Kansas meat plant, ethnic influx reshape First Baptist

LIBERAL, Kan. (BP) -- Voices sing out -- first in English and then Spanish. The transition is smooth as the congregation easily goes back and forth between the languages.

"The precious blood of Jesus Christ; Ve ane su trono El Padre te recibirá."

The worship leader, Jonathan Zamora, closes his eyes, relishing multiple cultures praising God together. He looks out and sees no less than 10 countries and four languages represented among the 150 or so people. Some wear ear buds that relay a translation from a nearby booth. Others squeeze next to a friend whispering a translation.

At First Baptist Church in Liberal, Kan., language and culture are not a barrier to worship. Zamora and pastor Jason Ramsey say no one thinks twice about it. Their church is simply a reflection of the surrounding community.

Located just a few blocks from downtown, the church sits on the edge of "little Somalia" where a growing Somali community resides. Eritreans and Ethiopians live down the street. A few blocks away, the Vietnamese live next to the largest ethnic population, Latino, in this town of 20,000.

It hasn't always been this way. At one time, First Baptist was known as the "upper-class white church." Yet just a few years ago, it was on the verge of shutting its doors.

"The church membership was so old that people were just passing away," Ramsey recounts. "We looked around us and said that we couldn't be the church we were yesterday.... Our town changed."

Cultural shift

Hispanics flooded this southwest Kansas community over the past 30 years to work at National Beef, a meat packing plant on the edge of town. They joined the Vietnamese in the heavy, hard labor of slaughtering and butchering livestock from the surrounding ranches and feedlots. Immigrants from several African countries recently joined the mix.

Taquerias and Carnicerias (restaurants and butcher shops) opened in the once-dead strip malls. The local high school became majority Hispanic. A second-generation Mexican-American won a spot on the previously all-white city commission.

Dennis Zamora, Jonathan's father, moved to Liberal 25 years ago as part of the influx of Hispanics. He watched as the Hispanic population doubled that of the Anglo and African American community combined. Yet, his church did not change. The Spanish-speaking congregation met on Saturday nights and rarely had anything to do with the English-speaking congregation.

"When I came here, there were no Hispanic leaders in the church," Zamora, a layperson at First Baptist, recalls. "We weren't able to participate and serve. We just sat on the sidelines and watched."

The Hispanic group was growing steadily at the time -- not just in number but in spiritual health. They prayed for change, a change so great that it would later shock church leaders.

"I remember sharing a vision with the Spanish group about starting a mission church," Ramsey says. "Then, they came back with a question: 'Why do you want to separate us?'

"My mind was blown and, to be honest, my feelings were hurt," the pastor admits. "We offered help and they didn't want it."

But after the shock wore off, Ramsey says that question kept nagging him: "Why are we separating everyone?"

"We were just doing what we've always been taught," he says of the reasoning that, "If we get enough of a language group gathering, we start a mission church."

"We always tell people to look to the church" but not in this case, Ramsey says. "When people look to the church, they see segregation -- black churches, white churches, Spanish churches.

"The church needs to rethink how we do integration," the pastor says. "It is time to rethink the way we do church."

Intentionality

The first step for First Baptist was to drop labels. There are no longer "Spanish services and English services," everyone meets together at the same time. While Sunday School classes and small groups meet in different language groups (Spanish, English, Eritrean), anyone is welcome since each class studies something different. Someone in the group is always willing to translate.

The biggest transition, however, came in church leadership. Zamora points to his son Jonathan with pride. The worship leader was the first Latino on staff without the title "Spanish mission pastor." Soon after, the church hired another second-generation Hispanic as the youth minister. Church deacons, greeters, teachers and other committees now equally represent the ethnic makeup of the congregation, and English is not a requirement for the job.

"This type of church isn't for everyone," Zamora admits. "It's easy to find a church that is 100 percent Spanish or 100 percent white in this town. We are reaching out to second-generation Hispanics, and their parents are coming with them."

Zamora explains that first-generation immigrants see their kids and grandkids pulling away from church because of language differences. The second and third generations are comfortable in English because of school. Thus, many language-specific churches struggle when new generations go off to other churches or stop attending.

"It's difficult because the culture of first generation is to stick together as a family," Zamora says. Three generations of his family attend First Baptist. "So, our church is an opportunity to continue being one unit and to worship as a family and still hear your own language."

This melding of cultures and language is best seen in the youth and children's departments. Kids from Africa, South America, Central America, the Caribbean and the United States greet each other with hugs. No one cares that they speak in whatever language comes to mind.

In the youth room, teenagers switch effortlessly between languages. If English has the best descriptive word, English is used and vice versa.

Zamora points to a group of adults talking after church. They are from Eritrea, Mexico and the U.S. He points to another and another, listing off countries with a smile.

"When God gave us the vision to integrate, we had no idea He would make it this big," Zamora says. "You see everyone mixing, now. It makes you feel like you are part of the church.

"You are no longer 'watching' -- you are actively worshiping and serving."

Sue Sprenkle is a writer based in Kansas.
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