Students Embrace Spanish for Ministry

By Margaret L. Farnham

Throughout the season of Lent, the Trinity and Bexley Seabury community gathered for worship each Monday morning prepared to speak and hear the familiar words of the liturgy in an unfamiliar language.

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Student James Dunham, left, and Pastor Bob Abrams (’11) work the food bank at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Hilliard, Ohio. Martha Gouty helps translate the needs of the Hispanic families who come to the church.

“Señor, ten piedad.”
“Lord, have mercy.”

“Christo, ten piedad.”
“Christ, have mercy.”

Students who were enrolled in the seminary’s first Spanish for Ministry course led worship with a guarded confidence. Others followed along on cue. As the weeks passed, the voices lifted higher.

“Y ahora diga˜el debil, fuerte soy”
“And now let the weak say, I am strong”

“Diga˜el pobre, rico soy”
“Let the poor say, I am rich”

“Por lo que hizo el Señor por mí”
“Because of what the Lord has done for me”

“It is humbling to learn someone else’s language. That is an important part of ministry, to be the learner and the one who is struggling to understand,” said Kristen Ulmanis, a senior M.Div. student enrolled in the course and a participant in the weekly worship.

Ulmanis’s desire to learn Spanish arose during her internship year in Cuero, Texas, a town located about two hours southeast of San Antonio. No Spanish was spoken within the life of the congregation, but she heard the language on the radio and in the community at large.

“The ability to speak the language would help bridge an English-speaking congregation and the neighborhoods outside,” she said.

Trinity alumnus Bob Abrams (’11) would agree. He serves Resurrection Lutheran Church in the Columbus suburb of Hilliard, Ohio.  About eight months into his first call at Resurrection, members of the Southern Ohio Synod encouraged him to do outreach to the Latino neighbors who live south of the church.

At the time, Abrams decided it was too early into his call; the congregation didn’t know him well enough. But last August, the pastor from a community church down the road invited Abrams and the members of Resurrection to join in the effort to provide a second food bank for people in the neighborhood.

“We kind of jumped in head first, and within a month we were feeding 40 to 45 families every Monday, and about half of those families were Latino,” he said.

As word spread, attendance at Resurrection’s food bank continued to grow. The church now feeds up to 60 families, or about 250 individuals, each week. Two local women from the Hispanic community offer their services as translators for those who do not speak English.

While the arrangement worked well, Abrams felt there was something missing. “I decided that if I wanted to get to know people in a ministry setting, I needed someone who spoke Spanish and who had a ministry background,” he said.

Both Ulmanis and Abrams turned to the seminary to meet their needs, and both were directed to Professor Mark Allan Powell, the Robert and Phyllis Leatherman Professor of New Testament. He has been studying Spanish for five years and has an interest in introducing Spanish for Ministry into the seminary curriculum.

“I first decided to start learning Spanish as a hobby, to keep my brain from rotting,” he said. “But it wasn’t long before I realized the tremendous ministry potential in the ELCA for people who know even a small amount of Spanish.”

He started with Spanish language audio tapes and then graduated to taking classes with Speak Our Language, a Columbus-based company that provides Spanish language instruction for businesses and other organizations through interaction and immersion experiences. Part of Powell’s experience with the Speak Our Language program included two, Spanish-language immersion trips to Cuernavaca, Mexico. While in Mexico last summer, he received an e-mail from the dean describing Ulmanis’s request.

Dr. Powell and Ulmanis arranged an independent study that would include language instruction through Speak Our Language. By the time classes started in the fall, six other students had also expressed an interest, so the group traveled together across town in the seminary van to take classes offered by the Speak Our Language program. At the end of fall semester, two more students voiced their interest. At that point, Dr. Powell and Academic Dean Brad Binau arranged for the Speak Our Language instructor to teach the class on the Trinity campus during spring semester. In addition, Dr. Powell would offer the “ministry component,” which included visits to Spanish-speaking congregations, Spanish worship services during Lent, and the writing of prayers and lessons in Spanish.

Dr. Powell also decided to turn his own return trip to the school in Cuernavaca into a January Term course for interested students. Two students in the class, Scott Benolkin and James Dunham, signed up for the immersion component in Mexico.

Dunham transferred to the ELCA from another denomination and is completing his “Lutheran year” at Trinity. He previously worked with a Hispanic community while serving a church in Los Angeles, and refers to his knowledge of Spanish as “religious Spanish”; a knowledge of prayers, music, and liturgy. He can preach, teach, and engage in pastoral care, but is limited in conversational Spanish.

Still, his knowledge was just what Pastor Abrams needed at Resurrection in Hilliard. Dunham now assists the congregation with the Monday-night food bank, and offers pastoral care and outreach as needed. He has written a Spanish-language page for the church website, provided Bible studies, and Spanish-language worship services during Christmas and Easter.

“They love hearing the teachings in Spanish,” said Dunham.

“We’re not entirely sure how this will shape up, but what is coalescing is the Latino population is seeing that we care and we’re not just proselytizing,” said Abrams.

The members of Resurrection have embraced the food bank and the addition of Spanish services.

“God surprised me,” said Abrams. “This was not the focus I had or even planned for Resurrection. I always saw myself as a teacher, preacher, and pastoral care person. I never envisioned myself as the pastor who would oversee something like this.”

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Students James Dunham, left, and Scott Benolkin with Professor Mark Allan Powell in Cuernavaca, Mexico during the January Term.

“I am so thankful and proud of this congregation of suburbanites who have embraced this ministry. The congregation has seen this as a way of deepening their faith,” he added.

He also sees this new ministry as a way to partner with the seminary.

“We’re excited about the possibility of working with the seminary and having more students come to Resurrection,” he said.

The 2010 census indicates that one out of six people in the United States identify themselves as Hispanic; in the population under 18, it is one out of four. An increasing number of these Hispanics know English, but Spanish remains a significant part of their culture and is particularly meaningful in aspects of culture involving tradition or ritual.

That realization spurred Dr. Powell to develop a proposal for a seminary curriculum that includes Spanish for Ministry. This spring, he invited the Trinity faculty to consider adding Spanish as a core requirement to the new curriculum. The curriculum, if adopted, could offer three levels of Spanish to accommodate students with a range of Spanish-language experience.

The proposal states: “The essential goal for non-Hispanic seminarians is not to obtain fluency in the Spanish language. The necessary and realistic goal is for non-Hispanic church leaders to have sufficient facility with the language so that 1) they can interact meaningfully with Latinos who might be involved in a Hispanic-led mission sponsored by the congregation, and 2) they can minister effectively to church members for whom Spanish remains part of their cultural identity.”

In addition to the language component, students would be exposed to the music, culture, and history of the Latino community, including religious holidays like Day of the Dead (October 31) and Festival of the Kings (January 6).

“A light bulb moment for me was when I realized the tremendous potential for those even at the intermediate level. People can learn enough to minister without being fluent in Spanish; we can turn out students able to do the liturgy,” said Dr. Powell, who also envisions involvement in the course by faculty and staff. This year’s class included Laura Book, assistant director for vocational discernment and Summer Seminary Sampler.

“I definitely want to see Spanish for ministry as a fixture in the curriculum,” said Dr. Binau, academic dean and professor of pastoral theology.

“This comes as a missional imperative in its own right…We’re not looking for fluency, but we want people to be able to lead a liturgy, read a prayer, or talk to someone in the food pantry. That is the vision that Mark Powell has helped us to see; Anglos who can connect, provide leadership, and orchestrate a meeting.”

Before coming to Trinity, Scott Benolkin, a middler in the M.Div. program, attended a church in Washington, D.C, with a Latino ministry called Comunidad de Sante Maria. They held a Hispanic worship service every Sunday at 5 p.m.

Benolkin had some Spanish in high school, but told his wife last summer that he would like to further his exposure to the language and culture. He didn’t hesitate to join his peers in the Speak Our Language course.

“I just had a sense that it would be kind of silly not to try to have some level of facility of the language spoken in the households of 40 million Americans. If we are including all people in our context, it seemed like something I would want to do,” he said.

Stephen Zeller, who will graduate this spring, also worked the class into his schedule after serving his internship year in Texas. He had some knowledge of the language and had hoped to hone his skills while on internship. Instead, he landed in a congregation filled with German Lutherans. Like Ulmanis, Zeller wondered how to bridge an English-speaking congregation with its Hispanic neighbors.

“I have seen the need for conversational Spanish in the congregation. I thought I might get that in Texas, but I didn’t,” said Zeller, who was pleased to see the addition of Spanish at Trinity this year.

“A lot of us are not even taking the class for credit,” he added.

Dunham sees his future as a leader in a bilingual congregation where English and Spanish are spoken, and Abrams hopes to eventually add a weekly Spanish liturgy at Resurrection. Students studying the language and culture this year at Trinity know by looking at U.S. census numbers that their ministries likely will need to include an awareness for and understanding of their Hispanic neighbors.

“I thought I would be the only one studying with Dr. Powell. I was surprised to find so many other students who were interested,” said Ulmanis.

“The Lutheran liturgy has great appeal to the Hispanic community…it is a good match, and Lutherans should be aware of that,” said Powell, who after five years reads Spanish “well” and continues to challenge his mind and abilities with Spanish-language books, comics, and magazines. When he isn’t using his Greek Bible in the classroom he opts for the Spanish version.

Said Dr. Binau, “Classical theological education has long valued language study, because it allows you to read the text. If you look at lives as living, human documents, why would you want to try and understand that life in translation if you can get at the primary language?”

“This is not about getting more Hispanic students; this is about how you can be a missional church that serves God’s world,” he added. “This is about pastoral stuff, relationship, and hospitality as a primary Christian virtue.”

Dad gracias de corazón    
Give thanks with a grateful heart