Area Hispanics are trailblazers for Path 1 Plan
BY TIM GHIANNI
GENERAL BOARD OF DISCIPLESHIP
Luz Marina Zuleta, 52, knows that by participating in the Lay Missionary Planting Network’s 10-month training, she is helping The United Methodist Church forge a new trail toward growth and the future.
"It’s not just important, but necessary to plant new churches," said the substance abuse counselor from Oak Hill, Va.
The 10-session training at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., is a "boot camp" for Latino laity devoted to the goal of planting more United Methodist churches in the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic community.
Zuleta – whose interview was translated for this story – is one of about 30 members of the Latino community in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., who have been participating in this first LMPN training.
The ultimate goal of the training is that, after the lay trainees achieve a full understanding of sessions such as "United Methodism 101" and Wesleyan theology, they will be dispatched into the Latino
community to start new churches, according to Bener Agtarap, New Church Strategist for Path 1, a division of the General Board of Discipleship.
Zuleta, a native Colombian "with a pure Latin American Heart," is a United Methodist, although that wasn’t a requirement.
A part of this outreach was to recruit others who were anxious to learn Wesleyan principles and then go out into the burgeoning Hispanic community, where the church needs new outposts.
Sam Rodriguez, director of Hispanic-Latino New Church Starts for Path 1, pointed out that there is more than enough room for growth in the Hispanic community. While the number of Latinos multiplies in the U.S., they make up "less than one percent of United Methodists."
Zuleta knows this mission is vital. "God continues to place us in the middle, bringing diverse ethnic communities to our neighborhoods, as if God were saying: ‘here I am to help you carry out the mission of the church in the universe.’"
The diversity within the Hispanic community is well-represented in the training, in which immigrants from 14 different countries from throughout Latin America took part.
Path 1’s goal is to eventually reach the plant rate of the 1800s, when Methodists were planting one church a day.
The Rev. Tom Butcher, executive director for Path 1, said "ultimately we hope to get back to that – and even more."
But it’s going to take programs like the LMPN training to help to reach an initial goal of 650 new plants by 2012.
Rodriguez, who attended the first session of this training, said beginning with a Spanish-language LMPN class wasn’t really the plan. But it worked out well. "It’s really interesting how it ended up being a Spanish language LMPN that is the beta project," he said.
But because of that, this training program could immediately make an impact if the Spanish-speaking laity succeeds in new church plants in their communities.
Just like many segments of the U.S. population, there are many Hispanics who are "unchurched." According to research conducted by the Barna Group in 2007, 34 percent of Hispanics fit that description.
Many others are Roman Catholics. Others are Pentecostal. The LMPN goal is to provide homes for those who either are unsatisfied where they are or who are still searching.
Rodriguez noted that while all the members of this particular planting class are Latinos, they come from different nations and different backgrounds, just as a Spanish-speaking neighborhood contains people from, for example, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba, with different cultures and denominational backgrounds.
As a result of the LMPN training, Rodriguez said the lay planters will go out and start congregations that run the gamut of United Methodist styles.
"We run the full range of different types of churches, from high church liturgical to very
contemporary. I can go to one that is very charismatic or contemporary and there’s a lot of singing or I can go to one that is mostly liturgical."
While the contemporary services may lure those with Pentecostal experience, the liturgical services may be the future home of those who have "a more moderate Roman Catholic background," Rodriguez said.
This first LMPN training session was in the D.C. area more or less by popular demand, according to Rodriguez, who said "the Baltimore-Washington and Virginia conferences had a desire to start Hispanic churches."
Libia Bautista, 39, a lawyer and judge from Martinsburg, W.Va., knows the importance of this LMPN training.
"Since I was a little girl, I have worked for the things that God has planted in my heart," said this native Venezuelan.
"Now that I live in this nation, I know that only with God and the training and preparation of this Conference we will be able to reach lots of people. … The starting of new churches is vital for spiritual and educational development of our community."