The need to minister to the ever-growing population of Spanish-speaking people in the south central United States has resulted in a collaborative lay training program organized by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

“Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States,” said the Rev. Antonio (Tony) Aja, coordinator of Hispanic/Latino Ministries for Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. The south central region has seen a considerable portion of that growth, he said.

This program is vital to training bi-vocation lay leaders to help meet the spiritual needs of this population, most of whom are immigrants and many of whom are undocumented, Aja said.

Begun in fall 2010, the year-and-a-half program offers a commissioned lay pastor track as well as basic training to provide biblical and theological proficiency for congregational leadership. The program also uses a curriculum contextualized for the area, Aja said.

Courses include “Survey of the Bible,” “Preaching and Homiletics” and “Presbyterian Polity,” in addition to “Pastoral Care,” “Evangelization and Church Growth,” and “Administration and Program Development.”

The course “Building the Beloved Community” addresses social advocacy and ministry, community organizing, immigration issues and intercultural/cross-cultural/multicultural diversity.

The program is a very “culturally sensitized and contextually sensitive curriculum for this part of the country,” Aja said.

Administered through Louisville Seminary’s Office of Lifelong Learning and Advanced Degrees, the program is open to students from partnering presbyteries who are recommended by their congregation, new church development or fellowship. Commissioned lay pastor students must be recommended by their presbytery.

Consideration also is given to students from other Christian denominations, and individual courses can be taken by those who want to further their theological training or to fulfill presbytery requirements.

“It is important for the seminary to continue to reach out to more and more populations,” said the Rev. David Sawyer, director of Lifelong Learning and Advanced Degrees and professor of ministry at Louisville Seminary. The program also is an opportunity “for the seminary community to learn about a particular group of folks who are so important to our country, to let them teach us.”

Five students are currently enrolled, and people can join at any time.

“We have capacity for 10 or 15 students in every class,” Aja said, adding that students have minimal costs because of financial contributions from the various partners.

Significant also is the fact that no student is turned away because of their immigration status.

Many Hispanic Presbyterians in our churches are undocumented, Aja said, adding that the program “reflects the reality in this part of the country.”

Elmer Zavala, a student in the Spanish language lay education and commissioned lay pastor diploma school, knows all too well how great the need is to prepare leaders to serve new Hispanic immigrants in the region. He serves as a temporary pulpit supply pastor at a church in Nashville, Tenn. that ministers to between 50 to 60 Latino people each Sunday.

Almost all of the worshippers are new immigrants, and undocumented citizens are among them, he said. Immigration is a major issue, and in every service prayer concerns are related to something or someone dealing with immigration, said Zavala, who is from Honduras.

Many of the new immigrants come as adults and work seven days a week and don’t have time to learn English. Many don’t even know how to read and write in their own language, added Zavala, who commutes from Louisville to Nashville to serve the congregation.

One has to develop a holistic ministry, he said. “You need leaders that understand the context.”

Toya Richards is a freelance writer and student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.