Language groups come together as one at FBC, Liberal, Kan.
by Sue Sprenkle
Voices sing out—first in English and then Spanish. The transition is smooth as the congregation naturally goes back and forth between the languages.
“The precious blood of Jesus Christ; Ve ane su trono El Padre te recibirá.”
The worship leader, Jonathan Zamora, closes his eyes, relishing multiple cultures praising God together. He looks out and sees no less than 10 countries and four languages represented among the 150 or so people. Some wear ear buds that pump in a translation from a nearby booth. Others squeeze next to a friend whispering a translation.
At First Baptist Church, Liberal, Kan., language and culture are not a barrier to worship. According to Zamora and Pastor Jason Ramsey, no one even thinks twice about it. Their church is simply a reflection of the surrounding community.
Located just a few blocks from downtown, the church sits on the edge of “Little Somalia” where a growing Somali community resides. Eritreans and Ethiopians live down the street. A few blocks away, the Vietnamese live next to the largest ethnic population in town, Latino.
It hasn’t always been this way. At one time, FBC-Liberal was known as the “upper-class white church.” Yet just a few years ago, the church was on the verge of shutting its doors.
“The church membership was so old that people were just passing away,” Ramsey said. “We looked around us and said that we couldn’t be the church we were yesterday … our town changed.”
Hispanics flooded this southwest Kansas town over the past 30 years to work at National Beef, a meat-packing plant on the edge of town. They joined the Vietnamese in the heavy, hard labor of slaughtering and butchering livestock from the surrounding ranches and feedlots. Immigrants from several African countries recently joined the mix.
Taquerias and Carnicerias opened in the once-dead strip malls. The local high school became majority Hispanic. A second generation Mexican-American won a spot on the previously all-white city commission.
Dennis Zamora moved to Liberal 25 years ago as part of this influx of Hispanics coming to work. He watched as the Hispanic population doubled that of the Anglo and African-American community combined. Yet, his church did not change. The Spanish-speaking congregation met on Saturday nights and rarely had anything to do with the English-speaking congregation.
“When I came here, there were no Hispanic leaders in the church,” Dennis recalls. “We weren’t able to participate and serve. We just sat on the sidelines and watched.”
The Hispanic group was growing steadily at the time - not just in number but in their spiritual health. They prayed for change; a change so great that it would later shock church leaders.
“I remember sharing a vision with the Spanish group about starting a mission church,” Ramsey says. “Then, they came back with a question: ‘Why do you want to separate us?’
“My mind was blown and to be honest, my feelings were hurt. We offered help and they didn’t want it,” the pastor admits.
After the shock wore off, Ramsey says that question kept nagging him: “Why ARE we separating everyone?”
“We were just doing what we’ve always been taught. If we get enough of a language group gathering, we start a mission church,” Ramsey reasons.
“We always tell people to look to the church for answers but this is one answer I don’t want them to,” Ramsey says. “When people look to the church, they see segregation—black churches, white churches, Spanish churches. The church needs to rethink how we do integration.
“It is time to rethink the way we do church.”
The first step in intentionally integrating FBC-Liberal was to drop labels. There are no longer “Spanish services and English services,” everyone meets together at the same time. Sunday school classes and small groups do meet in different language groups (Spanish, English, Eritrean), but anyone is welcome since each class studies something different. Someone in the group is always willing to translate.
The biggest transition, however, came in church leadership. Dennis points to his son, Jonathan, with pride. The worship leader was the first Latino on staff without the title, “Spanish Mission Pastor.” Soon after, the church hired another second-generation Hispanic-American as the youth minister. Church deacons, greeters, teachers and other committees now equally represent the ethnic makeup of the congregation (English is not a requirement for the job).
“This type of church isn’t for everyone,” Dennis admits. “It’s easy to find a church that is 100 percent Spanish or 100 percent white in this town. We are reaching out to second- generation Hispanics and their parents are coming with them.”
Dennis explains that first-generation immigrants see their kids and grandkids pulling away from church because of language differences. The second and third-generations are comfortable in English because of school. So, a lot of the language-specific churches struggle when new generations go off to other churches or stop attending.
“It’s difficult because the culture of first-generation is to stick together as a family,” Dennis says. Three generations of his family attend FBC-Liberal. “So our church is an opportunity to continue being one unit and to worship as a family and still hear your own language.”
This melding of cultures and language is best seen in the youth and children’s departments. Kids from Africa, South America, Central America, Caribbean and the United States hug each other in greeting. They speak in whatever language comes to mind … no one cares.
In the youth room, teenagers switch effortlessly between languages. If English has the best descriptive word - English is used and vice-versa.
Dennis points to a group of adults talking after church. They are from Eritrea, Mexico and the USA. He points to another and another, listing off countries as his smile grows larger.
“When God gave us the vision to integrate, we had no idea He would make it this big,” he says. “You see everyone mixing, now. It makes you feel like you are part of the church.
“You are no longer ‘watching’ … you are actively worshipping and serving.”