By Emily Holladay
Imagine moving to a new town because you are trying to flee extreme poverty in your home country in hopes of providing for your family. You travel far from home because you’ve heard of a town with a booming economy where jobs are plentiful.
But when you arrive in the town, you are met with barriers that prevent you from building a life. Fortunately, you are able to find work, but no one speaks your language and you are unable to find affordable housing, medical care or even readily acquire food that you know how to cook.
For many Latinos in Fredericksburg, Va., that story is all too familiar. In addition to these struggles, many Latinos in Fredericksburg find themselves unemployed and fear deportation. Walking into a new town and a new culture full of hope for a better life, they are faced with confusion, skepticism and eventually, desperation.
In the 1990s, Fredericksburg, a small town located between Richmond and Washington, D.C., experienced a significant influx of Latino residents due to a surge of construction and service-oriented jobs. Today, Latinos make up nearly 10 percent of the city’s population, but the same jobs are no longer available due an economic downturn.
When Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Greg and Sue Smith moved back to Fredericksburg in 1999 after more than a decade of mission work in Costa Rica, their hearts broke for the challenges facing the growing Latino community. Knowing that the magnitude of these challenges far outweighed the church and community’s capacity to respond adequately, the Smiths created a cross-cultural ministry to serve their new Latino neighbors.
In 2003, the Smiths partnered with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia to become the first CBF field personnel appointed in the Old Dominion. The couple then formed LUCHA Ministries, which they co-founded with two United Methodist colleagues, Victor and Heather Gómez.
“LUCHA is actually the Spanish word for struggle,” Greg Smith explained. “It is also an acronym, meaning ‘Latinos unidos por Cristo en hermandad y apoyo,’ or in English, ‘Latinos united through Christ in solidarity and support.’”
“The aim of LUCHA Ministries is to provide a holistic Christian response to the needs of the Latino population in Fredericksburg,” Greg said. The Smiths assist in numerous ways, including providing Latino families with access to food, medical care and interpreting for clients who do not feel comfortable speaking in English.
“Most of our clients find themselves in a time of crisis where they have lost their jobs or are suffering from an illness that has caused them to be out of work for a period of time, so there’s much economic need,” Sue Smith said. “We provide food for people when they are suffering or going through a rough time. We take them to the doctor, the dentist or help them find affordable healthcare. We go with people to interpret a lot of times, because they don’t feel comfortable interacting in English. They don’t really know what kind of questions to ask or where to find help when they need it.”
The Smiths encounter families every day who are desperately trying to navigate through their new culture. Most do not qualify for government resources for the unemployed or for other forms of assistance. Limited proficiency in English makes it difficult for them to seek help in the community. Many fear that they will face discrimination or even be reported to immigration officials and deported if they seek help.
“LUCHA in Spanish means ‘struggle’ or ‘fight,’ and unfortunately that is what a lot of our Latinos have to do,” shared Dan Trementozzi, a local pediatrician and LUCHA partner. “They have to fight for their rights. They have to fight for opportunity, and a lot of them are too scared to do that and don’t know how to get from A to B to C. That’s what LUCHA has done.”
When these families do find shelters or food donation centers that are willing to serve them, the food offered is not the most appropriate for their dietary needs. Not only is the food often inadequate in terms of nutrition, but it is also unfamiliar to them and thus many of the families do not know how to cook the food.
Providing food that can meet the needs of Latino families is a vital service that LUCHA ministries offers to the Latino community. Greg and Sue are passionate that the ability to #EndHunger stems from intentionally upholding the dignity of each individual experiencing life-altering hunger.
“Food ministry is not only about filling empty stomachs,” Greg emphasized. “Our food relief and hunger relief ministry is about upholding the dignity of the individual and the family. If we provide them with food that they don’t know how to prepare, or that they are not comfortable eating, that might fill their stomachs but that also makes them dependent upon us.
“It seems to be more Christ-like to give them what they are used to, what they can prepare, what they enjoy, and therefore uphold the personal dignity of each individual and family.”
“It’s very hard for a mom to be able to provide a meal for her family if she doesn’t know how to cook the food that she’s been given, or if she doesn’t believe it’s healthy for her children,” Sue added.
In the Latino community, a lack of access to food results in much more than hunger pangs. For Latinos, fellowship and community is often built around food and the ability to share meals together. Taking away that ability not only removes a physical necessity, but it also eliminates an avenue to connect relationally and spiritually to their neighbors.
“The meal is not just about eating,” Greg said. “Food is the prop for the fellowship that you share with each other. It’s not just something that you do over a 30-minute or 45-minute period. With the Latino people, sharing a meal is an event; it’s an event where you stay long enough to participate in each other’s lives.”
The food pantry that LUCHA facilitates meets people where they are. Because of their deep passion for preserving human dignity and providing holistic ministry, the Smiths know that the food they offer and the ways they minister meet an entire community’s emotional, physical and spiritual needs.
“Jesus was focused on relationships and for me that is what’s most important — how we treat others and how we minister and go about our lives,” Sue said. “I’ve been able to be the presence of Christ in our community as I work alongside people and listen, receiving their stories without judging.
And through those stories, I’m learning more about them and how to meet their needs and how to respond in a Christ-like way to what they’re experiencing.”
The Smiths are working to #EndHunger in Fredericksburg, Va., one family at a time. And through their ministry, they introduce a community of suffering people to a loving savior who meets needs and restores hope.
“It’s very hard for us as field personnel to be able to think about the ministry that we do and the work that we’re doing every day and also try to keep the financial resources that we need to stay on the field,” Sue Smith shared. “I think it’s really important for people to remember that field personnel can’t do their work without a consistent source of support and a foundation for being able to do what we do. Giving to the CBF Offering for Global Missions is really important so that we can focus on actually meeting needs and doing our work.”
The CBF Offering for Global Missions is the foundational means of support for the CBF missions enterprise and provides access to a wide array of tools and resources to serve people and equip churches. CBF is committed to working with field personnel to help #EndHunger both in the United States and abroad. Your gifts make this vital work possible.
“Our calling is to respond holistically to their needs,” Greg noted. “LUCHA Ministries cannot do everything. We are a small organization with a small budget. We cannot do everything, but that doesn’t mean that when someone presents themselves in front of us we say, ‘Oh, we don’t have budget for hunger, so we can’t do that.’
“The CBF Offering for Global Missions is extremely important to the work that we do among the Latino community because it provides us with the resources and support we need to reach out and be the presence of Christ among the Latino community. Without the Offering for Global Missions, we would not be able to do the work that we do, so we’re grateful to all CBF churches and individuals that give because it helps support our ministry in Fredericksburg.”
Emily Holladay is Associate Pastor of Children and Families at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.