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A few friendly faces

North Carolina Walton Award winner connects immigrants, community

June 3, 2011

STATESVILLE, N.C.

Imagine moving your family to a strange land where you don’t speak the language and don’t know the customs. And then imagine not being able to find a friendly face.

Mision Hispana El Buen Pastor in Winston-Salem, N.C., hopes to be that face. The new church development and 2011 Walton Award winner is a welcome resource for new Latino immigrants.

The $50,000 Walton Award — given to five congregations this year — is an annual award for new church developments that further Presbyterian mission in their communities.

All of El Buen Pastor’s congregants speak Spanish, but they come from many countries—mostly Mexico and Central America.

Started in 2004 with eight people, the church now serves 72 families — about 180 adults and 200 children, said the Rev. Rosa Blanca Gonzalez, pastor.

El Buen Pastor is located in the Old Town area of Winston-Salem, a neighborhood that has seen a change in demographics. Old Town Presbyterian Church was already in the community but was fading with the changing neighborhood. Salem Presbytery, which was looking for an opportunity to minister to the growing Latino population, saw this as an opportunity.

“Salem Presbytery gived a building for us,” Gonzalez said. “When Presbytery saw that this was a growing Hispanic community and the Anglo church was only 12 members, they very kindly decided to let us have the facility.” 

Presbytery staff wanted to get to know this new community and what it most needed and wanted. The new church would provide not just a safe space and a worship opportunity, but a full-service ministry that could provide the community with other services and resources.

In 2005, El Buen Pastor started a non-profit called Latino Community Services, which allows it to apply for grants for which the church would not have been eligible.

Staffed by more than 100 local volunteers, Latino Community Services offers tutoring and classes in ESL (English as a Second Language) and basic computer skills.

The efforts of the nine other Presbyterian churches in Winston-Salem helped the mission work in the Latino community get started. Those churches continue to support the work in many ways.

Along the way, immigrants have gotten to know their new home and volunteers have come to understand the challenges and difficulties their new neighbors often face.

“I like to say always that this is a sign of the kingdom, when you can see people from different backgrounds coming and serving others,” Gonzalez said.

Many of the families El Buen Pastor serves are low income, so the gifts of time and talent from so many volunteers are very much appreciated. 

“El Buen Pastor’s support from many of our congregations in Forsyth County has made the difference in helping that new church development thrive,” said Sam Marshall, general presbyter of Salem Presbytery.

For many of the families Gonzalez serves, El Buen Pastor is their first church home, so it’s about more than reaching out to a new group in the community.

“The thing with this congregation is that they are new to the Good News,” said Gonzalez, who estimated that 98 percent of the families were previously unchurched. “They have a Roman Catholic background but they didn’t go to church so through all these years we’ve been working with them and they accept Jesus as their Savior and now they are taking ownership of this place and learning to become Presbyterians.”

El Buen Pastor already has a good use in mind for the $50,000 they won for the Walton Award: it plans to resurface the parking lot and fix the roof of the 50-year-old building.

While the members of El Buen Pastor are grateful to the community and the presbytery for the assistance they have provided, Gonzalez said the giving goes both ways.

“We don’t come here to receive but we also have many things that we want to give back to the community,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest gift members have received is one that may have been unintentional or an afterthought because it is such a simple thing.

“It has been a wonderful blessing that people coming here from a different country now feel that they belong to the Presbyterian brothers and sisters and other communities of faith throughout the country,” Gonzalez said. “That is very important for people who sometimes feel not welcome. This sense of belonging is very important for them.”

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.

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