Finding 'refuge'

Feb. 19, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

Armed with a new $150,000 grant, a bilingual pastoral staff and prior experience working with local Hispanic churchgoers, Jonesboro United Methodist Church is starting a new outreach program called El Refugio, or The Refuge.

The Rev. Hunter Preston, the church’s pastor, said that because Jonesboro is such a diverse area, the idea of reaching out to local Latinos “has just been perpetually presenting itself” and is “something we can’t ignore.”

So the church applied to the Duke Endowment for a grant, announcing Sunday that it had been chosen. The grant will pay the church $50,000 per year for the next three years, but Preston said he hopes the program itself will last well beyond that.

He said the church, which absorbed the La Trinidad church about a decade ago, has weekly Spanish-language masses attended by a small but active group of about 15 people who have many contacts within the local Hispanic community on which the church is hoping to call.

Jonesboro UMC also has two pastors from Mexico, married couple Jorge Ochoa and Erika Martinez, both of whom are fluent in Spanish and have a firm grasp of English. They’ve been here eight months, and Preston said that with their help, the church wants to continue building bridges between the local Hispanic community and the rest of Lee County.

But a stable bridge needs supports and connecting pieces.

In this case, Preston said, those connectors are the funds from the grant, which will pay for salaries for people helping put the program together and making sure they’re not duplicating other local efforts. The grant will also be used for materials, such as food for community gatherings or books for English as a Second Language and Spanish as a Second Language classes.

“We have this idea of holding ESL and SSL classes on the same night, and then having them come together for a shared experience, like a dinner, and let them all practice on each other,” Preston said.

The whole point of the new program, he said, is not just to reach out to local Latinos, but also to increase the interactions among people of all backgrounds and facilitate a cultural exchange among all ethnicities. Martinez and Ochoa agreed.

“El Refugio is not just for the Methodist community,” Martinez said. “It’s for all people. ... We want to dignify the Latin culture. It’s important that Anglo people know [our] cultural heritage. We will have different activities on this cultural topic — about music, about dance, folklore, obviously the food, about the books of Latin America and artistic expressions. We know the U.S. has a very rich culture, but we want you to know the Latin American culture, too.”

Added Ochoa: “Refugio is not only for Hispanic people. It’s multi-cultural. But the reality in Sanford is many people who need help are Hispanic.”

In addition to cultural events and Christian outreach, offerings will include legal aid, immigration assistance and help finding jobs. Ochoa said such things are important because Hispanic people want to be successful in America not only to improve their own lives, but also to improve their new homeland. Yet all too often, he said, there’s nowhere for them to turn for help — no refuge.

Martinez said many of the people who come to the U.S. from their home country of Mexico are very poor. However, she said, they can be productive members of American society with a little help — as well as acceptance from the community at large.

“In searching [for a better life in America], many lost dignity, lost family, lost that expression for spiritual being and have different spiritual needs,” she said.

And while many factors apply to bettering their lives, Martinez said, the most important is language — which will be a key part of El Refugio.

“We need to satisfy other necessities, like legal [aid], work and education,” she said. “[But] first of all, learn English. Maybe in the future, another step. But English is the first step for the migrant people.”

Deb Taylor, a church member who is helping get the program started, invoked the well-known parable that if you give a man to fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. El Refugio, she said, goes even further.

“This is more like, ‘Let’s go fishing together and learn together and form a relationship,” she said.

The grant is only a few days old, and the church is still in the process of setting up the program. Organizers plan to throw a kick-off event on Cinco de Mayo and said that in the meantime, anyone who wants to learn more or volunteer to get involved can visit www.jonesboroumc.org/refugio.