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Students attending the Reunión Juvenil Nacional conference cheer during a midday session.
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Photo by Audrey Jackson

For Latino youths, a long-awaited reunión

After two years of pandemic delays, Spanish-speaking teens and 20-somethings welcome big national meeting.

ELGIN, Ill. — Some flew thousands of miles to attend.

Others made 16-hour drives in church vans.

All came — from Churches of Christ in more than 20 states — to sing praises to God, play soccer and volleyball and enjoy fellowship with Spanish-speaking peers.

Nathaly Loaiza and Moises Martinez from the Westview Church of Christ in Greeley, Colo.

Nathaly Loaiza and Moises Martinez from the Westview Church of Christ in Greeley, Colo.

The recent three-day Reunión Juvenil Nacional — “national youth meeting” in English — drew about 750 young people and sponsors to a Chicago-area community center.

The Elgin Church of Christ, about 40 miles northwest of the Windy City, organized the long-planned Latino gathering. The event proceeded after two years of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a bit exciting just being around people who believe the same thing we do,” said Moisés Martinez, 23, a member of the Westview Church of Christ in Greeley, Colo. 

Two dozen teens and adults from the Colorado congregation made the roughly 1,000-mile drive.

Like most who made the trip, Westview member Nathaly Loaiza, 16, communicates easily in English and Spanish. 

But there’s something special, Loaiza said, about lifting her voice to heaven in the language she grew up speaking.

“Personally, I love going to English church camp and stuff,” she said. “But being here and just worshiping in Spanish kind of just makes it feel more personal. … It’s just like, wow, you can see a big group of people speaking Spanish and just having fun together.”

Alex Reyes, 15, a member of the Rogers Church of Christ in Arkansas, said he speaks “Spanglish.”

“It’s really fun,” Reyes, who traveled 600 miles with a group of 19 from his congregation, said of Reunión Juvenil Nacional. “I love the people here. 

“And I love competing against them,” he added — be it in Scripture memorization or basketball.

A goalie blocks a kick from the opposing team at youth group conference Reunión Juvenil Nacional ⁠in Elgin, Ill.

A goalie blocks a kick from the opposing team at youth group conference Reunión Juvenil Nacional ⁠in Elgin, Ill.

‘Big crowd’

About 1,100 people registered in advance, said Elgin minister Ricardo Barrera, a Mexican immigrant who has preached for the Illinois congregation for about 20 years. 

Ricardo Barrera preaches for the Elgin Church of Christ in Illinois.

Ricardo Barrera preaches for the Elgin Church of Christ in Illinois.

High gas prices and rising inflation probably kept many home, Barrera said.

“It’s still a big crowd,” he said, suggesting that the central U.S. location helped attendance. “This is the biggest we’ve had in the reunions.”

Young Hispanic Christians — whether teens or 20-somethings — need to know they are not alone, said Barrera, who baptized his 12-year-old son, Kaleb, last year.

Those young people “seem to be lost in the middle sometimes because they live in an English world, and then they go to church and worship in Spanish,” the minister said. “And for many of these kids, there’s only five or 10 of them within about a three-hour drive. 

“So something like this,” he said of Reunión Juvenil Nacional, “imparts that, ‘Hey, there’s more of us out there!’”

Attendees at the Reunión Juvenil Nacional conference pose for a group photo indoors on the last day.

Attendees at Reunión Juvenil Nacional pose for a group photo indoors on the last day. Flags hanging from the balcony identify states and countries represented.

‘New beginning’

As a boy, Joel Campos, the son of a preacher in Tijuana, Mexico, attended numerous Christian youth rallies in his native country.

Now the minister for the Montebello Church of Christ in the Los Angeles area, Campos still recalls how those gatherings helped bolster his faith.

That’s why he encouraged a group of 25 from his Southern California congregation to fly across the country — a 2,000-mile journey — to participate.

“We prepared for this trip about two years ago,” Campos said. “With the pandemic, everything was on hold for a little while. But all the congregation and the youth stuck together, and we all made it out at this time.

“We encouraged our families that this is not an expense, but we are investing in our kids.”

“It’s been amazing for our kids because they didn’t see each other for almost two years, not in the youth group and classes,” he added, referring to the lockdown that moved services online. “We’re hoping this is the new beginning for this generation.”

David Hernández, 26, who helps lead the Montebello youth group, said: “It’s a really big help to come here and show them how fun it can be to be a Christian, to be in the youth group, to be involved. So that’s always a good thing.”

The flight and other expenses cost the Montebello church about $800 per person, Campos said.

Students compete to see who can find Bible verses the fastest on stage.

Students compete to see who can find Bible verses the fastest on stage.

“We encouraged our families that this is not an expense, but we are investing in our kids,” the minister said. “Every family paid their part, and the church got involved in a portion … for them to have everything they need to afford the trip.”

Youth minister Edgardo Ortega brought a van full of teens and college students from the Hereford Church of Christ in Texas. Hereford — the “Beef Capital of the World” — is about 1,100 miles southwest of Elgin.

“We want our teens to learn about the Word of God and to help them grow spiritually,” Ortega said. “And the world out there is teaching them something else, so we want them to have relationships with other Christians.”

A boy sings a hymn with his youth group at the Reunión Juvenil Nacional conference.

A boy sings a hymn with his youth group at Reunión Juvenil Nacional.

An inspiration

Nicole Monroy, 29, who is originally from Colombia, attends the Riverhead Church of Christ on New York’s Long Island.

She rode to Chicago with a group of 28 Hispanic Christians from New York and Connecticut.

The group’s leader took away everyone’s phones, so they had plenty of time to talk while driving for 14 to 15 hours, she said.

“As a Christian, we have the opportunity to meet other Christian people,” she said of Reunión Juvenil Nacional. “It is good.”

Emily Manqueros, 18, a member of the Mableton Church of Christ, northwest of Atlanta, agreed.

Nicole Monroy, Ana Ordaz and Emily Manqueros talk to The Christian Chronicle at the national youth meeting in Elgin, Ill.

Nicole Monroy, Ana Ordaz and Emily Manqueros talk to The Christian Chronicle at the national youth meeting in Elgin, Ill.

“It’s weird seeing so many people here that are Christian and that are baptized because I don’t really see that in Atlanta,” Manqueros said. “So it’s nice to see other people that are also Christian and that are also involved.”

For Manqueros’ friend Ana Ordaz, 19, a member of the Industrial Church of Christ in Monterrey, Mexico, making it to Reunión Juvenil Nacional turned into an adventure.

After crossing the border and driving to Houston, Ordaz caught rides with fellow Christians to Arkansas and then Elgin — about 1,500 miles in all.

A child poses in a photo booth promoting Reunión Juvenil Nacional in the lobby of the conference center.

A child poses in a photo booth promoting Reunión Juvenil Nacional in the lobby of the conference center.

But witnessing the connections between the Christians from across the U.S. — and even beyond — makes her want to share her faith more when she returns to Monterrey, she said.

“It’s inspired me to go back home and try to motivate the youth group to do an event similar to this,” Ordaz said, “so they can show what God has given them.”

Attendees at the Reunión Juvenil Nacional conference pose for a group photo in front of an American flag sculpture on Walton Island in Elgin, Ill.

Attendees at the recent Reunión Juvenil Nacional pose for a group photo in front of an American flag sculpture on Walton Island in Elgin, Ill.

Two students compete in the final elimination round in a verse finding game.

Two students compete in the final elimination round in a Bible verse finding game.

Ivan Ruiz reads scripture during a sunset devotional on a soccer field in Elgin, Ill.

Ivan Ruiz reads Scripture during a sunset devotional on a soccer field in Elgin, Ill.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: chicago COVID-19 Elgin Church of Christ Features Hispanic youths Iglesias de Cristo Illinois International latino Latino youths National News Reunión Juvenil Nacional Ricardo Barrera Top Stories

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