Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter
But for two pastors of such a setup in Las Cruces, N.M., seeing the congregations work and thrive together is what brings them the most joy and satisfaction.
First Presbyterian Church is led by the Rev. Norm Story. Housed within the church is L’iglesia del Pueblo (the Church of the People), led by the Rev. Wayne Hawkins.
“For racial ethnic new church development to be housed within an existing Anglo church, it’s typically difficult. It often doesn’t work,” said Hawkins. “But in Las Cruces, they’ve been very generous in opening their facilities and involving the Hispanic congregation with their programs.”
The arrangement started when the Presbytery of Sierra Blanca decided to try to develop a Hispanic congregation in Las Cruces, a city located about 45 miles from the Mexican border and with a population that is about evenly split between Anglo and Hispanic residents. The new group would be for both old residents and new immigrants. FPC was chosen because it’s a large church with a theater that can be used for the Hispanic worship service.
Story admitted he had some concerns at first. Immigration is a highly charged political issue right now, and he was aware that some of his members have very conservative views. He wasn’t sure how accepting they’d be of sharing their facilities with a Hispanic congregation.
His fears turned out to be unfounded, and both he and Hawkins were amazed with how quickly the two groups came together. It turns out they were able to find some common ground almost immediately.
“We have a youth program on Wednesday nights followed by a dinner that is open to everyone. We also do our Sunday school classes together as well as our VBS,” said Story. “The kids have brought in the adults from the community and have helped bridged the cultural gap. People have realized they are not so different. They all love their children.”
Hawkins agreed, adding that the Wednesday night dinners attended by both the youth and the adults give people a casual chance to just be together and share a sense of belonging.
The sharing has grown beyond children and youth and dinners too. The congregations have done some bilingual worship services together, primarily on holidays or for baptisms.
“The members of FPC have been open to responding to needs as well,” Hawkins said. “About 98% of the immigrant population is poor, and employment can be sporadic. The members of FPC have stepped up in response to needs for things like clothing or food.”
Although his goal for his group is to be chartered as a new church by the end of 2010 with about 40 adult members, Hawkins said he believes that with the group’s limited resources, it’s looking at 10 years — if ever — before it will be able to function independently.
Fortunately, L’iglesia del Pueblo’s hosts at FPC are willing to keep sharing space, and are even open to filling vacant staff positions with people that could work with both congregations.
Jeff Finch, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Sierra Blanca, is very pleased with the results of the project in Las Cruces. The goal was merely to develop a Hispanic congregation along the border, but he finds what’s happened between the two congregations to be fascinating.
“It brings out the best in everybody,” said Finch. “The generosity and enthusiasm of the Anglo congregation as well as the tenacity and determination of the Hispanic group. It’s one of the wonderful things I see going on in our presbytery.”
Finch noted that border ministry brings about its own unique challenges that were coupled in this situation with the challenges of two groups learning about each other. The great success of the pairing makes it easier for Hawkins to focus on some of the other issues brought about by his location.
“It’s difficult being this close to the border,” Hawkins said. “I did a Hispanic new church development in Washington state years ago, and the distance from the border made for a more stable group.
“Here, there is more instability,” he said. “People are going back and forth over the border because of immigration issues or because they have a family crisis back in Mexico and simply go home. But I do have about 40 people that come every week.”
Hawkins also said that the same border that can cause such instability can also cause pastoral issues as well. Sometimes people might have a family crisis on the other side but can’t go back because their immigration status is not resolved.
In those cases, Hawkins works with Pasos de Fe (Steps of Faith), a border ministry group that can help people on both sides of the border. In some cases, he can go across the border as their pastor to see to their family members, or he can communicate the need to those working in Mexico so they can minister to the family as needed.
Given the challenges posed by border ministry, it’s a relief for Hawkins that the relationship between his congregation and Story’s has gone so smoothly and shown such great success.
“We’ve built relationships within the two congregations, and also within our community as a whole,” Story said. “It’s been a blessing for both of our congregations and it’s working very well for both of us.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.