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How Holy Trinity, West Orange developed their Hispanic/Latino Ministry

Detail of an online map provided by The Episcopal Church showing the percentage of Spanish speakers in the area surrounding Holy Trinity, West Orange.
Nina Nicholson, Director of Communications
Detail of an online map provided by The Episcopal Church showing the percentage of Spanish speakers in the area surrounding Holy Trinity, West Orange.

Holy Trinity, West Orange is in a neighborhood where at least 20% of the residents speak Spanish. Over the last few years its clergy, the Rev. Dr. Miguel Hernandez, Priest-in-Charge, and the Rev. Deacon Peter Jackson, have built an active ministry that not only serves their Spanish-speaking neighbors, but attracts Latinos from as far away as Maryland for special services.

“This church historically has been an English-speaking church,” says Hernandez. “I think maybe 40 years ago [the community demographics] started to change. But even before I came to this church, there were people who were trying to go to Latino services. What they did was give them a Book of Common Prayer in Spanish. People tried to follow the [English] service, but then they gave up and they didn't come back. I think roughly about seven years ago we came up with the idea that it might be good to offer a Spanish service.”

Holy Trinity currently offers Sunday services in English at 9:30 AM and in Spanish at 12:30 PM. On the first Sunday of each month the 12:30 service is bilingual, to give the two congregations a chance to worship together.

At the Spanish service, Hernandez says, “We get about 30 people every Sunday, except when there are special events, when we get about 60.”

Hernandez and Jackson invested a lot of personal time and effort in advertising the Spanish services to the community.

“We did flyers about the service, and Miguel and I would sometimes walk down Main Street, go into Spanish restaurants, and we would eat there, and we would give out our flyers about the service,” says Jackson. “We’d go to other businesses, and we’d leave the flyers. And gradually the word started to spread. It grew by our taking that initiative, to go out into the community, and to spread the word in the community that from now on this church at the top of the hill will be offering services in both English and Spanish.”

Hernandez adds, “And by word of mouth, people came from all over Long Island, South Jersey, asking for our liturgical services and also for the sacraments, and even some for spiritual guidance and counseling, because for whatever reason, people spread the word that we are helping the community. So we have baptized children from Long Island, from Maryland, from South Jersey.”

They’ve offered Confirmation classes entirely in Spanish, and this past summer they made their annual God, Science and Art Program bilingual for the first time.

Holy Trinity also works with the West Orange Hispanic Foundation to provide resources to Spanish speakers, hosting medical personnel to do vaccinations and screenings, and bringing in or giving referrals to people who can advise on topics such as immigration legal issues, how to buy a house, or how to enroll kids in schools.

When the need arises, they personally advocate for individuals or families. Hernandez recalls a family from Columbia who were having difficulty with the requirements for enrolling their three children in school, such as paperwork and vaccinations. “Through the church, we knew the superintendent of the schools in West Orange,” he said. “Right away, he cleared the path. And through the connections that we have with the Hispanic Foundation and the hospitals, the kids were able to get all the shots for free and were able to go to school.”

Hernandez and Jackson see much opportunity as well need for Hispanic/Latino ministry in northern New Jersey.

“The big opportunity, as I see it, is this continuing immigration to the United States,” says Jackson. “We have to look at the areas where you have large pockets of Hispanic community and try to do something there. And that information is easy to obtain.”

One such resource is provided by The Episcopal Church, which has contracted with a geographic-data provider to offer a sophisticated mapping tool for analyzing the neighborhoods of Episcopal churches. Using this free tool, one can easily pull up a map showing “Percent of Population Age 5+ Who Speak Spanish at Home” and then zoom in on any Episcopal church to see the demographics in its location.

Both Jackson and Hernandez acknowledge that one of the biggest challenges is a shortage of Spanish speakers among the clergy.

“I know that there is a language barrier,” says Jackson. “I know that there are not enough Hispanic priests or deacons in the diocese, but it has to start somewhere. Small steps have to be taken. The Catholic Church is doing it.”

“For Catholic priests, it is mandatory to take liturgical Spanish,” Hernandez adds. “You don't really have to know Spanish 100% [to celebrate a service].”

Hernandez, who has consulted with the Diocese of New Jersey on their Hispanic/Latino ministry, offers himself as a resource, and suggests, “If we can get maybe five or six priests who are interested in doing Latino ministry, maybe we can do a pilot program. We have the resources, we can give them the template used to create the [Spanish] bulletins and things like that. And maybe we can find lay leaders who want to get involved – recognize who are the Latinos in our midst? Who would like to be part of the ministry?”