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All Children of God: Columbia’s new Hispanic ministry reaches out to local community

By Jessica Connor

COLUMBIA – So many times, she has sat across a kitchen table and heard the all-too-familiar stories of hardship and desperation.

The mother who hasn’t seen her children in 10 years because she’s working like a slave to support them. The husband facing a deportation hearing, scared he’ll never see his wife again. The man living in a trailer with seven other men, eating stale bread just to survive. The woman with broken English who struggles daily to help her children rise above and succeed.

Right here in America.

For the Rev. Emily Scales Sutton, the pain and sadness that countless Hispanics endure every day is heartbreaking.

“These people live in fear,” Sutton said. “Every day I meet someone with an immigration issue. I got a call this morning from a lady whose son might have a deportation hearing, but he might not, because she can’t understand the documents. Every day someone tells me ‘I don’t have a job because I don’t have the documents,’ or ‘I can’t go to the food bank because I don’t have the documents,’ or ‘I can’t go to a physician because I don’t have health insurance because I don’t have the documents.’”

Thanks to the West Metro Hispanic Ministry, some of these people have new hope.

On July 1, the West Metro Hispanic Ministry officially launched, with Sutton as pastor. Culminating nearly two years of hard work, research and resource-assessment, the ministry comprises six United Methodist churches in a five-mile radius in the Columbia District: Brookland, Cayce, Mount Hebron, Platt Springs, Shiloh and Trinity.

The ministry hopes to help area Hispanics in three major ways – through works of social justice (immigration reform, health fairs, human rights advocacy), through empowerment (English classes, job resources, financial planning) and through fulfilling spiritual needs (vacation Bible school, Sunday school, prayer groups, worship).

Funding comes from the six West Metro churches, tithing from new members of the ministry, Annual Conference allocations and other grants and donations.

“It’s about how we show mercy to them,” said Sutton, who is fluent in Spanish and spent extensive time in Central America immersed in the culture. “We are all human beings. We are all children of God. We are all the same.”

Seeds for the new ministry started a few years ago, when the West Metro churches realized their neighborhoods were changing and they weren’t able to reach the new community. Between the language barrier and cultural differences, the “old ways” weren’t working.

“I saw lots of trailer parks, poor houses, 11 people in the same house, poor cars,” said S.C. Conference Hispanic Coordinator Sonia Brum.

Statistics from local schools confirmed what she had suspected: low-income Hispanic families were settling in the area in droves. And they weren’t being adequately served by local churches.

Brum got to work, getting approval from the district superintendent to establish focus groups and a task force, all in the spirit of reaching out to the Hispanic community, assessing their needs and determining the right way to meet them.

And West Metro Hispanic Ministry was born.

Much of the work was a mind-shift, Brum said. In the Hispanic culture, church is much like a big party, with lots of fellowship.

“Working with Hispanics is about personal relationships,” Brum said. “They come because they want to meet friends, worship, do something. They come and hang out. If you offer that environment, then it works.”

But you have to make an effort to get them there, Brum said: Go to them. Bring them.

“It’s not just about inviting them,” she said.

Sutton agreed.

“You really have to invest your time, give a piece of yourself,” she said.

But the time and effort has been worth it. Many of the churches feel they are thriving and truly reaching their community in a vital and relevant way.

Brum recounts a story of a non-Hispanic parishioner who previously had not encountered many Hispanics. When asked to help serve refreshments during an English language class at the church, she willingly participated.

“After, she said to me, ‘They are people like us.’ I understood what she meant,” Brum said. “She was not being racist. It’s just that all she understood about Hispanics was what she’d learned from the media. Now they were real. It’s very powerful.”

As the Hispanic population grows in South Carolina, this ministry is becoming more than relevant. It’s essential, Sutton said.

According to U.S. Census estimates, South Carolina’s immigrant population grew faster than any other state in the U.S. between 2006 and 2007, with the strongest areas of growth in Greenville/Spartanburg, Columbia, Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies estimate this state’s Hispanic population at between 400,000 and 500,000. Census data indicates the state’s Hispanic population increased more than 460 percent between 1990 and 2007.

The West Metro Hispanic Ministry is one of two new church starts in the state so far. The other, Esperanza Mission Congregation in Greenville, started in 2009. A Hispanic congregation in the Charleston area is being explored to start in the near future.

Right now, Sutton said, the West Metro Hispanic Ministry is focusing on relationship-building – reaching out, offering services such as English classes and an August health fair at Mount Hebron UMC, hosting an immigration forum in October and presenting Las Posadas, a Christmas carol-type event during the holidays.

Outreach with Hispanic children is especially vital, partly because children are the future of the church, and partly because it is a guaranteed way to connect with the family-oriented Hispanic culture.

They don’t offer a worship service yet, but Sutton does frequent visitations in people’s homes.

“You meet everyone in the family, sit down, talk with them, talk about their needs. And a lot of the times, those visits become worship,” Sutton said.

But right now, she knows her “congregation” is more concerned about physical needs than spiritual needs. With constant fear, little mon
ey, lack of language skills and inadequate provisions, she said many of the Hispanics cannot think of anything beyond bread, water and shelter.

“You have to give someone food before you can get to the Bible,” she said.

Formation of the ministry comes as debate over immigration reform continues its slow boil. As of the Advocate’s press time, late August, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer had just signed the nation’s toughest bill on illegal immigration into law despite heavy criticism from President Barack Obama. In S.C., a coalition of conservatives rallied at the State House in early August to advocate a crackdown on illegal immigrants. Fear is rampant, Sutton said.

Still, no matter one’s political position on immigration reform, she knows that when people remember Jesus’ commandment to love thy neighbor, the right behavior prevails. Regardless of why they are here, they are here, and it is our duty as Christians to love them, she said.

“In the Hispanic culture, we call it hermanos y hermanas en Christo – brothers and sisters in Christ. And that’s what we are,” she said. “We are all brothers and sisters, all children of God. We have to love our neighbor enough to say, ‘We know you made a wrong decision perhaps in coming here (illegally), but we love you enough to help you through your hardship.’”

For more information about West Metro Hispanic Ministry, contact Sutton at 803-445-9103 or essutton@umcsc.org.

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