In 2007, I began a seminary field education placement that would lead to a part-time ministry during my Ph.D. coursework with a pair of multicultural congregations in North Jersey. One is a biracial congregation whose integrated demographics had survived the Newark Race Riots and welcomed a few African and Caribbean immigrants in recent years. The local community, however, had been in transition, and the church’s numbers dwindled as more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants poured into the area.
The other congregation meets in the sprawling building’s chapel and boasts members from nearly twenty Latin American countries. Forty-eight years ago they were established as a mission of the presbytery and they worship in their native Spanish, enduring the challenges of leaving families behind in unstable, impoverished, and war-torn countries, and navigating new immigration processes, jobs, schools, and life in a new country.
This past Sunday, members from both congregations gathered in the stately, hundred year-old sanctuary to celebrate something new: the Spanish-speaking congregation became a chartered and organized church of the Presbyterian Church (USA). We worshipped for three hours in Spanish and English, led by the youthful chorus of the praise band and the words of former interns, church members, local pastors, and even the moderator of the PCUSA.
For Evan and I, despite our Caucasian backgrounds and our recent two years in China, it felt distinctly, like coming home.
This was the place where my own call to ministry had been nurtured by these generous people who allowed me to pray for their struggles that I could often hardly fathom, who welcomed me into their homes, and who dismissed the jumbled Spanish of a gringa woman in their midst. I hadn’t realized until I looked around that multi-colored room this past Sunday what a powerful a witness these two little congregations in North Jersey had made.
I’d been the fourth in a long line of seminary interns, but the first who wasn’t from a Latino, Carribbean, or African American background, and yet, they’d hardly made me aware of that difference. They’d welcomed me when they had every reason to look at the color of my skin and hear my accent and find ample reason to keep their fellowship insulated from the America which often doesn’t show them anything like hospitality, equality, or dignity. They’d taught me when they had every reason to be suspicious of my willingness to learn or my ability to leave the privilege that had gotten me to halls of higher education and power at the door of that little chapel. They’d ministered to me when they had precious little, the English-speaking church few members and resources, the Spanish-speaking church little funds or time to spare given their busy lives caring for children and working several jobs.
But as we celebrated on Sunday, as ministers struggled to characterize the length of their struggle as forty-eight years in the wilderness, as waiting on the timing of God, the members of the congregation who got up to speak subtly, yet confidently proclaimed the truth that despite the importance of what was happening that day, they had always been a church. They didn’t need (and hear I sound like a bit of a Presbyterian heretic but I’m willing to take that risk) the approval of their denomination, a piece of paper, or a service full of pomp and circumstance to allow them to minister, because they’d been doing it, for those in the community, those in the church, and people like me, for forty-eight years.
Their ministry reminds me that when we take what little we have and we put it into God’s hands, far greater things than we could possibly imagine come to pass. The trouble is, we’re usually so hesitant to trust, so hell-bent on recognition for our service, and so afraid to believe. It’s counter-cultural to take everything that you have, especially when you don’t have much, and faithfully thrust it into Jesus’s hands, it’s counter-cultural to minister without much recognition to communities in need, and it’s counter-cultural to admit those to your fellowship who don’t look much like you and in fact, represent a lot of the power structures that give you hell on an everyday basis.
Over the years this Spanish-speaking mission, now chartered church, has trained sixteen interns and raised up twelve candidates for pastoral ministry in the PCUSA. Those are stats that congregations with three times their size and three times their history only dream of. But somehow along the way this little church has understood that miracles don’t happen by our own muscle, but by God’s grace, and that faithfulness is not for the in between times, but faithfulness is what life is all about.
They have always been a church. They have always been ministering. Thank you, Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras, and United Presbyterian Church, for always ministering to me.