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Outreach to Hispanics broadens involvement of church’s members

AVON PARK, Fla. (BP)–Irma Rojas, from Mexico City, wants to become a U.S. citizen. But first, she must practice her English and take citizenship classes.

Magali Garcia, from Cuba, wants to learn better English so she can help her children — Christopher, 12, and Elaine, 15 — with their homework and talk with their teachers. Her dream is to someday open a day-care center in her home.

Ana Delia Peralta, from Puerto Rico, hopes to work in an office, so she’s taking computer classes and learning English.

All three women hope for a better life in the United States. That’s why they came here. Thanks to Sonshine Ministry, a Hispanic outreach of First Baptist Church, Avon Park, Fla., these women — and their husbands — are closer to realizing their dreams.

Two yellow houses on the campus of First Baptist serve as hubs for Sonshine Ministry, which offers classes in computers, English, citizenship and even quilting. Here the students learn, socialize, have their devotions and encourage one another. Childcare and transportation are provided.

The students, about 40 total, come from Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico and Honduras. Their backgrounds are varied. Most of the men are migrant workers. Two of the women are missionaries, one is a seamstress and the others are homemakers. Some have been to college. Others are working on their GEDs.

The volunteer teachers who work in Sonshine Ministry find their work rewarding and their students receptive.

“In a non-threatening situation they learn very fast,” said Sonshine Ministry director Carol Hall.

“I love ’em,” declared English instructor Helen Owens. “You can’t help but get involved because they are so appreciative and they love you like a family.

“You can’t just teach a class. You get involved,” Owens said, noting that one motivated student had come to her house to learn fractions.

So far, two of the students have earned their citizenship and three more are working on it. Some of the students have gone on to the local community college and earned associate of arts degrees in childcare. One went on to higher learning to become a teacher for Spanish-speaking children.

More significantly, the church’s ministry to Spanish-speaking people has led to a number of professions of faith, noted First Baptist’s pastor, Vernon Harkey.

At the first “fiesta” block party, 19 professions of faith were made. During a similar event the following year, 40 people accepted Christ.

The fiestas provide a point from which the church can minister to people through donations of clothing and food and medical screenings.

The Avon Park church established a Spanish-language weekly Bible study and has offered Backyard Bible Club. More Hispanics are attending services, particularly children’s church. But committing to membership in a Baptist church comes hard because many come from Catholic backgrounds.

But volunteers in the ministry understand that it has a greater purpose than just boosting church membership.

“We don’t care whether they come to our church, just so they have God in their lives,” said instructor Betty Heckard.

The wide range of ministries to Hispanics is an outgrowth of the church’s efforts to meet other needs in the community. Avon Park was one of the first churches in Florida to begin Christian Women’s Job Corps, a Woman’s Missionary Union-sponsored ministry in which women mentor unemployed or underemployed women and help them acquire job skills. The program at Avon Park originally was geared to English-speaking women. In the process of developing the ministry, church members quickly became aware of the need for ministry to Spanish-speaking women. That led to the birth of English-language classes two years ago, which blossomed into Sonshine Ministries.

Meanwhile, the Avon Park CWJC program is undergoing some retooling and redirection, said director Amy Guerndt. Harkey said he foresees the two ministries eventually combining.

Harkey said Sonshine Ministry “not only has helped the community, but it has helped our people to become involved in missions. The wonderful thing is that this has set on fire … [people] who had previously become pretty complacent.

“I think one of the most wonderful things is seeing my people develop their gifts and seeing them get involved,” the pastor said. “It has become their ministry. God has given it to them. They’ve been able to wrap their arms around it and claim it.”

Nearly 100 people in the church are involved in various aspects of Sonshine Ministry, ranging from childcare to transportation or teaching or clowning.

“Really, we get the blessing,” said volunteer instructor Betty Heckard. “You come in and think, ‘I don’t feel good’ or ‘I don’t feel like coming in,’ but you get a hug and a smile and that changes everything.

“They are such beautiful, loving people,” she added. “These people are so anxious to learn English. They want to be productive. It allows us to minister to their physical, spiritual and emotional needs. You have to meet their physical needs first to meet their spiritual needs.”

Owens recalled, “One of my students asked, ‘Who pays you?’ and a little later, ‘Who pays you?’ I said, ‘We are volunteers,’ and one of our students said, ‘She is a volunteer for God.'”

On one occasion, the students took a field trip to Bok Tower Gardens near Lake Wales. Lilia, one of the students, said, “This makes my heart happy.”

“And it makes our hearts happy to minister to them,” Heckard added.

For student Graciela Rivera, happiness comes in reaching toward a goal. “I need to practice on the computer and learn English. This is my goal,” she said. “The women [teachers] are very kind. They give me confidence. I’m making progress. I believe in this church.”

Sonshine Ministries also has strengthened her faith. “God has provided for my family,” she said.

Her sentiments were echoed by Magali Garcia, the woman who wants to open a day care in her home: “I want to learn everything, because this is important for the future. Maybe Sonshine school [will] help me much.”

And by Ana Delia Peralta, the woman who wants to work in an office: “The life here is better. There’s more peace. I like it here. I speak better English. I see the way the teachers treat us and pray and everything — how they help us.”

Irma Rojas, who hopes to become a citizen, noted her husband lacks only the writing portion of the test before he passes it.

“When I came here I didn’t know English,” she said. “It’s difficult for me. It’s step by step. Maybe [there is] a better future here.”

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  • Kathy Grant