his own tongue if he accepted his call to baptism, “¿Quieres ser bautizado?”. Our St. John’s community came to stand around him as they all affirmed their own baptismal vows, “Así lo haré, con el auxilio de Dios.” It was a moving thing to see those rows empty as our folks followed their friend to the font, as we witnessed his immersion into the Holy Spirit.

That is church. Eso es iglesia.

The numbers in our Latino community may never grow very large in Grand Haven—segregation is a pernicious force and this is just a crack in the cultural walls long ago erected in our area. But as those walls crack through smiles, and laughter, through shared community, the broken Body of Christ becomes manifest in new ways.

And that is church.

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