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Journalist and religion commentator Becky Garrison spent a year visiting mission-shaped ministries in the US and UK. Where most books focus on the pioneers who founded these congregations, Garrison shifts to focus on the people on the ground: what drew them to the community, why they come back and how they understand themselves to be ...
Journalist and religion commentator Becky Garrison spent a year visiting mission-shaped ministries in the US and UK. Where most books focus on the pioneers who founded these congregations, Garrison shifts to focus on the people on the ground: what drew them to the community, why they come back and how they understand themselves to be “church.” In the process, she reveals wisdom around evangelism, Christian formation and discipleship that every congregation can use to flourish in this postmodern age."
Centro Hispano de Todos los Santos, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
All Saints Church transitioned from being a predominantly white congregation into a true community that could be home for upscale residents and immigrants alike through Centro Hispano de Todos los Santos. Diana Fajardo, an immigrant from Colombia, and Angel Roque of Puerto Rico met and became close friends at All Saints. They recount the story of how they discovered this multicultural Episcopal church and how their faith has grown as they've deepened their participation in this community.
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Diana: South Florida is full of immigrants and you can find people from all kinds of religions. We all have our ways to practice our religion. I was raised as a Catholic with a lot of rules—you can't go to church if you're not properly dressed; you can't get communion if you didn't go to confession.
When I found out my father had cancer, I was in deep need of a community. So, I went looking for a church around my house. I found All Saints, and it was open. That was my "personal miracle" as I call it, because I had been to this church many times and it was always locked. I wasn't properly dressed, because I wasn't expecting the church to be open. The exact moment I walked in, the priest was giving communion. It was a big surprise that he opened his arms and told me to come up for communion without asking any questions. I thought he was going to yell at me or tell me to get out of there, which is what would have probably happened in my native Colombia. I thought, "All I needed was to be close to God, that's it." I spent most of that first service in the back crying.
Angel: Even though I speak the same language as those coming from Latin American countries, I don't face the same immigration issues because I'm a US citizen. Still, it was a very big learning process for me because I come from Puerto Rico. Even though I'm a US citizen, Puerto Rico feels like its own little country separate from the rest of the US.
The way I got to All Saints was that I opened the Yellow Book. I found this name All Saints in the middle of all these church names. I was nineteen and had just moved from Puerto Rico to attend school. I felt lost because of some things that happened in Puerto Rico, and I needed to talk to somebody. I was scared I might say something that would offend the priest because I was so angry. But I called, and the priest welcomed me. So I decided to check it out.
I remember seeing Diana there sitting in the very right corner, like right under the organ. And I was sitting in the left corner. I was very sad that day, but it just felt comfortable to sit down with all these different people. I had never been to a service in English, so I didn't understand all of it. Also, (the priest) Sherod has a very thick Southern accent. He wasn't dressed up all nice and fancy, which was surprising for me. No questions were asked, but everyone was welcomed. It's like a humongous family. Even today, it's fresh like the first time.
Diana: It really does feel like a family. In Latin America, I saw a lot of discrimination, so when you come into a community that's really diverse, you go like "wow." This is a place I want to be. That feeling of comfort and welcome that you have, you want to share it with your own people. This is why I try so hard to invite people to come to this community, because I know there are many people who are searching for the same thing. It's not easy to be an immigrant, even though people for many years have been coming to this country to make a living and make this a home.
One of the first things that I realized is that it's a bit hard to reach out to Hispanic communities, because most of us are very hard working. Those of us who come to America are workaholics. We come to the United States with the mindset to just produce and produce, because we have family back home and we need to send them money. So you have to find something really special to say, "I'm going to stay and work with this community," because you don't want to take time off from work. It's a big deal for somebody who comes like this.
Angel: There is a spark in the community in All Saints that I can't really explain, and it drew me to stay. Little by little, I met Diana. Then I met Rosa, who was the first female clergy I had ever met, which kind of freaked me out at first. There were a lot of different things, but it was also amazing.
Diana: I used to go to church because that's what you did. Being in this community as an older person and an adult made me realize how important the community is.
Laying the Foundation to "Welcome All"
All Saints did some real groundwork to become the kind of church where Angel and Diana could thrive. When the Reverend Sherod Mallow arrived at All Saints in 1997, this upscale urban parish situated in downtown Ft. Lauderdale was suffering troubled times. He quickly learned that All Saints had a high gay population that functioned under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. In his preaching, Sherod cited the baptismal covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, where Episcopalians promise to respect the dignity of all persons. He recalls, "I don't know how many sermons I preached where I said that until somebody tells me how to redefine 'all' to mean 'some,' it still means 'all.'"
Some people left because they wanted a country-club church filled with like-minded people. "We don't fit the needs of those who want to be a social club," Sherod acknowledged. "That is not who we are." But he found that most people stayed, and he thinks it's because they wanted to go deeper in their faith and were willing to be stretched beyond their comfort zones.
Eventually, others started coming to enjoy the congregation's progressive, welcoming spirit. All Saints' identity became a draw to people who wanted to find a place where they could grow in their faith but did not wish to leave their own identity at the door. Former senior warden Chuck Dinsmore offers this back story.
I came back to All Saints in 2000,when a chapter of Integrity (the organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Episcopalians and their allies) was founded at this church. One of the reasons I came back was that I had been raised Episcopalian and found there was actually an Episcopal church that was trying to accept my community.
After Integrity ran for about four years, we realized that it had served its purpose. We were integrated. No one had an issue anymore. They weren't questioning. We were communing together. Gays were teaching Sunday school and serving in all areas of the church, and nobody cared. Ultimately we had a family choose to come to All Saints because we were so accepting. They wanted their children brought up in that environment. That's the thing that made us realize when the sign says "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," they mean everybody. That's the mantra that we lived by at All Saints.
After years of reestablishing a church in trouble and then renewing their identity as an inclusive congregation, the parish leadership began searching for ways to reach out and connect with others on the margins. First, All Saints began participating in a program for homeless families. For one week each quarter, All Saints serves as an emergency spillover shelter they call "Beds Around the Altar." During that week, they receive one or two families who have just become homeless. They set up air mattresses around the altar for their visitors, mainly young, single African-American mothers and their children. Not long after starting Beds Around the Altar, the leadership of All Saints decided it was time to keep stretching to meet their context. It was time to launch a Hispanic ministry.
Chuck recalls the way the vision took root:
The work we had done welcoming the gay community made doing the El Centro ministry easy, because we had already gone through breaking down barriers. It was an easy sell to say, "We're going to pitch a tent in this community, and we're going to take the church to them, because they can't get to us."
Lee Arnette was thrilled to see the church take that step. Raised Episcopalian, he left during college and didn't come back to the church until 2003, when he found All Saints. Culturally he was raised in both languages,but he wanted to pray in the language of his heart: Spanish. He knew All Saints had a head start, since Sherod's wife, the Reverend Rosa Lindahl Mallow, is bilingual. "When I heard that Rosa was going to be ordained," Lee recalls, "I asked her if they were going to have a Spanish-speaking service, because I wanted to grow in my faith using my native tongue. I think that's where the idea for the Centro may have gotten planted."
Nanette Rudolf, a member of All Saints, assumed the church would be doing ministry with the Caribbean community, where there is already a strong Anglican presence. But Rosa shifted that expectation. "There is a very large, poor, and vibrant community about five miles from All Saints. We need to do this there, on Davie Boulevard." Rosa told her, "I'm going to start walking the street and talking to the people in the storefront." Over time, she began to develop relationships, though this outreach took a while before showing any visible results.
In 2006, after some relationships formed, Lee, Rosa, and a few other members from All Saints started having mass in a park near Davie Boulevard. Everyone looked at them strangely, though people would occasionally stop and join the service. The abundance of drug trafficking and mosquitoes eventually forced them to pack up and secure a home indoors.
Rosa secured the first actual site, a bay in a strip mall where the previous tenant had sold columns of upholstery.
Diana thought this storefront church was the ugliest place she had ever seen, but she was committed to making it shine.
When we walked in for the first time, we came with hammers. We did everything ourselves—cleaning, painting, putting in new tiling. The thing that made me happy was when I started seeing families with kids coming in for the first time. That's when I saw this could really be a community. It's very exciting to think that these kids actually understand the meaning of the communion. They can really feel the relationship with God.
For some time, the services were Saturdays at 7:00 p.m. to accommodate a Latino community where many work at more traditional church times. Even now, the worship attendance at El Centro can be uneven. One Sunday there are thirty-six people and the next Sunday only four. Often they will have more children than adults at the service; the average age is twenty-eight.
Rosa sees incredible talent and a great capacity for ministry among those who come to the Centro, but she is honest. "When you're just struggling to feed your family," she said, "you don't have a lot of time to volunteer. The average family that I see has two or three kids, and they're living on $180 a week if they can find the work." Trying to fit in a full load of church programming can be tricky—what many members of the Centro really need is a place where they can just rest and be.
That said, people show up and do things that need to be done, whether they're part of El Centro or the All Saints Sunday morning congregation. In the end, Rosa feels they have everything they need.
Chuck with his real estate experience helped us negotiate deals. Our teachers working in our School Success programs after school and during the summer are simply brilliant. We had a young immigration attorney who had been begging Catholic Charities to let him help, but they weren't interested. He's come to work with us and is helping some of our families pro bono in exchange for space.
We have a couple who have struggled to make it in the US, who would drive by a parking lot that was full of day laborers who were waiting to work. We would prepare a meal of lentils or beans, and have a Bible study every Monday night. They came into one of these studies and said, there are these Latino guys waiting for work. Do you think we can take them some rolls and coffee in the morning? So we did. That effort allowed us to apply for and get a feeding grant from Episcopal Charities of Southeast Florida.
Church for Others
Working with the Centro has reenergized the community of All Saints. As the church is in an affluent neighborhood, Chuck said it's quite possible to drive in and not see any poverty or need. "Subconsciously, the churchgoers at All Saints thought they had done their ministry. When we started this path with the Centro, everyone realized they could make a real difference."
The ministry at one time occupied three bays on the strip mall, much of it thanks to programs to provide tutoring and other social service connections relevant to their community. Many of those ministries, in turn, came to life because lay leaders stepped up and put their faith into action.
The first storefront had a big plate-glass window, and Rosa said less than two weeks after they opened, Diana came in with a rainbow decal and said, "The gay community is really discriminated against in the Latino community. We want to make sure that anyone in the gay Latino community knows they're welcome." It was a value she carried from All Saints, and it is a part of the makeup of El Centro.
Currently, a high proportion of the volunteers at the Centro are gay. They're looking into programs to train children and parents to deal with LGBT inclusion in the Latino community. At least at the Centro, Diana finds, "We just have a good time working for the church and doing everything together. They're so used to being with each other that they forget about the differences." Angel adds, "When you do things with love and you're comfortable about yourself, I think everything else falls into place."
Another challenge in Latino communities is access to social services. Because some members of his family are not documented, Lee knows firsthand how they've struggled with barriers to access. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) offices can be disrespectful and often even prejudiced. He said it is not unusual that while applying for food stamps for their children who are citizens born in the US, Latinos are threatened by the DCF employees and told they will be reported to immigration authorities.
El Centro has become a partner organization with DCF, and now Lee helps to process food stamp and Medicaid applications. Rosa believes people who come to El Centro for help experience grace with Lee that they seldom experience in other parts of their daily life. In turn, Lee feels his faith deepens as he gives back to his community. In addition to getting the services that they need, they find dignity and respect in his office that they don't find elsewhere.
That welcome hasn't been without cost. Sherod exercises some caution as they approach the third rail issue of immigration. While they have "Fox News Republicans" at All Saints, he is aware that those members have chosen to stay even as the congregation invested substantial time and resources in Latino ministry. He thinks keeping the community together at this juncture may be more important than going out to the extreme on one end and being a prophetic voice. "We can pull and push a bit, and there's growth, but we don't push people out."
Sherod brings experience pastoring a majority white church in Memphis. A large extended family from Ghana joined and sometimes filled up a whole pew or more. He heard that some members were "concerned" about this family's presence. When he took a hard line and insisted the family stay, some members left.
Excerpted from ANCIENT-FUTURE DISCIPLES by BECKY GARRISON Copyright © 2011 by Becky Garrison. Excerpted by permission of Seabury Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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