Bilingual church proves test of time

Friday, May 4, 2007
The United States flag leads the line of those on the sign of Pirmera Iglesia Buatista Latino Americana in Green Forest, and unscroes the fact that church members are legally in this country, if not citizens. E. Alan Long / Carroll County News

GREEN FOREST -- "Time has spoken," said Rev. Nestor Rivera as First Latin?American Baptist Church/Primera Iglesia Bautista Latino Americana prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary this Sunday.

That statement echoes an earlier one in late 2004 when, speaking of the church's disassociation as a mission from First Baptist Church of Blue Eye, Mo., Rivera said "I will not dwell on the incident. We brush ourselves off and go on. Time will tell what is genuine."

And brushing off and not dwelling seems to be a theme in an April 27 ad by the church which stated, in part, "To those who feel we have offended them in the past we ask you to forgive us. To those whom have offended us and hurt us WE?FORGIVE?YOU."

Between the lines is a lesson in cultural and sociological differences for both Hispanics and Anglos, and of spiritual maturity.

Iglesia Bautista Latino started meeting as a Hispanic Mission in May 1997, and has developed into a bilingual church that is about 35 percent English speakers and 75 percent Hispanic.

In 2001, the church became a mission of the Blue Eye Church for about three and one-half years before the two bodies separated in June 2004.

At the time, both Rivera and Blue Eye Pastor Freddy Blevins were very careful in discussing the reasons for the split, out of concern about how publicity would affect their churches' work and congregations.

Bautista Latino is a Southern Baptist Convention church, considered to be a very conservative Christian denomination. Sometimes, it seems, the conservativeness of individual congregations comes off as resistant to any changes in a traditional way of worship.

For example, for years the Southern Baptist Convention has had a reputation of being strongly opposed to dancing, but in the 1970s there were several Southern Baptist churches which incorporated dance in their worship, particularly in more metropolitan areas. That development caused SBC members in more conservative areas to scratch their heads in puzzlement.

Apparently, the conflict that existed between the Blue Eye and Hispanic Baptist congregations was comparable.

Services at Bautista Latino did not utilize a piano -- something that may seem anathema to Americans. Instead, guitars and drums were utilized,

To an?Anglo, four girls dressed in traditional choir robes singing "In the Garden" in English and Spanish with a Latin beat might be unsettling. But the bottom line is that difference is merely cosmetic, reflecting cultural differences more that theological differences.

Another example: Hispanics often wonder why white American homeowners spend so much time and effort on a yard, fertilizing and watering the grass only to cut it. To them, it makes more sense to park a few cars in the yard and eliminate the grass.

Rivera encourages them to observe the position of the Anglos, telling them "When you sell, you will loose value. Why not adapt, make it pretty and keep up the value? It's worth the price to be gained when you meet halfway."

Adjusting to Anglo culture has been aided by Rivera's upbringing in Spanish Harlem in New York City. There he learned skills which have helped him in Green Forest, such as how to mind his own business.

Communication and education is an important matter which Rivera often works into his sermons.

He tells them, he says, "God bless America. If you are blessed to be here, take advantage of it. You don't have to be a common laborer. God provides the opportunity to take advantage of."

The message is taking root, too. With an average of 60 people attending, the church has nine in college, a phenomenal ratio. The largest age group is between 15 and 26 years old, and the oldest member is a mere 52. Rivera is the third oldest at 44, and from there the age drops to about 37.

Such demographics make for a very young church body. With members furthering their education, he predicts a "professional" church body, one with many in good paying occupations, in another 10 years.

In many ways, the area's Hispanic community is a stranger in a strange land, which begs how "strangers" carry out the evangelical emphasis of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"We reach out unconditionally," Rivera said. He describes an incident with a woman from Guatemala he met at a church yard sale to raise funds for missions. She was having difficulty in buying things, and the church gave her a free lunch, created a "care package" of personal items, and invited her to church.

Such is the simplicity of Christianity.

Simplicity is also found in the worship service. Rivera recalls a program at a church in Clinton where the service was broken down with one minute for a prayer, five minutes for announcements, 15 minutes for worship, and so on. "It was very scheduled, but there was no time for God -- extreme," he said.

The other end of the extreme is a four-hour Hispanic service with 15 minutes for preaching.

"We start by?American time, and finish by Hispanic time,

?Rivera said, "the strength of the Anglo punctuality and organization and the improvisation of the Hispanic. We don't look at our watches."

Flexibility could be seen in the Easter program at Bautista Latino this year when the first person on the program did not arrive in time. The program was simply shuffled, and the late-comer was worked in later in the program.

The Anglo desire for perfection is thus counter to the Hispanic tendency to improvise, or, as Rivera says, "let's fake it."

"Christ is the foundation to developing a church, the doctrine," he said. "We build on that foundation with prayer, worship, and God speaking through the Word -- take time to maximize that experience.

The church mindset of some Anglos can be amusing. He recalls a recent concert by a Black gospel group in which all but 10 present, including the group, were white. Folks were jumping and dancing, he said, and he laughed at the irony that such liberty would not be seen by the Anglos if they were in church, but instead they would sonorously sing a hymn. "If you can scream at a football game, why can't you at church?" he asked.

Short answer: Passion. "So what?" Rivera said. "You came to worship God, not impress your neighbor."

The church is to some like a lifestyle. On Sundays some never leave the building, from 10 to 20 people, with children playing, and choir practice. At around 4:30 or 5 p.m coffee comes out prior to the evening service.

Along with a regular Wednesday evening service, an "unofficial" Thursday praise service takes place from 6:30 to around 8 p.m.

If you want to label First Latin?American as charismatic, it is fine with Rivera. He doesn't try to put "God in a box," and "the ugly stuff is not important."

The 10th anniversary celebration will start at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 6 -- American time. Gary Fulton, church planter with the Arkansas Baptist Convention, and a representative from the Northwest Arkansas Association will be on hand, along with plenty of special music.

"It will end when it ends," Rivera said, probably around 2 p.m. or so, with a meal following. Of course, everyone is welcome to attend.

"Time has spoken," indeed.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: