by Adriane Heins
“We’re willing and ready to go out and beat the bushes.” The Rev. Dr. Carlos Hernandez’s voice proves he means business. “We go into their homes and ask them how we can care for human beings with human needs, waiting for the Holy Spirit to move them,” he explains. “And often He does. Whenever we share the Gospel, people say, ‘Really? Salvation by grace? It’s a free gift?’ Some people cry.”
Beating the bushes is easy, because Hernandez, director of Church and Community Engagement, isn’t doing it alone. Partnerships between congregations, districts and the Synod are making in-roads across the country.
“By invitation, we assist districts or congregations that are interested. Usually, it’s a double partnership, because the district is often already helping the congregation,” he explains.
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Beardstown, Ill., is one such example of a lay-led joint venture.
“Let’s partner. Let’s reach out with the Gospel. We have an enormous mission field. Why shouldn’t we?” — Rev. Carlos Hernandez
“The congregation is in a community that has, over the last 20 years, become increasingly Hispanic,” says Hernandez. “The members of the congregation said to the pastor, ‘We really need to reach out to the growing Hispanic population in this town.’ The pastor agreed, but he also knew the church didn’t have much money.”
When the Rev. Doug Evenson mentioned this obstacle, one lay member took it as a challenge. He simply asked, “How much does it cost?” recalls Hernandez. That’s when the congregation “brought up the idea of a partnership — both in terms of finances and as a mission development — between the congregation and the district and the Synod.”
The ball was already rolling. Using the Synod’s Gospel Seeds model — where congregations focus on mercy, finding out from their neighbors what human care needs the church can help them meet, which leads them to opportunities to bear witness to Christ — Hernandez and congregation members got to work.
“You can’t just put up a sign and say, ‘Y’all come,’” Hernandez says. “When I met with the congregation in Beardstown, I asked them, ‘What Hispanics do you know? Do you know Spanish?’”
The congregation made a lengthy list of names and then started knocking on doors. “We asked them, ‘We’re from St. John’s. We’re reaching out to the Latino population. What are some of the needs you see in our community?’” Hernandez recalls.
Starting conversations through acts of mercy sets Lutherans apart from others groups who knock on doors, he notes. “We start with mercy and then bear witness according to the Holy Spirit and then move to life together as He draws them into the Church.”
What Do Lutherans Believe?
The congregation offered the Latino community the use of their gym, which was no longer in use since the church’s school closed. Then the church started English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) classes. “People were drawn in quickly,” Hernandez recalls.
Then a woman from the community named Maria Guijosa offered her help, both in translation and in locating local and county services families could use. Before long, “St. John’s became a Hispanic center for people to inquire about human needs,” Hernandez says. “And then they started asking the same question they always ask: What do Lutherans believe?”
The Rev. Pablo Dominguez, pastor of a Hispanic mission in the LCMS Central Illinois District, was quickly on the scene, visiting every couple of weeks while simultaneously leading a Bible class. Soon, though, the congregation members pushed for even more: “Can we get a vicar?” Hernandez recalls them asking. “We need someone here for them every day!”
And they did. Jason Gullidge, a vicar from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., who is still learning Spanish, now assists with a variety of Hispanic ministry opportunities, like hosting “Sunday School to our community and our members, and every other Saturday, a gathering similar to a church service (religious movies, songs, a message and a prayer), led by Pastor Dominguez,” Gullidge says, noting plans for more are in the works.
Acts of Mercy
Ultimately, Gullidge and Evenson believe, this partnership enables them to “share the Gospel of Christ through acts of mercy while helping with daily needs.”
The Central Illinois District is now putting funds on the table in addition to what the congregation gives, while the Synod’s Hispanic Ministry staff members continue to offer time, counsel and expertise.
This tri-fold partnership “allows new ideas to be shared, resources to be increased and our work to be synchronized around the world,” explains the Rev. Bart Day, executive director of the LCMS Office of National Mission. “All of this means the Gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth, and Lutheran churches grow as the Word is taught and the Sacraments are administered. Walking together in our life together is a tremendous witness to the world of our shared mission.”
And as for that witness? “I’ve never seen this much love and excitement in reaching out to Hispanics in all my years,” acknowledges Hernandez. “It’s an amazing thing.”
Another opportunity for collaboration involves the care of the Church’s workers. “A church may be small and can’t afford a pastor anymore, or a pastor has an illness. These are financial crises, and church workers are not immune, especially since they don’t get a whole lot of money to start with,” explains Hernandez, who also spearheads Soldiers and Veterans of the Cross, two programs that provide emergency support and pastoral care for LCMS church workers, active or retired, based on financial need.
“It’s a team effort,” President Dwayne Lueck of the LCMS North Wisconsin District says, referring to the way in which his district cares for its church workers, especially those in financial or emotional crisis.
Often, the district and the Synod will go 50-50 on providing financial assistance to a worker in need. “If a worker needs $3,000 to cover medical bills not covered by insurance, the North Wisconsin District pays $1,500 and asks us if we can grant $1,500,” explains Hernandez. “President Lueck has become really adept at watching for those kinds of issues. He’s able to identify the needs, and he responds quickly by saying, ‘Here’s the situation. Can you help us? Can we work together? Can we respond together to the need of this particular worker?’”
And together, they do, often getting funding to the person in need in a week or less. “Once we learn of the need, there is great communication between my office as district president and the Synod office about how we can address the need,” Lueck acknowledges. “There are generous people who have stepped forward with their financial gifts to assist workers at a difficult time in their lives. We are asked to steward those gifts and together we are able to meet the concerns that arise. The gift allows me to assist the workers of our district flock. What a blessing!”
“We are always looking for partners!” Hernandez agrees. “So, let’s partner. Let’s reach out with the Gospel. We have an enormous mission field. Why shouldn’t we? Why won’t we? We have such a wonderful gift in the gift of the pure Gospel!”
Learn more: www.lcms.org/gospelseeds