He is exhausted, but he is here. The milking schedule has changed, and he is missing some sleep time to attend the ESL (English as a Second Language) class. We begin informally with a review, each tutor and student pair, going over location/direction using a map of Mexico. “Please show me some states that are to the NORTH of Oaxaca,” I say, trying my best to pronounce the name of the state correctly. He sleepily names several states. “I think the train goes through here,” I say, sliding my finger from south to north, “La Bestia (the beast).” His eyes snap up to mine and he is suddenly alert. “Some of us have read a book about a boy who comes on the train to the US from Honduras, Enrique’s Journey, and it takes him 7 or 8 times to finally get here,” I say. “Do you know anyone who has ridden the train?” “Yes” he says, holding my gaze, “It is very dangerous, people can get hurt.” And then the teacher calls for our attention to start the class.
Participating as volunteers in the ESL class are many members from my church. Quite simply, we are here because God calls us to love God and to love our neighbors. We have asked the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and our hearts, and have taken notice that there are, indeed, people of Mexican heritage living and working in our community. “Have they felt welcome?” we wondered. We felt called to welcome them.
With guidance from our former pastor Kristin Rice, wonderful things began to happen. A young Hispanic family joined our church. Adult education class became Spanish 101. It was not unusual to have some music and liturgy in Spanish during our worship services. Invitations were extended to area workers to join us for picnics. In May, my friend Diana and I were sent to the LSPS Spanish Language and Hispanic Ministry Intensive in Austin, Texas. Currently, the idea of offering a local ESL class has become a reality. Meals have been shared after class.
Has this been easy? No. It involves taking some risks and stepping out of our comfort zones. Collectively we speak very little Spanish. I have certainly experienced plenty of awkward moments—uneasiness, discomfort, impatience with myself—as I struggle with my limited Spanish vocabulary to find the right words to say. But what are these small struggles compared to what our friends may be experiencing?
There have been many affirming moments as we get to know and trust each other little by little. We expose our hearts to one another as we share information about our families and our circumstances. One man tells us he has been coming to the area for 10 years for work, and this is the first time he has been invited into the community.
We are not just exchanging pleasantries while shopping at the local grocery store, but something much deeper is happening here. We are walking with each other, accompanying each other on life’s journey.
Historically, we as the ELCA have not been very good at ministering to Hispanic people in our midst. We are changing that, and encourage other congregations to do the same. Besides the language component, the LSPS Spanish Language and Hispanic Ministry Intensive was a fantastic resource for in-depth learning about the history, language and culture of the borderlands and beyond. We heard heartbreaking and hopeful personal testimonies, and we were made more aware of the conditions that push people into making tough decisions about leaving family and trying to make a better life in the US. The book Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario is just one of the books on the excellent resource list. The program is not just for seminary students, as we can attest, and we would encourage congregations to send people in pairs, not only because there is so much information, but also to reflect and encourage each other in sharing with your congregation and discerning the path forward.
I am looking forward to the day the milking schedule changes again and my language partner can come back to class. I miss him. And I thank God that he has been a blessing to me.