All good ideas have their time to come alive.
For more than a decade, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America had been in conversation about starting a ministry for immigrants in New Mexico, but things just never came together.
But the churches never forgot about the idea, and the pieces finally did fall into place, forming the Camino de Vida new church development.
Both churches saw the need for a Hispanic ministry in the Albuquerque area.
The ELCA’s Rocky Mountain Synod had been thinking about a new startup since the late 1990s, and local churches suggested partnering with the PC(USA), said Pastor Jim Hytjan, assistant to the synod’s bishop and director of evangelical outreach.
The Presbytery of Santa Fe was aware that there hadn’t been a Hispanic new church development in the area for a long time and that the Spanish-speaking population needed more outreach, said the Rev. Trey Hammond, a Presbyterian pastor and member of Camino de Vida’s advisory committee.
But despite the eagerness of both churches, the idea never moved forward.
“At some points we had the money but no mission developer or vice versa,” Hytjan said.
Then in 2008, the Rev. Guillermo Yela, a Guatemalan man fresh out of seminary, came to town looking for an internship at a Presbyterian church that was seeking a multicultural leader. This church had about 95 members of Mexican descent, but Yela soon found out that this group wasn’t what many would consider an immigrant population.
“They’d been here for generations and they were very disconnected from the new immigrants,” Yela said. “They’d done so much to distance themselves and be different from the immigrants that they were no longer able to build a relationship with the new immigrants. Even their form of Spanish was different.”
It was the more recent immigrants who most needed assistance and guidance, and Yela expressed his interest in working with them.
This restarted the conversations at the Presbytery of Santa Fe about a new church development. In spite of Yela’s youth and inexperience, the presbytery was very impressed with his abilities, Hammond said.
“His coming here and his desire to do this made it seem as though God wanted it done,” he said. “This is certainly not an easy assignment for his first call, but he has a passion for this.”
That passion helped power an old idea from the abstract to reality.
“It was the ELCA interest 10 years ago that originally sparked this concept of a regional partnership for an immigrant Hispanic development,” said Jim Collie, executive presbyter at the Presbytery of Santa Fe. “And it was Yela’s presence in our community that got the Lutherans and the Presbyterians back together.”
Yela met with officials at the ELCA, who were also impressed with him. Talks about a joint effort were started once again, and in September Yela was ordained at Second Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque and installed as the mission developer of the Ecumenical Southwest Mesa Hispanic Development.
One of Yela’s first “get to know you” events demonstrated the need of such a ministry. Hundreds attended the holiday party, surprising even Yela, who now has a pretty good idea of how many recent immigrants he’ll be serving.
“Right next to the immigrant community that’s already in place, a new community is being built. There are 38,000 residents of the Southwest Mesa and (it is) growing because it’s the only place for Albuquerque to grow,” Yela said. “Yet there are only 10 churches there, and only one that offers a Spanish service, even though 80 percent of the community is Hispanic.”
Yela plans to initially offer Bible studies and support groups. Through these programs, he hopes to get to know the community members and find out what else they want and need. He’s also working to start some community service programs like a food pantry, health program and English as a second language classes.
Right now, the effort is a joint program between the PC(USA) and ELCA, but the churches hope to involve the United Church of Christ in the future. Yela welcomes the support.
“By creating relationships with other churches, we can pool resources and generate support from the mission work that all churches do,” he said. “I don’t want just money, I want involvement. I want people and talents and volunteers.”
Yela would like volunteers to commit to one year, and his idea is to consider them a mission worker for that time. They’d still be members of their own church, but they’d come to Camino de Vida for one year to work and learn about the Hispanic community.
“The immigrant community is often seen as a ghetto community,” Yela said. “It’s not, but I need to get people to go there to see that. This is not my ministry, this is God’s ministry, and we will help this community.”
Working with two churches has been fruitful, Yela said. The PC(USA) and ELCA have enough common theology to make the programs work. As far as differing traditions, the partnership provides a way to break away from stale traditions and create new ones that work for the community. Yela envisions perhaps something emphasizing Hispanic culture and reformed theology.
Both the PC(USA) and ELCA are pleased with the success of the partnership so far.
“Our people and the Presbyterians of Albuquerque get along so well,” Hytjan said. “I think it’s a wonderful model.”
Collie agreed and emphasized that pooling resources allows for more work to be done.
“Funding has been a challenge for all of us,” he said. “I suspect that neither the Lutherans nor the Presbyterians could have done this alone. But together, we’re going to make this work.”
Watch a video about Camino de Vida.
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as secretary for First Presbyterian Church.