How an African-American church is reaching their Hispanic neighbors
By Megan Sweas
At the end of a Black History Month-themed service at St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church, pastor Anthony Dockery rose to tell his congregation about his recent mission trip to El Salvador. The mission team had served in the hometown of Jose Rivas, one of the pastors at St. Stephen.
Beyond “good morning” and “God bless you,” Dockery had to rely on Rivas for translation, he explained to the congregation.
The African-American congregation enthusiastically applauded the news that 500 people came to the party hosted by the church in El Salvador.
Nationally, denominations and church networks are looking to bridge the gap between white and African-American churches. But in La Puente, California, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles, St. Stephen finds itself working across African-American and Hispanic communities.
A 4,000-member church with a 51-year history, St. Stephen has seen La Puente change drastically over the past few decades. Years ago, the neighborhood surrounding St. Stephen was primarily African-Americans. Latino residents now account for 85 percent of the city’s population, and less than 2 percent of residents are African-American, according to the U.S. Census.
Longtime church members have moved further into the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, Dockery says, yet many remain loyal to St. Stephen and commute back on Sunday mornings.
Still, it’s not certain that younger generations will continue the practice, Dockery says. “It’s important for the church to be relevant to its community as well.”
Seeking to reach its transitioning neighborhood, St. Stephen hired Rivas to become its Spanish-language minister.
Rivas, a native of El Salvador, came to La Puente to establish a new church, and St. Stephen volunteered its space to his congregation. In December 2013, however, the Spanish-language ministry decided to merge with St. Stephen’s existing community rather than start from scratch.
“Their way of doing ministry aligned with what we wanted to do with our Spanish church,” Rivas explains. “St. Stephen has a tremendous program in leadership and Christian education.”
About 100 people now attend a Spanish-language service, held while the predominantly African-American English speakers are in Sunday school classes.
The Spanish speakers have their own adult Sunday school, using the Spanish edition of Bible Studies for Life curriculum. Children and English-speaking young people are incorporated into the English Sunday school.
While services remain segregated due to language, other activities, such as the church picnic and basketball league, are for everybody, Rivas says.
One of his challenges is making sure the wider community knows the historically African-American church has a Spanish-speaking ministry.
The church reaches out to the local community through a food bank and a block party where people can access donated clothing and basic medical services. Since the Spanish ministry began, more Hispanics have started attending the event. “That has been a blessing to the church,” Rivas says.
St. Stephen’s approach to reaching its community is similar to how Rivas started an outreach in his hometown in El Salvador. He and his sister brought cake on a visit seven years ago and invited neighbors to come to a “birthday party.” Sixty kids showed up.
The next year, they repeated the party and spread the invitation further. More than 300 kids showed up. At that point, they started to organize Bible study classes and establish a church.
This year, Dockery and two African-American women from St. Stephen accompanied Rivas’ mission team. The congregation at St. Stephen donated 243 backpacks to the town’s children.
Whether in El Salvador or their own backyard, missionary work “has united us more in serving God,” Rivas says. “We believe church is to serve the families, obviously starting at home in our Jerusalem, which is here in La Puente.
“Whenever you bring races together like this, it’s God’s power,” Dockery said. “Love indeed conquers all.”
MEGAN SWEAS is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, California.
This article appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. You can read the entire issue online. Also, make sure you subscribe to our print edition to receive the Spring 2016 issue delivered to your home or church for free.