Sevierville spirit – Husband-wife team leads fast-growing Hispanic congregation

By Annette Spence, Special Contributor…

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn.—Three years ago, Susana Lopez was a translator in a furniture factory. Wilmer Lopez made a living out of laying tile and carpet.

Today, the couple is co-pastoring what might be the largest Hispanic congregation in East Tennessee, and one of the fastest-growing Hispanic churches in the United Methodist denomination.

Pastors Wilmer and Susana Lopez serve Holy Communion to all who come to the table at El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo. ALL PHOTOS BY ANNETTE SPENCE

El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo, or “Ministry of the Holy Spirit,” is located in Sevier County, a congregation of First United Methodist Church of Sevierville. The Spanish-speaking congregation worships every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday night with an average attendance of 100 or more each night. Few of the worshippers attend all three services; most attend the night that fits their work schedules.

“It’s a noisy, wonderful time,” says the Rev. Charles Maynard, superintendent of the Holston Conference’s Maryville District. He’s describing the standing-room-only services held in the chapel across the street from First UMC’s main building, yards away from the Great Smoky Mountain tourist traffic that streams through Sevierville each day.

When El Ministerio had its first United Methodist service in August 2010, just 18 people attended.

“Within eight months, we started to grow fast,” says the Rev. Susana Lopez, age 33. It wasn’t long before church leaders yearned for more space to accommodate their enthusiastic crowd, chock-full of children.

With three children of their own, Ms. Lopez and her 36-year-old husband are pastoring a church for the first time. They’re also introducing United Methodism to a community more familiar with Catholicism. A recent Gallup poll showed that while the majority of U.S. Hispanics are Catholic, younger Hispanics are increasingly shifting toward Protestant churches.

“At first, the people were afraid of what it means to be United Methodist,” Ms. Lopez says of her congregation. They believed worship services would have to be subdued, that music would have to come from a hymn book.

“We tried to show them that we could worship in our own way, while teaching what it means to be Methodist in the Wesleyan tradition,” Ms. Lopez said.

Answering the call

Since she was 18 years old, Ms. Lopez knew that God wanted her to be a pastor. “But like Jonah in the Bible, I tried to run from it.”

Children sit at their own table during a post-worship meal and birthday celebration at Primera Iglesia Metodista Unida de Gatlinburg.

She was pressed to answer the call in 2010 when her brother, the Rev. Arturo Reyna, called about a Sevierville congregation needing leadership.

Mr. Reyna is a United Methodist pastor who helped start several Hispanic congregations in Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee, territories of the Holston Conference. He saw another opportunity after learning of a Pentecostal congregation that had been renting space from First UMC in Sevierville.

“The Hispanic pastor who started it was moving to Arkansas. He wanted to leave the church to someone who would take good care of it,” said Mr. Reyna, Hispanic coordinator for the Holston Conference, which includes 897 total churches.

Mr. Reyna knew both his little sister and her husband were gifted to become preachers. When First UMC decided to adopt the Pentecostal congregation, Mr. Reyna summoned the Lopezes from their home in Galax, Va.

“I’m ready,” Wilmer Lopez said to his wife. “Are you ready?”

Within a month’s time, the Lopez family had moved in with the Reyna family in Morristown to begin training as pastors and transforming El Ministerio into a United Methodist church.

Women and children

The new pastors quickly settled their congregation’s concerns about worship. The Pentecostal congregation had dwindled from a high of 65 to fewer than 20. The people who remained preferred to keep their loud, casual, contemporary worship with electronic instruments and several praise singers, Susana Lopez said.

At El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo, children are included and free to join in worship as they please.

The style is typical of other Hispanic worship services in the Holston Conference, including the tendency to surpass the standard one-hour time frame by an hour or two.

Children freely whirl around the sanctuary during music, preaching, and communion, joining in as they please. Inviting children to participate in communion was a United Methodist tenet the congregation accepted “quite well,” Ms. Lopez said.

However, placing a woman in a pastoral role was more of a challenge for congregants with conservative cultural and religious backgrounds. In all the churches he works with, Mr. Reyna sets up regular Bible studies to educate church members about why United Methodists ordain women, baptize babies, and so on.

“The church is growing, so there will always be newcomers,” Mr. Reyna said. “But if we train our people in Scripture, they will speak up about what we believe. Susana doesn’t have to defend herself. The others will.”

Aiding the success of the Lopezes’ leadership is the fact that they are a husband-and-wife team with a different heritage, Mr. Maynard said. Susana was born in Dallas, Texas, to a Mexican family. Wilmer was born in Atlantida, Honduras. El Ministerio is a congregation comprised almost equally of people from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, with a few from Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

“Not only is the congregation able to see their pastors are different in gender and culture,” Mr. Maynard said, “but Susana and Wilmer are able to relate to people differently.”

“I am the right hand, he is the left,” Susana says of her partnership with Wilmer.

Spinning forward

El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo has a busy schedule and a busy future, aided by a cast of lay members. Six days a week, the church has a 6 a.m. prayer service, attended by three to 12 people.

“We have no days off, and every sermon has to be different,” Susana Lopez says.

In April, the church had its first wedding. In May, Ms. Lopez will graduate from UMC-affiliated Hiwassee College and consider her next step in higher education.

Congregants give generously during the offering at El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo.

Last year, El Ministerio helped spin off a second congregation at First United Methodist Church in Gatlinburg, about 13 miles away. Leading the congregation are Susana’s niece and Wilmer’s brother, Edna and Marvin Lopez, another Mexican-Honduran couple. They preach to about 40 regular worshippers on Thursday and Sunday nights, largely Guatemalan and working in the tourist industry. A recent revival service drew 100 from the community to the church known as Iglesia Metodista Unida de Gatlinburg.

Soon, church leaders will have to address the problem of needing more space for the Sevierville congregation. It’s a good problem to have, says Mr. Reyna, since the Holston Conference hasn’t chartered a Hispanic congregation since 2001.

In fact, Mr. Reyna was the first pastor of the only Hispanic church officially chartered by the conference: Iglesia Puerta del Cieolo Metodista Unida, or Door of Heaven United Methodist Church, located in Galax, Va.

Since then, Mr. Reyna has helped start most of the nine other Hispanic congregations in the conference. The Spanish-speaking church in Sevierville “could be the next chartered congregation,” says Mr. Reyna, to help the United Methodists serve a growing population.

Ms. Spence is editor of the Holston Conference newspaper, The Call, where this article first appeared.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
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