Last Sunday, the Rev. Ray Warren welcomed the congregation and guests to White Plains United Methodist Church and proceeded to rattle off the weekly announcements.
He then turned to the Rev. Edith Salazar next to him, and she seamlessly translated his spiel into Spanish for a contingent of the congregation who doesn’t speak English. As she rapidly repeated Warren’s words, her pace accelerating, I listened carefully, marveling how it seemed like she didn’t even breathe through the whole shebang.
“I hope you got that,” Warren said, conjuring laughs from the room. “It was real important.”
Salazar’s translation, along with a slew of other bilingual efforts, have started to become familiar at White Plains United Methodist on Southeast Maynard Road.
At this service, written materials are in both Spanish and English, from the programs to the hanging screens that show prayers and song lyrics. Headsets are distributed to Spanish speakers, with a bilingual member standing in the back of the room, quietly translating the service into their ears United Nations style.
I went to the church’s quarterly unified service, where those who normally attend the church’s three Sunday services – traditional, contemporary and Spanish-language – worshiped together in one room. While the bilingual services started last summer, this was an important one. It was the first time the dual-language program had taken place since the church’s Hispanic Ministry relocated to the main church campus in January from the annex it has occupied down the road since 2001.
It also marked a turning point for the congregation that, like other denominations, is trying to grow and stay relevant to the community it serves.
Moving the Hispanic Ministry, formerly known as Luz del Pueblo, to the main campus is just the beginning.
Throughout a soul-searching process the church embarked on last year, congregants said they wanted more families, more young people and more diversity. Then they realized they had what they wanted all along, the Rev. Jenifer Swindell said.
“They’ve just been down the street,” said Swindell, the pastor for worship, design and communications. “We’re embracing folks who already were part of this congregation.”
More than a minister
The journey that White Plains is embarking on – a common theme in the service I attended – started in 2001. Then, White Plains was one of the largest United Methodist churches in the state, Warren said, and the United Methodist conference wanted it to start an outreach group to serve the influx of Spanish speakers and immigrants in Cary.
At the time, the town had 4,000 Hispanic residents, or about 4 percent of Cary’s population, according to 2000 Census figures. The White Plains ministry would be one of several in Wake County.
Salazar was picked to lead the new congregation, and they gathered at a building down Maynard Road, which White Plains had bought to gain more parking spaces for its very busy Sunday schedule.
Salazar seemed like the perfect fit. Salazar, an energetic woman, knew as a teenager growing up in Peru that she wanted to be a pastor, just like her sister. Her father and brother-in-law also are ministers in the United Methodist faith.
For the past 15 years, Luz del Pueblo, and the building it occupied, have become home to as many as 150 worshipers. It’s where they’ve married, had baby showers and shared in life’s highs and lows.
As is common in Spanish-speaking churches, Salazar became more than a spiritual leader. She is a community pastor who helps members and their friends.
“We’re very close,” she said. “As immigrants, literally our friends are our family.”
Children are a focal point of the congregation, with activities centered around them, whether it’s an after-service meal or a pickup soccer game. The children, many of whom were born in the United States and are fluent in English, have traveled to the main White Plains campus for Sunday school for a few years.
At the same time, Salazar said her congregants want the children to feel integrated with other young members, just as they would be at school. For many, speaking English and living in the United States is part of their identity.
“They know they’re Hispanic and a little different,” Salazar said. “They know too they have the same values as other kids. For us, as first generation, it’s so important we do this transition.”
Keeping up with diversity
Kristine Barnes has been a member of White Plains for about 20 years and has led several of the church’s mission trips. She notes that the church “is not very colorful, if you look around.” It’s also an older congregation with some young families sprinkled throughout.
Over the past several months, members have taken part in a Spiritual Strategic Journey where they’ve asked: Who are we, and who do we want to be?
“We felt we were kind of declining as a church,” Barnes said. “We don’t see the membership growing, and the only way to grow membership is through families.”
In 2001, the church had an average worship attendance of 1,200 people, reaching 1,500 at its peak. Today, there are about 700 to 800 active worshipers, with 400 or so attending Sunday services. The number includes the Hispanic ministry.
But, Barnes said, the church wants to do more than just add names to the roster. They want to engage members and reach others to let them know about Jesus Christ.
She said moving the Hispanic ministry to the White Plains campus is a positive step forward in this effort. It also shows members the diversity in their community. Today, Cary’s Hispanic population has nearly doubled since 2000, with 2014 Census figures showing 12,960 Hispanic residents, or 8.8 percent of the population. (Apex United Methodist Church is the only other Methodist church in the area with a Hispanic congregation, called Fiesta Cristiana.)
What White Plains is going through is not uncommon. Across the country, fewer people attend church on a regular basis with a growing number of people, particularly millennials, saying they don’t belong to an organized faith, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life.
Forming a new family
While the decision to move the ministry was settled, the “emotional prep,” as Swindell puts it, was more complicated. At the last service for Luz del Pueblo in December, when four men carried out a large cross to be moved to the main sanctuary, one young boy hugged the church’s wall.
The Hispanic members worried whether they would be accepted, and what it would be like to give up their home.
Some longtime White Plains members had trepidations, too, Warren said. Classes are offered to teach Spanish worship vocabulary to its members.
Any concerns don’t seem to be apparent this Sunday, though. They stand side by side, praying and singing the words to a song called “Day One”: “I’m marching on to the beat of a brand new drum, The future has begun, Day one.”
Sara Monroy, who moved here from Mexico, translates the service live to about 15 people who grabbed headsets. She said the Hispanic members appreciate what’s been done to make sure they feel included. They realize this building can become their home, too.
“God is the same god for everybody,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you speak English, Spanish or Chinese or whatever. You can be here and preserve your heritage. You can belong there, too.”