Sunday, August 27, 2000

Bilingual services welcome Hispanic workers

        WARSAW, Ky. — A strange sound wafted from First Christian Church the other day. It resembled singing, only without the melody part.

[photo] The Rev. Dr. Jan Van der Poll (left), pastor of First Christian Church in Warsaw, leads a church service. Nieves Fuentes interprets for Spanish-speaking worshipers.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        Oh well. The good folks at First Christian wanted their Mexican friends to feel welcome. So what if the Americans couldn't carry a tune in Spanish?

        Afterward, one church member was cheerfully blunt. “We really should shut up and let them sing,” said Linda Van der Poll, laughing. “Or perhaps we should just have a musical interlude.”

        It's all part of the learning process for First Christian, a tiny church in Warsaw that began opening its doors to Mexican migrants this summer.

        First offering space for English classes, then providing a bilingual service once a month, the church has welcomed the Hispanics even though hardly anyone knows their language.

        “They say, "I speak no English,' and I say, "That's OK, I can speak enough for both of us,'” says Mary Evelyn Beverly, the chatty matriarch of the church's fellowship committee.

        In part, First Christian's efforts reflect the growing importance of Mexicans in tobacco country. With the economy booming, American workers are shunning tobacco for less-taxing jobs, and migrants have become the backbone of Kentucky's burley industry.

        Farmers “are really grateful to have them be cause they're the only ones who want to work,” says Maybelle Hall, a member of First Christian.

        The church's outreach began this summer when Terry Warnick, a federal migrant liaison, inquired about holding English classes there. The classes are a standard offering in communities with migrant workers, whose children are a special concern of federal officials. Ms. Warnick monitors their progress in school and sets up evening English classes for young adults working in the area.

        Most church members were enthusiastic about providing space for the classes, but a few had vague concerns about the safety of the building, says the Rev. Jan Van der Poll.

        “They didn't know these people. They knew them as workers, and that's it. They didn't know them as human beings,” he says.

        Soon enough, however, any hesitant parishioners had come around, especially when they observed the migrants' eagerness for worship, he says. At the first bilingual service in July, three young men literally ran down the aisle to take communion.

        “Well, I thought I was going to cry,” says Mrs. Beverly. “I've never seen anyone want communion more than that. And you know, men aren't usually like that.”

        The Mexicans are Catholic, a faith that puts more emphasis on receiving communion than Protestant churches like First Christian. But the differences seemed unimportant to the 10 migrants who attended last Sunday's special service.

        Any kind of church helps keep them close to their traditions and to one another, said Concepcion Valadez Lopez, 22, and her husband, Veronico Avila Hoz, 25. It also eases their sense of isolation in a community of English speakers, the couple said.

        Penny Smith, the church's treasurer, also has enjoyed the new camaraderie.

        A therapist for clients referred by the courts, Mrs. Smith sometimes works late in her office near the courthouse. Leaving at 9 or 10 p.m., she occasionally felt a touch of apprehension when she saw unfamiliar men at the pay phone on the corner.

        Now she and the men exchange waves and smiles. And when her husband needed a new dairyman last week, Mrs. Smith went to the church during one of the English classes to see whether any Mexicans would be available.

        Underlying the new friendships is a sense of unity in worship. Mrs. Smith won't soon forget the spirit of that first bilingual service.

        “The presence of God that you felt in that sanctuary that night blew everyone away,” she says.

       Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or


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