Thursday, March 9, 2006

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Sunday night church service in Spanish

I confess I am the one person out of a thousand that likes Sunday night church. I grew up in a congregation that had evening services and have always missed them. I also know that most people do not share my affection in this regard, so I have never suggested the idea for my Holly Springs congregation.

Given this predisposition, I was delighted to accept an invitation to visit the Hispanic service that is held each Sunday evening at St. Peter’s Church in Oxford. The Rev. Bruce McMillan of Christ Church in Holly Springs conducts the service, and David Person and I rode along with Bruce for the occasion.

I confess a little anxiety about it. Everybody feels a little awkward going to a church where one is not familiar — especially in Oxford, where this preacher from Holly Springs cannot help but feel like a country mouse. We got there quite early and as Bruce made arrangements for the service, I suddenly felt limited in a way I usually do not. Whereas I would normally be inclined to pitch in and offer help, I suddenly realized that here there would be little I could do: I do not speak a word of Spanish!

For his part, neither did Bruce. He took Spanish courses at the university and has studied hard to learn how to read the service and prepare homilies, and more importantly, to converse before and after the services, as well as pastoral care when needed throughout the week. Could you do your job in another language?

These thoughts crossed my mind along with my sentimental affection for memories of night church services in the Mississippi Delta. Certainly this was like no other evening service I had ever attended. It is humbling for any minister not to be “in charge,” or at least able to take a verbal part. Here, like the poet, I had to accept that “they also serve who stand and wait.” Perhaps this is what the Mexican congregation might feel when they attend one of “our” services.

Of course, the structure of the service was exactly the same as it is in my own church. As the hour progressed, I could sense what would follow upon each reading, song, and ritual act. David Person is good with Spanish and read one of the lessons. I could pick out enough words that are the same in Spanish and English to know what the lessons were about, as well as the general thrust of Bruce’s sermon. (It was shorter than he usually preaches in English!)

The hymns were different. There are so many songs in the worldwide Christian tradition. Even though many church members do not, I suppose the Lord enjoys the variety. I instantly recognized the creed and the Lord’s Prayer by the rhythm of the words.

And here, the service of the Holy Communion had greater and more direct meaning because on this occasion it was “take, eat, this do.” The symbolism was the service for me on this occasion, and it was profound.

Then I began thinking how much the congregation must have appreciated hearing their own language in a public setting. That must give them a certain sense of respect and dignity in a country where it does not always go well for its newest inhabitants.

I take English so much for granted — I assume sometimes that everybody in the world must know English. After the service I realized that most of the people there spoke English fairly well, but still, it is nice — maybe also a relief — not to have to translate everything in your mind. Bringing the church service to people on terms they can appreciate is just one way of enacting the truth of Christ’s incarnation — God coming to meet people at the place of their own personal need.

After the service there was a supper. It was ‘Presbyterian night,’ as First Presbyterian Church in Oxford was in charge of supper that evening. I learned that different Oxford congregations take turns in this aspect of the ministry. Also, various people in Oxford — Anglos, if you will — attend the service to share their friendship and knowledge of both languages.

Table fellowship is a vital part of this ministry. Bruce helped one of the children with a paper he was writing for school. Sometimes other people have problems that the other church members can help with. Fellowship is important in church life — particularly when you are new in a community.

Bruce says that sometimes when he is fishing for a word during the service, the children in the congregation will supply the phrase he needs.

It is a reminder that if we simply make ourselves available for outreach and ministry, the Lord provides the rest.

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