The Story: New Life at Swainsboro, The Birth of Iglesia Latina
Sometimes in our wisdom we attempt to plan everything out in great detail. This is not always a bad thing and sometimes it even works, for a while. I would submit that the institutional church is an example of this planning. In my office there is a magnet on a file cabinet that says, We Plan, God Laughs.
In the spring of 2010 the session at the Swainsboro Church contacted the Presbytery to begin conversation about the future of the Swainsboro Presbyterian Church. As they met with then General Presbyter Ken McKenzie, it was evident that the session, primarily composed of three women, was thinking is this the time to close this church? How could this be accomplished, the congregation was down to six or eight people and they were all worn down, even though there was great love for this church. They were looking for a plan to dissolve the charter and dismiss the members to other congregations.
In that same time, Ken happened to meet a Catholic priest in Swainsboro who had a large contingent of Hispanic immigrants in his parish. He was aware that there were a lesser number of these folks, who come to work in the fields harvesting the crops, who were protestant and had no church affiliation. There was no plan in place, no budget, no committees met, Presbyterian Polity was not invoked. It was a highly irregular, decent, but not at all in order, opportunity for new life in the Swainsboro Presbyterian Church. If we had planned it in the traditional way we do things, I am convinced that this ministry would not be celebrating it sixth anniversary in June, 2016. Ken talked about the possibility of this ministry with the session, called his former colleague from Cherokee Presbytery, Rev. Ozeas Silva and with the agreement of these folks, Iglesia Latina was born.
There are lots of you here, too many to mention and we would leave some out if we tried, that have made significant contributions in those early days of infancy in this ministry. Ozeas made us aware of an international language, soccer, that could draw the Hispanic/Latina peoples to this place. Through that they would be exposed to the loving good news of the gospel of our Lord Jesus, The Christ. So we built a soccer field, and they came! A food ministry was born, Bibles in Spanish were furnished, building repairs were made, English classes were started. Iglesia Latina became part of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities and grants from PC (U.S.A.) were obtained.
The congregation grew and will have forty to fifty in worship here on most Sundays. While there is a core of the membership who remain here year round, the congregation changes as some go back to their countries and are not able to return. However, others do come to work, but because of this unstable population, and our immigration laws, the sustainability of the congregation is slower in terms of membership growth.
We in our own congregations might learn a lesson from these faithful Latina Christians. At the first anniversary of Iglesia Latina on a Saturday afternoon, I was sitting beside Mary Lee Zimmerman, one of the Ruling Elders from Swainsboro Presbyterian Church. We were watching a soccer tournament, the parking lot was full, several teams were competing for a trophy. Families had come to watch. There was a bouncy castle with a large number of small children screaming for joy as the jumped and played together. As we took it all in, all of the sounds and sights of people being together for fiesta, for celebration, Mary Lee turned to me and said, “Look the children are back!”
My friends, what I believe Mary Lee’s words really meant to me was that, “The Church is alive, the church is vital again. Thanks be to God!
There are many other chapters in this Iglesia Latina story that will be written by perhaps others. But I want to jump to a little bit of years 5 and 6, and future chapters to be written more completely as we continue this story. Recently, Ozeas began talking to me about a Baptist church that wanted to help with this ministry. Having been raised Baptist and later as a Deacon, chairing the Diaconate in a large church in Decatur, I remembered how independent and territorial some Baptists can be. So I agreed to meet with Ozeas and Pastor Hal Wilson to see what was going on with this. Rick Douyliez and I met at the church shortly thereafter with them. We found out that Hal’s congregation had been journeying to Alabama to help a Hispanic ministry there. When they found Iglesia Latina in their own town it was a great joy to be able to serve this congregation. As we talked, to my great satisfaction, I heard nothing in our conversation but a love for all God’s children and a desire to help Iglesia Latina with both financial and human resources. The renovations and repairs underway at the church property are part of the financial aid. Additionally, members of the Baptist congregation have volunteers working in the English as a second language classes.
As I listened I heard Hal Wilson speak of the joy and vitality of his congregation as they worked outside of the walls of their church building to share their love with others who are quite different in many ways, but are children of God who return that love to these that serve. Both groups are seeing the face of Jesus as they work together building God’s kingdom.
My friends, we have spent the last couple of years working in the area of discipling as Jesus has called us to be and do. We have explored what that means as it relates to church renewal and transformation. I still hear so much worry about our membership numbers, our smaller budgets and how there is not enough. The Church discusses it as the theology of scarcity instead of God’s abundance. I hope you can take away from today a feeling of what a vital church can do if it will look outside of its walls for a world that needs God’s love. The question is about looking inward, or looking outward and trusting God for the resources that are abundant when we work together in God’s plan.
I challenge you all to look outside the walls for the vitality you are not finding inside. I challenge the congregations in this District 2 to look at this ministry in your back yard. Find out what you can do to help and in the process find the new life, the vitality, that your church has needed. I challenge our other two districts find opportunities for being vital outside of your walls. There are ministries all around if we have eyes to see; Crosswalk, a new worshiping community in Brunswick, sister congregations in need, ministries to the homeless, for children, for battered women, or those incarcerated; for the least of these. Be God’s blessing in the world and find your own blessing in the process.
Grace and Peace,