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Laborers find home at UMC Bill Fentum, Nov 13, 2007
Latino immigrant families in Butler, N.J., are welcomed into the congregation at Butler United Methodist Church.
By Bill Fentum Staff Writer
In the late 1990s, the Rev. Steve Bechtold was haunted by the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
He’d begun an appointment at Butler United Methodist Church in Butler, N.J., 20 miles northwest of Newark. His district superintendent had told him to expect an Anglo, middle-income parish.
But that’s not all he found when he got there.
The region is also home to many Latino day laborers—some documented, some not. And Butler UMC’s congregation hadn’t bothered getting to know them.
So Mr. Bechtold learned Spanish and sought advice from Latino clergy in the Greater New Jersey Conference. Then he went door to door, visiting immigrants and hearing their stories.
“Meeting Manuel’s mom, or eating dinner with Paco’s family, I felt my heart being remolded,” he said during a Nov. 3 workshop at the General Board of Church and Society’s Living Faith, Seeking Justice conference in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s then that God gave me a vision of what our ministry needed to be.”
Today, Butler hosts Spanish services every Sunday afternoon and bilingual worship six times a year. Noah’s Ark, an accredited daycare and preschool, is staffed by bilingual teachers. And the church’s thrift store and food pantry keep hours adjusted to the laborers’ schedules.
None of it would have happened, according to Mr. Bechtold, if others at the church hadn’t also caught his vision. For a year, he preached sermons celebrating the diversity of God’s people and hosted related Bible studies, forums and leadership retreats.
Then came the first big step: launching an English as a Second Language class. The ministry grew in two years to include Spanish Bible studies and worship—not off-campus, but in the Butler sanctuary.
“That signified a lot,” Mr. Bechtold said. “It meant the whole church was open to them. After all, we’re welcoming people into God’s home, where we ourselves are invited guests.”
They’ve been careful, he added, not to rush Latinos into United Methodist membership.
“Joining a Protestant church, when you come from a Roman Catholic tradition, doesn’t just mean practicing a different model of Christianity. It takes time for people to understand how they can be Protestants without abandoning their culture. So don’t tell people everything they were raised with was wrong.”
In 2003, the Rev. Eunice Vega-Perez came on board as associate pastor, partly to oversee the Hispanic ministry.
“I talked to the laborers and learned the real reasons they came here,” said Ms. Vega-Perez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. “They love their countries of origin. But when you face a choice between eating and living in another land, or not eating and dying, what do you do?”
She’s also worked with Anglos in the congregation and said they’ve been a great support. The church now offers Spanish as a Second Language classes, and members have joined local and state campaigns for immigrant rights.
That makes it easier to face setbacks.
Last year, Butler officials stepped up traffic laws that discourage contractors from picking up laborers on Main Street. That means fewer people find work, Ms. Vega-Perez said, and some have told her they may need to move elsewhere.
“Our Hispanic neighbors have had beer bottles and eggs thrown at them,” Mr. Bechtold said. “We have to stand for something better.”
The church recently opened a legal clinic for immigrants through “Justice for Our Neighbors,” a program of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. Staffed by volunteers, the clinic offers free counseling from licensed attorneys. It was dedicated on Hispanic Heritage Sunday, Oct. 28.
Ms. Vega-Perez said leaders at Butler UMC aren’t worried about losing members who might oppose taking a stand on immigration.
“Advocacy is tough work, and we’re going to face persecution,” she said. “But I don’t think we’d be loyal to our ministry if we didn’t do this. Systemic evil is real, and it’s embedded in the many layers of our community and world. But we’ve got to take risks and follow the example that Christ taught us—to be agents of change.”