SELMA – Since most bilingual families speak a combination of their mother tongue and English all week long, Pastor Cesar Garcia doesn’t see what that should change on Sunday.
“When you see Hispanic people, the parents and grandparents speak Spanish. But the songs the grandchildren listen to are in English and they speak English. They go to the church as one family. That’s why we need bilingual services,” he said.
As the new pastor at Selma First United Methodist Church, Garcia said since worship reaches a person’s heart they should hear it, speak it and sing it in a way that it’s a more natural part of life.
“In the home, they speak Spanish. Most of the emotions, when you speak in Spanish, they have more meaning. Yes, they know English from school and at work. But that emotion is right there. Part of you is the family. So when you worship with your family, even in those different languages, it’s like being at home.”
Garcia has been serving at Selma and Sanger’s First United Methodist Churches since early July and previously served in Nebraska where he worked to develop bilingual ministries there. Before that, he served in Mexico as a Methodist Church’s worship coordinator where his grandfather was the pastor.
“I grew up going to the Methodist Church in Mexico. I was always leading the worship and music at my home church. Then, I met Miriam.”
Garcia earned a bachelor’s degree in administration in the city of Obregon in Sonora. He had met his wife there since she had returned to Mexico with her brother to start the process to gain permanent U.S. residency.
Since then, he and his wife have been married for seven years.
Miriam Peralta Garcia said her mother is a pastor as well, and she and her brother had been looking for a church to attend while in Mexico.
“When your parents teach you something, you want to continue with that. It took us a while but we found a church. We were there for two years and we came back to Omaha, Nebraska. My mom was serving there.”
Peralta Garcia also focused on continuing her education once back in the states.
“That’s one of the things our mom always pushed us to do, to finish our education. We were at the university in Mexico and transferred our credits here.”
Her bachelor’s degree is in foreign language and literature with a concentration in Spanish. She minored in Chicano-Latino studies. Currently, she’s enrolled in seminary working on her master’s degree in intercultural studies with a concentration in church planting.
“That’s where you go out and connect with the community where people need to hear the good news and where you can share your faith and your story and how believing in God has changed your life,” she said explaining the term. “Church can be in a park. That’s what church planting is; just getting to know the people and the community.”
Ken Robison, who serves on the staff-parish relations committee, said he’s been attending the church for at least 30 years. He recalls when attendance was higher. There was a full choir and even a large youth group. The majority of the congregation was white and English speaking, but times have changed.
New pastors have come and gone, and attendance and membership had declined over time, he said. There was another Methodist church in town for Spanish speakers, but its attendance declined as well. Thus, it was decided at their church’s district level to combine the two congregations.
“For a while, we had two congregations of 15 to 20 people each and two services. Our pastor and music director were doing double duty. Less than five years ago, we decided we’d merge into one congregation with a bilingual service,” Robison said.
So now, all the readings and sermons are conducted in both languages and the hymns are song simultaneously in English and Spanish. It was a little confusing at first, but now Robison said congregants have adjusted.
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“I think it’s pretty cool. Some people were flustered by it the first time, so you really have to focus. I really like it. To me it sounds beautiful,” Robison said of the singing. “Most of the people speak English, but they prefer to worship in their native language, which is fine.”
Robison said now that they have a pastor with church planting experience, he’s seeing attendance starting to build again and four teens have just had their confirmation, he said.
“I think this is something that will be really good for us.”
Robison said both their English-speaking and Spanish-speaking members have had to make adjustments in this switch to a bilingual service. At first, there were handshakes, but now it’s more like family as they interact.
“One of the things we realized is that both sides were going to see something different in that mixed service. We all had to get together. When we first started this, and had time for people to walk around and greet each other, there was a lot of shaking of hands. And now, there are a lot of hugs. That tells me now we are one congregation, and not two.”
Garcia said while it may be easier to just have two separate services, that wouldn’t teach people in the way they live.
“It’s so easy to only speak in one language and then do another program in Spanish and separate. But that’s not the reality of every person. We live in a world that is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. That’s the reality. We separate so much and we have to unify all.”
Among his goals are taking the message of faith to the community and helping people learn.
“People don’t have time to go to the church,” he said. “Our goal is to go around the community and bring the church to wherever the people are. That’s the reality. God is in everywhere so we have to make the reality that the church is everywhere.”
Garcia said while he studied at the seminary in Dallas’ Perkins School of Theology, he noticed that many of the students spoke both Spanish and English and thus their courses were bilingual as well.
He had worked at a program under the Mexican Consulate while in Nebraska to help provide more educational opportunities for Mexicans and Central Americans. So this, too, is another goal.
“Education never ends. Education gives power to the people. That’s what the Hispanic people need: that education. So yes, I’m a pastor and there’s a lot of need in the spiritual, but also in the intellectual and the emotional. So that’s my goal here in the church, to not only reach out for the spiritual. The reality is every person needs that spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical [development]. So that’s our program in the church. That’s how it is with God. He gives us everything. We sometimes only think of God in the spiritual, but He’s present in all that. So we have to do all that. That’s my goal.”
Robison said they are also continuing the Wednesday night dinner known as the Christian Cafe that was started by the Methodists years ago. Fifteen different churches and group take turns preparing and serving the meals.
“It’s always here in our church, but different teams and churches come in so it’s become a community-wide thing. People in town know about the Christian Café and that’s one way they know our church.”
Peralta Garcia encourages residents to attend.
“People may not know about it because of the language barrier. They may only speak Spanish, so we want to have that open for everybody so they can come. Pastor prays at the beginning of the supper. He asks if anybody has any needs. That’s where we share ‘I need prayer for this.’ It can be something very difficult, or maybe not, but you just need that prayer in your life. That gives your strength and that gives you hope.”