Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Everyone United in Christ

“After that I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white…”

                                                                                                -- Revelation 7:9

      1. Before I arrived…

            Ten years ago when I first came to Atonement, many things were different.  State road 54 was two lanes wide, and was basically a parking lot every evening out in front of the church.  You could watch for hours as cars inched their way from I-75 to Zephyrhills.  Our church building was crammed with cribs, kiddie chairs, toys and other children’s paraphernalia, since we were the site of Little Pioneers Learning Center throughout the week.  And every Sunday afternoon, local members of a Tampa Hispanic congregation came and worshiped in our sanctuary. 

            The Wesley Chapel area has had a significant Hispanic presence going back many years.  While Hispanics of Mexican descent tended to cluster around Dade City connecting with the farmworker jobs in that area, we were more an outpost of the Tampa suburbs and attracted a variety of Hispanic families with roots in South America, Puerto Rico and the like.  The First Hispanic Presbyterian Church which shared our building 10 years ago, has their home base in a heavily Cuban neighborhood of Tampa.

            Their pastor, Julio Travieso, had formed a wonderful partnership with Atonement interim pastor Lin Houck.  Atonement was not simply the landlord to their Sunday afternoon “satellite church” – we were truly their partner in ministry.  We worshiped together with bilingual services.  We would sometimes go down to Tampa to worship with them at their main sanctuary or to attend their annual Passion Play.  They joined us frequently for service projects, meals and celebrations. 

            And, most impressively, in 2004 Pastor Lin and Pastor Julio teamed up in a special joint project of the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches to supervise the internship of Dr. Eddy Perez.  Eddy was a physician in Cuba who risked life and limb to come to the United States to escape the Castro regime and to become a pastor.  His family finally made it over and joined him for a year in Wesley Chapel as an intern shared by Atonement and First Hispanic Presbyterian congregations.  I got to meet him a couple years later when we donated some chairs and other furniture to his small, struggling congregation.

2.      Early partnerships…

            I took it for granted that in coming to serve a church in Florida, I would need to learn some Spanish.  The Church’s job is to reach our communities for Jesus, and American communities are more and more Hispanic.  Not only did Atonement already have partnerships with First Hispanic Presbyterian in Tampa and Resurrection House in Dade City, but there were Hispanic families in our own neighborhoods, not to mention our own congregation.  Monica Escribano, for instance, has told me frequently how much she loved Pastor Julio and the Hispanic congregation, but that her heart has always been set on being a Lutheran and a remaining a member of Atonement. 

            When I arrived, Eddy had already been ordained and installed as a Lutheran pastor in Miami and Pastor Julio was preparing to retire.  I invited Pastor Wally Meyer to come preach at a bilingual service which we hosted one evening, and Margarita Romo of Resurrection House spoke at a bilingual Reformation service.  Each Sunday during our regular service, I chose a verse from the lessons and looked up its Spanish translation.  Suzi printed it out in the bulletin, and I’d lead the whole congregation in reading the verse together.  Unfortunately, since I didn’t know Spanish, I couldn’t say if I was leading it correctly or not.  We also did a couple years of confirmation classes with our Dade City Lutheran congregations.   Shepherd of the Hills hosted them, but Margarita would bring vanloads of kids from Resurrection House.  Within a year, the new pastor of First Hispanic called off meetings of their satellite church, and the future of Atonement’s Hispanic ministry was a mystery.

            It wasn’t long before we received a visit from a local family that were leaders of a Pentecostal Hispanic congregation called Mision International Primicias de Cristo.  They were meeting in a local dance studio, but were looking for a building like ours to hold their services.  Their worship included a wide variety of music, along with skits and dances.  Unfortunately, we had very little storage space, and they were looking for an earlier worship time which wasn’t available.  After a year or so, they left and yet another Hispanic congregation, First Unity Church of Pasco, took their place.  Their congregation was small, but we had a wonderful relationship with them and their pastor, Enrique Amoros, who had once worked for the United Nations.  We shared a Christmas morning bilingual service with them one year, and eventually they too found a new meeting place.  To our surprise, we discovered that Pastor Enrique’s wife was continuing to come and clean the church, even after were no longer worshiping at Atonement.  They told us it was out of gratitude for giving them a place to worship and helping their congregation survive.

            Through all these partnerships and changes, my hope was that a day would come when Atonement could have its own Hispanic ministry.  As Lutherans, we have a different way of telling the story of Jesus and sharing the gospel with the world.  There’s a good reason someone like Monica Escribano treasures her Lutheran faith.  There’s a powerful witness Lutheran congregations like Resurrection House can make to the Hispanic community.  My continual hope during my time here at Atonement was that God would send us the resources and open up a way for us to develop our own.
3.      New directions…

            When Bishop Bob Schaefer became our Florida-Bahamas Synod Bishop, he showed how big a priority Hispanic ministry was in Florida by hiring Jaime Dubon as his assistant.  I invited Jaime here last summer to begin a conversation on how we at Atonement could begin a Hispanic ministry.  It was an idea whose time had finally come.  With Alice Deyne as coordinator, we soon had an active Hispanic ministry group, which soon took off, teaching English as a Second Language classes.  With 15 or so students, the classes have yielded some wonderful success stories, like the 93 year old man who learned to read Bible stories, or the lady who got a job and attributes it to the help she got with her English at Atonement.

            The climax of these new developments happened this summer when Alice and I and Esthel Kane, one of our bilingual members, went to Austin for a training that was partially funded by the national ELCA office for new ministry starts.  There we met pastors and lay people from all over the USA who were trying to do Hispanic ministry in very different settings.  While we were there, Esthel felt God calling her to more training and a deeper commitment to work and help lead such a ministry with us at Atonement. 

            We also learned about programs that the national church has in support of congregations that are doing what we are trying to do.  They want to help develop ministries that will reach the many Hispanics who might not otherwise become part of an English-speaking congregation.  We have the support and encouragement of leaders in our synod and at the national level to take advantage of the opportunities to apply for funding support to grow our Hispanic outreach.

4.      United in Christ…

            We wanted a Spanish name for our Hispanic ministry that would reflect the name of our congregation, but the word Atonement does not translate easily into Spanish.  It refers to what Jesus did for us on the cross in dying for the sins of all the world, shedding his blood to bring us all into relationship to God.  We have used the phrase “be at one” to refer to the “at-one-ment” that Jesus achieved through his sacrifice, making us at one with God, at one with ourselves, and at one with others.  We were not able to come up with an elegant Spanish word to express this idea, but instead are using this phrase to try to capture its essence: “Todos Unidos en Cristo” – Everyone United in Christ. 

            The possibility before us now is to develop our current program of Hispanic educational, spiritual, and social ministries into a mission start that is recognized by the ELCA.  The national church funds mission starts that are approved by synods as potential worshiping communities, what they call SAWCs… “Synodically Authorized Worshiping Communities.”  We will be applying to get this funding by requesting the synod to approve our Hispanic ministry, Todos Unidos en Cristo, as a SAWC.  Esthel Kane, who is currently enrolled in our deacon training program, will be the designated lay leader for the SAWC.  She will be supervised by me, along with Jaime Dubon and a mentor recommended by the synod.  Then we can work towards developing our own Lutheran Hispanic worship service, and other new programs to serve our local Spanish-speaking neighbors.

            These are new developments, but they are part of a long history of Atonement’s work to reach Hispanics in the Wesley Chapel area.  As Christ commands us to reach out to the “nations” – to different cultures near and far – we work to help make the Church more and more like God’s eternal, heavenly kingdom, filled with every tribe, tongue and people (Revelation 5:9).  The partnership to create this new SAWC and to work with Esthel as a leader in training is an exciting sequel to what happened here years ago when Eddy Perez did his internship at Atonement with Pastor Lin and Pastor Julio supervising.  We will be talking more about these new possibilities during a temple talk at our worship service coming up on November 6.  In the
meantime, feel free to ask questions of me or Esthel Kane or council president Laurie Chiaramonte, and thank you for supporting the mission and witness of Atonement.

Pastor Scott