Flourishing bilingually in Glen Ellyn
El Espíritu is at work at St. Mark’s Church, Glen Ellyn, and she speaks both English and Spanish.
“The air has become bilingual,” says the Rev. George Smith, rector of St. Mark’s. “You’ll hear both Spanish and English here. We don’t have to be perfect. It just creates that welcome. So when a Spanish speaker comes in, we can say Buenos días! Or ¿Cómo estás?”
Four years ago, the parish added a 1 p.m. service in Spanish to its three existing Sunday morning services. Attendance at the afternoon service fluctuates between 100 and 180 on most Sundays, but climbs to 300 on feast days and special occasions.
How did St. Mark’s, a successful English-speaking congregation in a town with a Hispanic and Latino population of less than six percent, develop a thriving Spanish ministry?
Part of the answer lies in the parish’s distinctive approach. St. Mark’s does not refer to the people who attend the 1 p. m. service as its “Spanish congregation.” Rather, Smith uses the phrase “one church” to emphasize the unity of St. Mark’s across English and Spanish services, and his vision has caught on.
“While we offer a Spanish language service at 1 o’clock, the purpose is to welcome and integrate everyone into one church,” says senior warden Peter Vagt. “Many of the services we do bilingually. The Good Friday bulletin was in two languages, and we alternated saying the readings in English and Spanish, integrating it as a single church and a single group of people.”
That, Smith says, “is one of the hardest concepts for people to get. People say, ‘How is the Hispanic congregation?’ And I say, ‘Do you mean the 1 o’clock service?’ We have some crossover. It’s not huge, but the mixing is happening and it is a wonderful thing to see.”
The parish facilitates this crossover by offering English classes for Spanish speakers and Spanish classes for English speakers. Sunday bulletins are printed in English and Spanish, and both English and Spanish speakers attend women’s ministry events. El convivio, a coffee hour or light lunch for which congregants prepare traditional dishes, offers parishioners a time to socialize after the 1 o’clock service.
“Our story is a ‘loaves and fishes’ thing,” says Virginia Vagt, a leader in the church’s women’s ministries who is married to Peter Vagt. “We all just bring a tiny loaf, a small fish, and all of a sudden el Espíritu provides a banquet of people, lives, and friendship for us all to enjoy, together.”
St. Mark’s outreach to the Latin American community has unlikely roots in the 2003 consecration of the Rev. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as the bishop of New Hampshire. “In 2004, many people left over the Gene Robinson situation,” Smith says. “St. Mark’s lost half of the congregation, lost the rector, lost the deacon. As a church, those who stayed said, ‘We are going to welcome gays and lesbians into our church.’ We got so we could say that with confidence.”
“We all just bring a tiny loaf, a small fish, and all of a sudden el Espíritu provides a banquet of people, lives, and friendship for us all to enjoy, together.”
“I arrived in February 2006, and you know how new rectors are full of energy and new ideas,” Smith says. “I said, ‘Let’s do something fun.’ The Diocese of Southeast Mexico is our companion diocese, so I said, ‘Let’s make a connection with a church in our companion diocese.’ In June of 2006, we went to Nigromante, Veracruz, Mexico, which has a church whose name is San Marcos. We picked it for no other reason than it had the same name as ours, St. Mark’s.”
Meanwhile, Smith was learning Spanish, as were some other mem- bers of the parish, and the relationship with their companion parish blossomed. Every year a group from St. Mark’s travels to Nigromante to work side-by-side on projects inside and outside San Marcos, including painting, setting up a computer lab, and building a play set for the community.
“I don’t know exactly the epiphany that came to me, but I realized there was nothing liturgical in Spanish in our area,” Smith says. “I thought, ‘What if we had a 1 o’clock service in Spanish? We could do that, and we could offer it to everyone. Let’s just be Episcopalians and open our arms and offer the sacraments.’”
Smith’s epiphany was in keeping with St. Mark’s vision statement, developed in 2009 as the congregation sought to define itself in the wake of the division over human sexuality. “We talked about how a vision statement is what you aspire to be, not necessarily what you are,” Smith says. “Before we started, we had very little diversity. Glen Ellyn, especially around our part of town, is mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly upper middle class, but we know there is diversity not far from our parish.
“One of our first frontiers was coming to a place where we wel- comed gays and lesbians. With our vision statement in 2009, we said we wanted to be more diverse, more open, and we weren’t sure what that would look like.”
As it happens, it looked like an icon of the Virgen de Guadalupe inspired by the parish in Nigromante and created by the children of St. Mark’s.
“At the time we didn’t realize how articulately this icon would express a warm welcome, on our behalf, from primarily Anglo church members to our Latino and Hispanic neighbors and visitors who are now active members and leaders together with us at our church,” says Virginia Vagt. “Through this project, the Spirit led us to communicate ‘Welcome!’ without words, which was good, as few of us at the time had the words!”
The connection with Mexico and the recognition of the Virgin of Guadalupe were very appealing to Mauro Hernandez, who started attending St. Mark’s shortly after he and his young family moved from Mexico to the United States four years ago.
“We came to St. Mark’s at the invitation from friends,” says Hernandez, an electronics engineer who works as a manager for Morey Corporation in Woodridge, Illinois. “We were looking for a church where they speak Spanish, and St. Mark’s has been very open to adopting some of the celebrations we have.”
Hernandez, who is starting his third year on the St. Mark’s vestry, used to live about 25 minutes from the church. He, his wife and their two children have since moved to Aurora, a town about 35 minutes away.
“Now the place I live has a big Latin population, so there are two or three churches around my house that offer services in Spanish that are much closer than St. Mark’s, but we are very comfortable at St. Mark’s,” Hernandez says. The welcoming congregation and the care and concern of Smith and the Rev. Victor Conrado, associate rector at St. Mark’s, are big reasons why.
“They have been in the shadows, but now they are being acknowledged. They are respected and are invited to value and share their culture and traditions with the wider community.”
“They are very warm people,” Hernandez says of the priests. “They make you feel very comfortable. You can trust them immediately. You can connect with them. Not all churches are willing to be diverse and accept people from different parts of the world.”
Conrado, who Smith recruited in 2011 to launch the 1 o’clock service, has worked with Smith to build the Spanish ministry, going to shopping centers, restaurants, apartment buildings and other places where Spanish speakers live or work.
Their efforts have been rewarded. Not only is there an increase in numbers at the 1 o’clock service, but there is also an increase in Spanish-speaking members’ participation in the life of the church.
“What has changed, I think, is that now there is more involvement of the Latino and Hispanic parishioners in the leadership positions of the parish and in the running of the church,” Conrado says. “Now we have people from the 1 o’clock service who are involved in the vestry, and there are others in leadership positions in the congregation, doing things like preparing events, organizing music in the service.
“Now the Spanish ministry is something that is established. It is not experimental. It is part of our identity.”
More Spanish speaking parishioners are becoming involved in stewardship, and more are participating in the adult education programs, which are led on some occasions by Conrado and on others by experts on immigration issues, family health, and financial concerns. Conrado is also encouraged because parishioners are increasingly comfortable attending either English or Spanish services.
“It takes away from the mentality that only English speakers go to the English service,” he says. “Now we have a good number of people from the 1 o’clock service that go to the 10:30 service, and people from the 10:30 are going to the 1 o’clock service. That movement gives us the insight into why it is successful. We help people navigate, and we welcome people to all the services.”
Conrado, who was born in Colombia and raised as a Roman Catholic, understands the issues facing many Latinos and Hispanics looking for a parish home, and he has broad experience in establishing new ministries. He worked for 11 years in Kenya, where he attended seminary, starting new missions that became self-supporting parishes. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 2001 and was received as an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Chicago in 2009. He and his wife, Lucia, have two young sons, David and Daniel.
“Every Sunday we have new families coming. It’s spreading by word of mouth,” Conrado says. “You see families invite another family, and we are still intentionally reaching out as well.”
Incorporating the Virgin of Guadalupe into the life of the parish has been a big draw, he says, because of her significance in the spiritual life of Latino and Hispanic communities. “Now for two years we have had two images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. One we call the Pilgrim Virgin. She goes out into the community for 15 days and stays with a family, and they can invite people to come into their home. It goes from family to family all during the year. They bring the Virgin back to the church and then it goes to another family.
“We have the chance to go meet with the fami- lies and also educate them about the Episcopal Church,” Conrado says. “There are two important elements of education, especially the role of women in our salvation history, and respect. We value and respect the different traditions that are part of the community, and we invite people to journey deeper in their faith.
“Normally gatherings are 15 to maybe 40 people in the house. It’s kind of a way to work out an Episcopal identity as well as respecting their identity.”
Conrado says St. Mark’s Spanish ministry has met with a positive response from the rest of the religious community.
“Normally we go to a lot of meetings with other Glen Ellyn religious leaders and we share
our experiences,” Conrado says. “Some of them ask why aren’t they aware of this community. I normally tell them the Latinos are here. They are working in the restaurants. They are in apartment complexes nearby. They also are working as engineers, doctors, nurses. They are involved in our education system as well as in our local industries.
“For many years they have been in the shadows, but now they are being acknowledged. There is value in being acknowledged and recog- nized, and being not seen as somebody who is only renting space. They are here as parishioners. They are respected and are invited to value and share their culture and traditions with the wider community.”
All four services at St. Mark’s are growing, and the 1 o’clock service is growing the fastest, Smith says. Some 400 people worship at St. Mark’s on an average Sunday, and the parish has about 1,700 members.
Looking back, Smith says, a lot of goodness came out of St. Mark’s difficult past.
“The split that happened in 2004 really brought the church to its knees, both financially and in its sense of identity, but in that there was this incredible openness to trying new things,” he says. “In other churches, it seems to take years to get up the courage. You build the risk-taking appetite, like okay, that worked; let’s try something else. There’s this sense of let’s continue to open our hearts to our community.
“It’s about openness, opening your heart and taking risk,” Smith says. “I really do feel like it’s the Holy Spirit that is guiding us.”