Amistad ChristianaSioux Center, Iowa

It was Sunday, November 1, the first
beautiful, dry, warm day in weeks.
And this was the day I chose to visit
the Reformed Hispanic church, Amistad
Christiana, a joint effort of the Reformed
and Christian Reformed Churches in
Sioux Center, Iowa.

By the way, my Spanish is non-existent.
As I entered the building I was given
a bulletin, a single page with three columns,
back and front, all in Spanish. The
back page has an explanation of the Reformed
church, since very few Hispanics
are familiar with it. A friend translated
that for me. The rest of the bulletin made
no sense to me and it was too late to get a
translation as the service had started. I
put it aside. Now, sitting here at my computer
writing this article, I realize that
was a mistake. The center column in the
bulletin is actually an order of service! I
recognize the items that were displayed on PowerPoint as the service progressed. If
only I’d known I could have better followed
the service.

Let me back up, and give you a little
history. Amistad Christiana (amistad
means “friendship” or “fellowship”
in Spanish) was started nearly 15 years
ago in response to a growing need in this
Dutch mono-culture of Sioux County,
Iowa. What began as a trickle of Spanish
speakers braving the harsh winters
of northwest Iowa and the mostly Dutchness
of the people has grown consistently
as these immigrants find work. Most of the Spanish-speakers are from Mexico,
Worship at Amistad Christiana
but a number of other Central and South
American countries are represented. In
1995 a few concerned Siouxlanders from
both RCA and CRC congregations saw in
the growing Hispanic population both an
opportunity to proclaim the gospel and a
need to welcome this new crop of immigrants
to Siouxland. In response to this
vision, a leadership team started meeting
with a small group of Spanish speakers
for Bible study, prayer, and fellowship.
At the time, there was no intention that
Amistad would become a church. The
plan was to send members of the Amistad
group into one of the existing CRC and
RCA congregations. But this never happened.
The language and cultural barriers
seemed to be too high.

In 2003, after many lengthy discussions
among the leadership team and the
faithful Hispanic members–discussion
that included some resistance and opposition–Amistad was formed into a formal
church and today, not only proclaims the
Word of God, but also celebrates the sacraments.
The conundrum of its formal
relationship with and ties to the two denominations
remains unsolved. Amistad
considers itself both RCA and CRC, and
desires to remain so. How to do this, however,
is still an issue under dialogue with
both denominations. The pastor, Rev. Gianni
Gracia, ordained in the Christian Reformed
Church, is originally from Nicaragua
but ministered in churches in Florida
before accepting a call to Amistad a year
ago. The congregation is led by a board
consisting largely of Hispanic members.
While not yet self-sustaining, Amistad
relies on the generous giving of the RCA, CRC, and other Protestant churches in
the area. It does not have its own building,
but meets in the American Legion
Building, downtown Sioux Center. Sunday
school for all ages meets at 3:30 pm, with
worship following at 4:25 pm. I skipped
Sunday school and arrived about 4:24 for
the worship service.

I entered the building through the
main entrance, paying no attention to the
fact that everyone else entered through
a side door. Walking through the door,
around a screen and right into the front of
the church, I felt rather conspicuous. Who
was this Anglo stranger walking past the
pulpit and down the aisle, in full view of
the worshipers seated on their mustard
color padded chairs? Trying to find my
way to someone I knew, I took a seat by
one of the Anglo elders.

A handful of Anglos attend Amistad,
most of them reasonably fluent in Spanish.
But since not all are proficient in
Spanish, Piet, an elder, as well as professor
of Spanish at Northwestern College
and professional translator, translates the
service each Sunday. He and his family
have been active with Amistad since they
moved to northwest Iowa. For them, Amistad
is home, not a mission venture. As an
elder, he has been active in the movement
toward Amistad becoming a church, not
merely a Bible study group.

Piet offered me a wireless headset and
of course I took it. The other Anglo elder,
Di, invited me to sit with her. She introduced
me to Pastor Gianni, but with his
mind on the service he was about to begin,
he was rather preoccupied. I didn’t take
offense. I hear nothing but good things
about him. The little hall filled up quickly.
For some reason–no one was sure why–it
was a crowded day at Amistad and extra
chairs were needed. There were over 150
people in a space that barely holds 200.
The congregation was a good mix of all
ages, including crying babies which no
one bothers about. They are welcome,
screams and all. A handful of college students
from Dordt and Northwestern attend
Amistad, in part because they appreciate
a cross-cultural experience and in part to
improve their Spanish speaking skills.

Because I was still figuring out how
the earpiece to my wireless translator set
worked, I missed Pastor Gianni’s opening words. By the time I was plugged in, he
was into his report about a recent successful
youth meeting. This is a new ministry
for Amistad and people were excited
about a good beginning. It’s a place, said
Pastor Gianni, where young Hispanics can
come to learn and grow together in their
faith; can meet–maybe even their future
spouse–because, he said, it’s good to marry
a Christian and also a fellow Hispanic.
And I was made aware, once more, of the
struggle immigrants have as they seek to
live in an alien culture yet also maintain
their home culture.

The service proper began with a call
to worship from Isaiah 40. Even though
the voice in my right ear translated for me,
I wished I had brought my English Bible.
A music group consisting of young people
on guitars and keyboard and two vocalists
led us in worship through song, interspersed
with scripture read by members
of the congregation. I appreciated this emphasis
on scripture. It certainly reinforced
Amistad’s self-description–Una Iglesia con
una fe biblica
(a church with a biblical
faith). The songs and scripture texts were
projected via PowerPoint. We sang short
contemporary praise songs, unfamiliar to
me and the translator’s voice in my right
ear ceased during the singing.

The sermon was based on different
biblical stories about multiplication of
food: Elisha multiplying food for a hundred
men in 2 Kings 4, Luke’s version of
the feeding of the 5,000 and Mark’s story
of the feeding of the 4,000. The voice in
my right ear gave a seamless translation,
and the texts were always on PowerPoint,
allowing me to follow very easily. The sermon
was solidly rooted in the texts. I got
the impression that Pastor Gianni truly
seeks to get out of the way and to let the
voice of the text be heard, more than the
voice of the preacher. The sermon ended
with encouragement to his congregation
that even though they were few in number
and aliens in this land, they could have
a big impact on the people among whom
they now lived. I greatly appreciated his
positive encouragement for a people who
struggle in Sioux County because they
lack power and voice. After the service,
Piet the translator told me that Gianni’s
preaching is able to connect both with
new Christians with very little biblical
background and also with those further
along in their Christian journey.

As it was the first of the month, Communion
was celebrated. Since Piet, the
translator was one of the serving elders,
translation ceased and I had to follow by
observation and educated guess. There
was no formal liturgy projected on the
screens and no spoken responses from
the congregation. Pastor Gianni spoke,
and Elders Piet and Di both prayed. She
then took the tray with cups of red grape
juice and began serving the people, followed
by Piet with the bread, a rather odd
order, I thought. When I later asked about
this, no one could give a reason. Since
we held onto both cup and bread until
everyone had been served, it didn’t really
matter. Serving everyone was delayed
slightly because of a good problem–they
ran out of “wine.” My tiny cube of white
bread was getting very mushy in my fingers
as we waited for more cups of juice. I
watched carefully and waited before joining
the congregation in eating the bread
and drinking the cup together. Since I
didn’t understand the Spanish, I quietly
murmured my own words in English,
“Lamb of God, you take away the sin of
the world, have mercy on me,” and then
ate the now very mushy white bread and
drank the juice.

The service ended with a hymn I recognized,
“Santo, Santo, Santo”. And I quietly
sang along, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God
Almighty.” After the service, I joined the
group at the back, in the crowded and
noisy area where coffee was being served.

I left through the same door I entered,
into a now darkening but still warm fall
evening, impressed by the enthusiastic
work of God among Hispanics in this formerly
very Dutch town, and glad to have
experienced God in a different language
and culture.

Jackie L. Smallbones, a native of South Africa (where
there are no Spanish speakers) is professor of religion
and Christian education at Northwestern College in
Orange City, Iowa.

 


The Church Review series aims to explore current
worship and preaching practices at different Reformed
and Presbyterian churches around North America.
Some of these are “traditional,” some “innovative,” but
together they represent a cross-section of the current
Reformed scene. Reviewers present factual data about
the churches they visit along with their own reflections
upon what they observed.