By Harry Rowland
I’m on a plane to Mission, Texas, for a long anticipated Latino Church Starter Retreat.
Mission is a border city about a 1,000 miles from home in Decatur, Ga. — not that I have recently spent much time at home. A trip to Louisville, Ky. was followed by a maddening delay-filled evening of navigating airports to return home through Hurricane Irma remnants. After two days and nights of power outages and fallen limbs, I am on the plane for this 1,000 mile trip.
Though tired, I am looking forward to the retreat. It has been two years in the making.
As CBF seeks to expand and diversify the Congregations and Leadership Team, which I coordinate, we have diligently worked on an initiative to train several dozen Hispanic church starters. Under the guidance of Andy Hale, CBF Church Starts Specialist and CBF Texas Mission Coordinator, Jorge Zapata, twenty-four passionate Hispanic new church start pastors have been identified and led through a four-month cohort of learning. This retreat is the second phase.
I have spent many hours visiting the area and working with CBF partner school Baptist University of the Americas (BUA) to develop a pilot curriculum for training valley Hispanic pastors that will not only equip them for church planting, but also provide them credit hours toward a BUA certificate degree. Why? I believe that pastors matter — for I am one. One way CBF can journey with these God-called pastors is by assisting them in getting the education they so desire but have not had either the opportunity or means to gain.
Atlanta to Dallas to McAllen and finally on to Mission — I arrive at a retreat center in the midst of an Orange Grove. As I switch on the AC to my dorm room (have I mentioned that it is 102 degrees?), I listen to Jorge tell us that a number of the pastors who have studied for four months, saved to pay a registration fee and committed to come are not going to be able to make it. Hurricane Harvey caused many of their employers to cancel their scheduled time away. Others own their own small construction businesses and they need to accept the unanticipated jobs coming their way. Several have agreed to assist CBF Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief efforts in coordinating teams coming to the rural areas to assist Hispanic churches and families rebuild.
All this is understandable and laudable work, but I have planned for two years and traveled 1,000 miles.
The opening evening of the retreat, Sandra Cisneros, our BUA instructor, Rubén Ortiz, Field Coordinator of the CBF Latino Network, Andy Hale, Jorge Zapata, and I sit in a room set up with twenty-four spiral notebooks of curriculum arranged on circular tables awaiting the new church start pastors. There is candy in the center of each table and a snack and resource table at the entrance to the room. The first hour ticks off into the second hour and three pastors arrive. Tired, late, but present.
The 1,000 mile team huddles. How might we proceed? Wait? Begin? Reschedule?
We pray, rearrange the room into a single table, and begin. One of the three pastors, Ivan, brought his guitar. So we sing — a choir of eight. Jorge welcomes all — our single table — to this long-anticipated training. Rubén prays. Then Sandra stands to begin the BUA instruction.
Since all is conducted in Spanish, I have the opportunity to watch body language and catch the spirit of what is taking place without having to worry about content. The night goes well and the next day holds the promise of more scheduled participants attending.
Morning comes. In a dining hall capable of feeding 100, eight walk through the serving line. We lengthen the morning conversation around the breakfast table in hopes that the evening promise of additional participants materialize. It does not. So for a full day, we teach and fellowship around our single table.
After supper, we gather for what we now have decided to be the conclusion of the retreat — worship and communion. We will end a half-day early. The three available church starters can go on to their other responsibilities and the 1,000 mile team will use Saturday morning to regroup, evaluate, and plan the next steps.
Communion is a loaf of French bread and Welch’s grape juice from the local H.E.B. and the chalice is a speckled coffee cup from my dorm room. Ivan plays his guitar and we sing a wonderful Spanish song. The loaf is broken and passed around. Andy holds the coffee cup chalice and walks to each of us. We dip our bread into the purple liquid and we eat.
This is to conclude our time together. We begin to say goodbye and share that we will be in touch about the next steps in their journey toward church starting and education, but this is not what happens. Ivan asks if he might say something. He speaks with tears in his eyes and Rubén softly interprets for Andy and me what Ivan is sharing through his cracking voice.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I know that there were to be many more of us. I have been worried all day that you will cancel and leave. I thank you for not cancelling and for the training you have given me these two days. God called me to be a pastor ten years ago. I started helping in several churches but never knew how to be a pastor. Then three years ago, I started a small church but I haven’t known what to do. In the ten years since God called me, this is the first break I have had. This is the first spiritual retreat I have ever been a part of. This is the first spiritual instruction I have ever received. The spiritual formation practices and teachings have already changed my life, and I feel like for the first time I have something to offer others as a pastor. You and this training are the answer to my saying ‘yes’ to God’s call ten years ago. Please come back, for I cannot come to you. Thank you!”
Ivan stands looking around the small circle with his lower jaw shaking. As we muse over what Ivan has said but before anyone can respond, Jose’s voice softly speaks into the gathered circle: “I too thank you. This has meant more to me than I can say. Though we are ending early, will we still get a course credit for the certificate? I want to be a good pastor. This will help me. As Ivan has asked, will you come back? We can’t come to you.”
The 1,000 mile team all nods that we will. Jorge, Rubén and Sandra assure them that the cohort will continue — that we will work toward ways for those not able to be present to catch up — that we will adjust the upcoming training retreats to hopefully better reflect their availability. With hopeful, grateful tears in their eyes they smile and departing hugs are shared.
As I finish this blog and touch down in Atlanta, my mind shifts to February 2018, when once again I will board a plane for a 1,000 mile journey to Mission, Texas.
I am grateful for CBF’s commitment to go to places where others won’t go, to go to those who can’t come to “us,” and to help Hispanic pastors’ dreams of an education and training come true. I have a feeling we’ll have the full twenty-four present in February. Ivan and Jose will help with that. But it will not be the “job,” the larger cohort, and certainly not the 102 degree heat that will encourage me to make the 1,000 mile trip once again. The trembling-jawed “thank you’s” following communion around a Welch’s grape juice-filled speckled coffee cup is the only motivation I need — and this time it will be my turn to tearfully say to them, “muchas gracias.”
Harry Rowland serves as the Associate Coordinator of Congregations and Leadership for CBF.