Juve Yanez gives a Bible reading in Spanish during the bilingual Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church. Readings were given in both English and Spanish — Yanez also translated the English readings and comments into Spanish for Mass attendees. — Johnson Publications
From left, Laura and Paul Krogmeier perform a song during the Neocatechumenal Way Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church on Aug. 25. The Neocatechumenal Way was founded in Spain, and much of the community’s music is written in Spanish. The Krogmeiers sang in both languages. — Johnson Publications
Local churches a place of recognition, pride for Hispanic community
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the first in a five-part series recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15). Upcoming articles will focus on remittances, music, English education and food.
Among U.S. Hispanics, the vast majority of whom identify as Christian, Spanish-language ministries provide a nucleus for local community and a space to celebrate Hispanic culture.
Churches give recent migrants, including non-Christians, a reliable place to access services like translators and legal assistance.
Within larger Christian organizations, like the Catholic Church, Hispanic influence is also starting to spread beyond explicitly Spanish-language congregations.
Especially in smaller communities like Holyoke, local churches, such as St. Patrick Catholic, First Baptist and Zion Lutheran, are a vital point of contact between English and Spanish speakers.
St. Patrick Catholic Church
Father Jerry Rohr is the pastor of Holyoke’s St. Patrick Catholic Church. He said that the institution of the church provides consistency and stability for immigrant communities.
“Being a new or uprooted people, what that does is strengthen faith,” he said. “The nice thing about the church is that it’s stable.”
Rohr, who is part Hispanic, said that many Central and South Americans bring their unique devotional practices with them when they immigrate to the United States. Devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a title associated with a venerated image of the Virgin Mary in Mexico City, are particularly popular among Mexican immigrants.
“Our Lady is certainly a strong image of Christianity plus the indigenous culture,” he said.
Catholicism is the most-followed religion in Latin America. A 2014 Pew Research Center study indicated that, although Protestantism is growing, most Latin Americans identify as Catholic and more than 80 percent of respondents were brought up in the faith.
The church also exerts a tremendous influence over culture and politics, and, conversely, Latin Americans made up about 40 percent of believers in 2010, according to Pew. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the first Latin American pope in 2013.
In the past, St. Patrick offered a Spanish-language Mass every other Sunday, but it was discontinued due to low attendance. The Neocatechumenal Way, a community within the Catholic church, now offers a bilingual Mass. The service is spoken in English and Spanish, and includes traditional Hispanic music. Rohr also hears confessions in Spanish.
Rohr said that roughly half of the attendees at the Neocatechumenal Mass speak Spanish, and about five speak Spanish exclusively.
First Baptist Church
Many Spanish-language ministries serve as the first point of contact between newly immigrated families and those members of the community who speak English exclusively.
First Baptist Church Senior Pastor of Spanish Ministry Ismael Lopez said the experience of immigrating to the United States is disorienting due to the cultural differences between Hispanics and non-Hispanics.
“Many people are stuck in between American and Hispanic culture,” he said.
Lopez and his wife, Esmirna, started their Holyoke ministry, Vida Abundante, in 1997. As part of the ministry’s outreach, they offer legal assistance and help with housing and food distribution for migrant workers. More established community members volunteer as translators for new arrivals, and others at First Baptist Church, including Kathy Haynes, offer ESL courses.
Within multigenerational families, successive generations often have a better grasp of English than Spanish. Lopez said it’s not uncommon to have the first generation of a family speak Spanish exclusively, the second be bilingual and the third speak only English.
Lopez also said that, because migrant workers often pick up and relocate to follow work, it has been difficult to form a stable congregation.
“It’s a floating population. I don’t even know how many people have received Jesus and then moved.”
The church used to include ranchera (a genre of music that originated in rural Mexico) in its worship services but has now switched to a contemporary style of Spanish rock, under the direction of Lopez’s nephew and church trustee, Israel Rodriguez.
Communal festivals like Cinco de Mayo and the September Independence Day celebrations are a major part of Hispanic culture. Lopez said the church incorporates festive, post-worship dinners into at least one or two of their services per month.
Zion Lutheran Church
Pedro and Erica Jofre run the Ministerio Hispano at Zion Lutheran Church in Holyoke and directed this year’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations at City Park.
Although there are some similarities across Latin American cultures, including, by definition, language, both Pedro and Erica spoke about the dangers of regarding Hispanic culture as monolithic.
Upon migrating to the United States, Latin Americans find themselves grouped by their shared experience as immigrants, and not necessarily by similarities in their cultures of origin.
One of the most accessible forms of culture is cuisine —Pedro mentioned how he and his wife were unfamiliar with Mexican food and didn’t eat tortillas before moving from Argentina.
“Between Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, the culture is so different,” Jofre said.
Like Lopez’s ministry, Ministerio Hispano also offers ESL classes. Last year, Jofre said the church drew about 140 people between their fall and spring sessions.
Jofre, Rohr and Lopez all said that church membership is a point of unity between the Spanish-speaking community and those who only speak English, and offers a place for both to express their unique cultures and shared belief.
“We’re one church, speaking two languages,” Jofre said.