By Jessica Connor
NORTH CHARLESTON – As the Hispanic population surges in the Lowcountry, one United Methodist church is opening its arms.
Midland Park UMC is giving space to a Hispanic nonprofit, Nuevos Caminos (translation: new way), which is a mission of hope promoting self-sufficiency, success of the family and shared community solutions through outreach, education and advocacy.
Midland Park is also letting a Hispanic non-denominational church offer a bilingual service there.
“It’s taken off,” said the Rev. Leonard Ripley about his church’s new ministry. “I foresee great things, I really do.”
The Charleston area is seeing rapid growth in its Hispanic population. Researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies estimate 12,739 Hispanics were living in Charleston County as of 2007 – the fifth highest Hispanic population in the state.
In reality, said S.C. Conference Hispanic Coordinator Sonia Brum, this number can be doubled or tripled to reveal the real Hispanic population. In fact, North Charleston is the first site the S.C. Conference appointed a Hispanic pastor seven years ago, but due to lacks of funds, that effort fizzled. Brum feels Midland Park, with a particularly high population of Hispanics and a history of participation, is the “best area” for outreach to this group.
“Charleston is very service-oriented being a tourist area, and there are a lot of jobs available for uneducated, illiterate people,” Ripley said. “And there’s an element of this community that’s very willing for them to work because they can pay them less than they would anyone else.”
As the numbers swell, churches increasingly feel the need to reach out and help. Many don’t know what to do, and many take years trying to figure out exactly how to proceed.
At Midland Park, previous pastors the Rev. Ron Leonard and the Rev. Cec Jenkins laid much of the groundwork for today’s ministry. By the time Ripley was appointed to Midland Park in July, he said, the time was ripe.
When Ripley arrived at Midland Park, the chair of the administrative council informed him the church had voted in a partnership with Nuevos Caminos, which is led by JoDee Robinson, the wife of a United Methodist pastor Ripley had known for years.
Immediately, things fell into place.
“You know how we Methodists are,” Ripley said, chuckling. “There’s always that networking connection.”
Robinson said she is thrilled to be in partnership with Midland Park UMC.
“The face of the Midland Park community has changed,” she said, noting that Midland Park Primary School is now 70-75 percent Hispanic. “For Midland Park United Methodist Church to open their doors and allow us to work out of their church is quite significant. It makes such a positive impact on so many families that reside right there in that community.”
Her husband, the Rev. Rich Robinson, Epworth UMC, started Nuevos Caminos with her. He said there is a constant need for outreach and advocacy in the Hispanic community, which is why the Midland Park partnership is so important.
“There is very little voice for (Hispanics), and they also don’t have a voice because they often can’t find help, can’t find a translator, can’t find out what services are available to them,” he said.
As the connection grew between Midland Park and Nuevos Caminos, the Robinsons put Ripley in touch with the Nuevos Caminos board chair, Lydia Cotton, who happens to serve as the Hispanic liaison for the City of North Charleston.
And a new discovery was made: Cotton’s sister, Judy, is the pastor of Ciudad de Paz, a Hispanic non-denominational church seeking a place to hold its worship services.
That church was having trouble because the places it had approached would not allow a church with a female pastor to use its facilities.
“I laughed and told her my immediate supervisor, my district superintendent, is a woman. And guess what? My bishop is a woman,” Ripley said, welcoming Ciudad de Paz to use Midland Park’s sanctuary. “That’s not an issue here.”
Midland Park has been hosting that church’s worship service since mid-September, and Ripley participates. The service is bilingual. Ripley said the pastor is determined to help her congregation acclimate more rapidly into the Anglo community.
“At the end of the service – they’re very evangelical – she offered Christ, and two young men came forward,” Ripley said. “I said, ‘This is going to work. This is where we are.’”
Not every Midland Park member immediately welcomed the new ministry. Ripley said politics often cause people to view undocumented workers as a threat rather than people who are no different from Anglo ancestors, who came to America on a boat for religious freedom and a better life.
But Midland Park members are now embracing Nuevos Caminos’ work, especially work that involves children. The nonprofit group offers life skills training, parenting classes, help for victims of domestic abuse and more. Before, the church had English language instructional materials collecting dust in a closet; all that has changed.
“It’s been a stretch and a struggle for this church,” he said. “But I really believe the Holy Spirit has a way of working in people’s lives. And I believe it will facilitate church growth in both the Anglo and the Hispanic community. The most joy you can have as a Christian is when you can give yourself away. Once they try it, they get drawn to it. That’s my dream for Midland Park – that we find a new identity, take what God’s giving us and act on it.”
“A lot of people have reservations about working with the Hispanic community,” JoDee Robinson said, recalling a time she heard a pastor refer to Hispanics as “those people instead of people like us who have been here forever.”
“I was really taken aback,” said Robinson, who is of Cuban descent. “It’s not about what their background is. My goodness, it about the person and the family and their needs. I really believe there is fear about what you don’t know and you don’t understand, and the politics, but as a body of believers, we shouldn’t be doing that if we are really following Christ’s teachings.”
She said she really appreciates Midland Park UMC’s outreach and hopes its ministry will deepen and grow with the years.
Brum said she has been invited to participate in the North Charleston Mission Initiative, under leadership of District Superintendent Patti Parrish. This initiative identified Hispanic ministry as one of the issues the full district will be exploring soon.
“My hope is that the churches nearby Midland Park can came together to start a new church for the Hispanic/Latino population in the next two years,” Brum said.
Ripley, for his part, is just pleased to be a part of a new outreach to an underserved community and that his church is eager to h
“I really believe it’s a God thing,” Ripley said.