The waves of recent immigrants in our communities are creating a more diverse society, which implies that faith leaders have to prepare the way so that these newcomers can feel welcome in the communities in which English might not be the primary language spoken.
A significant number of these newcomers come from Latin America, one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse areas of the world. UNESCO estimates that there are 30 to 50 million indigenous inhabitants, over 650 indigenous peoples, and more than 550 different languages spoken in the 21 countries of this region. This suggests that in the USA there are congregants in our church communities who fall in this category of being multicultural and multilingual. As a Latino Episcopal priest in the United States, I am deeply involved and interested in learning how to serve these congregants who are both monolingual (Spanish and English) and bilingual (English and Spanish).
One of the challenges ministering to these multi-lingual and multi-cultural communities is the need for effective preaching that takes into account their bicultural and bilingual dimensions, so as to be able to respond to the needs of diverse congregants. It is my experience, that in terms of cultural diversity, the congregants can be Spanish speakers, but that in itself does not mean that when I deliver the sermons, they might fully understand the meaning of the embedded messages. In this regard, I am always aware of the context, including the practices and customs, and the particularity of the language and idiomatic expressions that diverse people from various countries might use. In addition to this, I have also come to realize that there are even people in the church who cannot speak Spanish, despite their countries of origin, such as Mexico and Guatemala where Spanish is the primary language.
As a theologian and a preacher, I am sensitive to all these concerns since the sermons that I prepare and deliver, while they might be quite acceptable in grammatical terms, might be inadvertently ignoring groups of people of indigenous origin. Not taking these groups of people into account in the sermon preparation could be considered an unintentional sin of indifference.
Another important point that we need to recognize is that the new waves of immigrants have special needs, besides spiritual support, that churches can fulfill. At Holy Trinity, West Orange, we have observed that there is a need in the area of legal support. Members of the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) have approached us to have their planning meetings at Holy Trinity. There are people who are recent arrivals who are looking for food, clothing, and a place to live. The West Orange Hispanic Foundation that was founded at Holy Trinity provides constant support via a network of volunteers who are on the lookout to help those in need. Holy Trinity continues to provide support via the Soup Kitchen, the Food Pantry, the Thrift Shop, educational ministry, and the referrals that we constantly provide to the members of our community in the areas of health, legal aid, and so on.
I am inviting you to receive the newcomers with open hearts into our communities and churches and to make every effort to respond to their needs.
As Jesus told his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matthew 9: 37).
The Rev. Dr. Miguel A. Hernandez is Priest-in-Charge at Holy Trinity, West Orange.