The Grace of Making Connections

Picture these three scenes:

Scene 1: A moving van sits next door. You step outside to greet your new neighbor. “Welcome to the neighborhood, you say. We’re glad you’re here.” Her face clouds with a look of discomfort, almost panic. You realize: We don’t speak the same language.

Scene 2: The Missions Committee of your church recommends offering a Spanish class. It’s only six weeks. You sign up, with trepidation. You are introduced to about a hundred words, and to your surprise, you have fun.

Scene 3: You haven’t seen your new neighbor for several weeks. She doesn’t seem to go out much. You bake a loaf of bread and knock on her door. You can only remember about thirteen of your new Spanish words, but you take a deep breath and say, “Bienvenido.” She smiles. Encouraged, you sing a few bars: “Cristo me ama. . . .” She beams. The two of you embrace.

This is why Joyce Carrasco, Ngoc-Diep Nguyen, and I wrote Who Is My Neighbor? Bishop Sally Dyck, of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, challenged a group of clergy and laypersons in January 2013 to live the Great Commandment by designing and implementing a Spanish as a Second Language program for one hundred churches.

The curriculum teaches about a hundred words of Spanish to speakers of other languages. The focus is on words and phrases that will help you practice radical hospitality: Greeting people, talking about family, likes and dislikes, songs, the Lord’s Prayer, the Great Commandment, cultural tidbits. The series ends with a potluck and celebration of Holy Communion in Spanish.

The Teacher Manual provides detailed lesson plans for active, engaging teaching, plus documents to guide a congregation in hosting a class. The Student Manual supplies vocabulary lists, a pronunciation guide, and the order of worship for Holy Communion in Spanish.

Yet how will this make a difference? Let’s listen to four voices. Rev. Fabiola Grandón-Mayer (Centennial Multicultural UMC, Rockford, Ill.) talks about feeling invisible. As an immigrant herself, she understands that it is hard to live in a different culture, hard to take the first step to connect with others. “Fear is a powerful deterrent,” she says. “English speakers may assume that I don’t speak English, they may blame me for not speaking perfectly, they may even assume that I don’t have my papers.” Who is going to break down that wall of perceived blame?

But she also reminds us that a Spanish speaker with minimal English and an English speaker with minimal Spanish can communicate. As her two-year-old twins prove, a few words can go a long way. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts: the grace of making connections goes far beyond the literal meaning of a handful of words.

So—where to begin? As Rev. Michael Mann, Director of Mission and Advocacy for the Northern Illinois Conference, puts it, “Our main ministry is not to get people to come in our doors. The doors aren’t ours. Our responsibility is to go out of the doors.” So, armed with our hundred (or thirteen) words of Spanish, we walk out.

Where to? Manuel Padilla works with the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry. In an article entitled “Key Actions for Ministry and Strategic Planning in Any Community”, he writes: “ . . . [Y]our congregation’s first priority is to discern where God is already at work in your area . . . through a study of places where people gather.”

Grandón-Mayer says a Hispanic/Latino supermarket is the best place of all. Grab a basket, shop for groceries, ask questions of the people you meet in the aisles. How do you cook this? Which are the best tortillas? What kind of salsa goes with this? Or just: “Hi. This is good, yes?” (Hola. Es bueno, ¿no?) Smile!

As Deacon Luke Pepper (Kingswood UMC, Buffalo Grove, Ill.) points out, “Don’t just put on programs and hope people will come. Find people where they are, minister together with them. Show your appreciation for the gifts that they have.”

This is outreach. We are called to minister with, not to, our neighbors.

The other day, my husband and I encountered a group of Latino construction workers in the park. I greeted them in Spanish—and their faces lit up. We chatted for ten minutes, in mixed Spanish and English. As we walked on, one of the men said, “This is nice. You and me, talking.” Big smiles all around: Clearly, he no longer felt invisible, and for once I felt like a faithful servant of Jesus Christ.

Your turn.

Ruth Cassel Hoffman, Ph.D. founded Language Resources Ltd. in 1983, providing corporate foreign language training, translation, and interpretation. She has developed active curricula in French and Spanish for students from preschoolers to adults. Who Is My Neighbor?—Dr. Hoffman’s field-tested resource through which English speakers of any church and congregation can learn basic Spanish-speaking skills—was written along with Joyce Carrasco and Ngoc-Diep Nguyen, and is available for purchase on Cokesbury.com.