By David G. Fish
“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19, English Standard Version).
This verse first impressed me (see parallels in Exodus 22:21; 23:9) during my undergraduate days, before I had any significant contact with the people those Scriptures would identify as sojourners.
I lived the experience of the sojourner during the better part of two decades while serving as a missionary in Chile (though I recognize many would point out that my sojourn was different, in that my relative position was one of privilege rather than poverty). The truth, however, is that I was welcomed so graciously in Chile that I view it as my second homeland. Though we in America give voice to the narrative made popular by Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, I believe we have failed to fulfill mandates from both testaments of Scripture to welcome the sojourner.
When we returned from South America, we became members of College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri. Since the Spanish-speaking population of southwest Missouri has grown exponentially, it made sense for me to use my ability to speak that language to reach out to that segment of our population.
Starting a Class
With the help of former missionary colleague Phil Casey, director of Literature and Teaching Ministries, we started a Spanish-language Sunday school class. Phil and I shared the teaching load.
Growth was slow for the first few years. We envisioned a ministry to people whose heart language was Spanish, but what we got was a mixture of Spanish-speaking people and some who wanted to learn Spanish. Today our Hispanic group has changed, as nearly everybody who attends is a native Spanish speaker.
Other Christian churches in the Joplin area have attempted to have parallel Spanish-speaking congregations under their umbrella. We have adopted the model of having a Spanish-speaking Sunday school (for adults), carried out 100 percent in Spanish, and integrating that group into the main worship service, which is conducted in English. While the other model may be preferred (there are more than 14 Spanish-speaking Evangelical churches in nearby Carthage, Missouri), we believe our model best fits our needs in Joplin.
Several years ago, we added another man to the leadership of the group. Luis Rodolfo Muñoz immigrated to the United States after retiring from many years of service at the U.S. Embassy/Consulate in Bogotá, Colombia. He came to Christ in Colombia about 10 years before he retired. He moved to Missouri to be located near his two daughters, the younger of whom participated in the early years of our Spanish Sunday school class.
Phil and I still share most of the teaching load, with Rodolfo occasionally teaching. Rodolfo, however, has the pastoral heart and vocation for the people. Since he is retired, he also has more time to dedicate to the day-to-day spiritual needs of the people.
Rodolfo now serves College Heights as a volunteer ministry leader, a role in which he can help meet day-to-day needs of the Hispanic community.
Integrating the Immigrants
Over the years we have had Spanish-speaking nationals from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile. Since the completion of our new worship center, we now have only two services, both on Sunday mornings. Our 100 percent Spanish Sunday school class meets during the first service, which means class members attend the second worship service.
Simultaneous translation of the worship service is provided via headphones, which aids those in our group who do not understand English. In this way, we have tried to ensure our people feel they are a part of the larger congregation. When we have had baptisms, those baptisms generally occur as part of the English language worship service, even though the baptisms themselves are “officiated” in Spanish. We believe this model allows for integration of the Hispanics into the life of the church in a greater way.
Our people volunteer in many areas of the life of the church: Communion, prayer, childcare, etc., in ways that would not be possible if we ran parallel congregations. In this way, we hope to make the immigrant community feel like they are a greater part of the church family at large.
David Fish serves as professor of Bible, Greek and missions with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.