For Latino youths, a long-awaited reunión
ELGIN, Ill. — Some flew thousands of miles to attend.…
LUBBOCK, Texas — The late-morning temperature was 101, and shade was scarce. But the 100 or so teenagers and young adults attending Jóvenes for Christ didn’t seem to mind.
Some were scattered about the Lubbock Christian University campus in discussion groups. Others read or took a break for a bottle of water from strategically placed red-and-white Coleman coolers.
An hour later when they headed to the cafeteria for lunch after a session with LCU admissions counselors, a few parents and sponsors a generation older than the campers could be heard conversing in Spanish. Groups of teens laughed and talked in English.
Pronounced HO-ven-es, it means Youths for Christ. And since 2016, with a year off during the pandemic, Jóvenes for Christ has provided five days of teaching, fellowship, games, worship and community service for English-speaking teens from bilingual and predominantly Hispanic Churches of Christ.
Those are exactly the young people camp director JuanRaymon Rubio hopes to serve.
The annual gathering grew out of the Reunión Juvenil Nacional, a larger annual event dating back a half century that functions almost exclusively in Spanish.
This summer, the Jóvenes attendees represented 18 congregations from Texas, Arkansas and New Mexico.
The majority of U.S.-born Latinos are second or third generation, said Daniel Rodriguez, author of the book “A Future for the Latino Church.”
“They’re bilingual if they’re second generation but dominant English,” said Rodriguez, a religion and Hispanic studies professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “By the third generation, they hardly speak Spanish at all.”
That was the case for Rubio, whose regular job is as a restoration architect in Austin. The self-described “roving youth minister” grew up in suburban Chicago before moving to Lubbock to attend Texas Tech University and spend more time with his grandmother after his Hispanic minister grandfather, Juan Rubio, died.
“It was a culture shock,” the younger Rubio recalled. He didn’t grow up speaking Spanish at home, and his family attended the Park Forest Church of Christ, a multicultural congregation in Matteson, Ill.
“Growing up I had camps, and I had youth rallies — all in English. Kids here didn’t have that, and they didn’t know what they were missing.”
A rowdy group in the corner of the cafeteria seemed to know what they had found at Jóvenes.
The 11 teenage boys crowded into a booth built for eight came from churches and cities as divergent as Dallas and Nixon, Texas – a tiny town about an hour southeast of San Antonio. A couple were from the Robinson Avenue congregation in Springdale, Ark., which brought 13 young adults and 17 teenage campers.
In Hispanic churches, young adults remain a part of the youth ministry into their early 20s or when they marry. At Jóvenes they served as counselors to groups of younger kids.
Miguel Valerio, a senior this fall at Nixon-Smiley High School, described his feelings about the week: “This is not a place to be judged. You can open up to everybody –– we all have our mistakes, but it is like a safe place.”
A few tables away, three young women lingered over lunch. Daniella Martinez and Mia De Los Santos both attend the Colgate Bilingual Church of Christ in Lubbock where campers went for dinner and worship later in the evening. Mia is from Levelland, Texas, and a sophomore at Texas Tech. She’s been coming to Jóvenes for three years.
One of the early Jóvenes leaders, Marcelino Banda, was an LCU trustee, and he arranged for the camp to meet on campus at a low cost. Last year the camp established a scholarship at LCU for campers, but it’s not yet funded. In the meantime, for the past three years Jóvenes has given $500 textbook scholarships that are good “wherever they go,” Rubio said.
“It adds another purpose to say, ‘Wherever you’re going, we want to help you get there,’” he said.
Participation of local churches helps keep the costs low — a different Lubbock congregation provides dinner each night, and private donors annually provide about $3,000.
Camp leaders would like to rotate among other Christian university campuses depending on costs and local support. Rubio and all other staff are volunteers.
At $95 per person, the cost for Jóvenes is significantly lower than many other Christian camps, though still a stretch for many families. But campers keep coming back.
Martinez said she keeps returning “because I’ve made relationships that have impacted my life outside of camp.”
“It’s helped me in my spiritual walk with Christ and just lifelong friendships I can lean on when I’m struggling or need a pick-me-up,” she added.
Danielle Campbell was a counselor this summer. She also attends Colgate, which sent around a dozen participants, representing about a quarter of the congregation’s membership.
“Young adults have a counselor role. Today I’m assigned to nine other girls who were in ninth and 10th grade last year,” she said.
Related: No ‘big city entertainment’ required
The senior social work major at Texas Tech was a camper the first year of Jóvenes. “I found out about the camp because JuanRaymon was my youth minister when he was at Tech, and I came back to help because I’ve grown to love this camp, and I want to see it grow even more.”
That’s the kind of response Rubio hopes to engender and that Rodriguez believes is important.
As is the case across cultural and denominational boundaries, Rubio has seen many Hispanic youths who don’t come back to church after they leave for trade school or college.
“Camp is reminding them that they have brothers and sisters all across the state and different states. It’s creating a network of young adults so they can stay connected to each other and to Christ.”
“It’s not a unique problem,” Rubio acknowledged. “Often they’ll say they visited church but didn’t feel at home. Camp is reminding them that they have brothers and sisters all across the state and different states. It’s creating a network of young adults so they can stay connected to each other and to Christ.”
“Baptists in Texas started having these conversations 40 years ago,” the Pepperdine professor said.
Today the largest youth gathering of Hispanic Baptists meets every spring at various locations. “All in English for 800 to 900 Hispanics — it started like the thing in Lubbock,” Rodriguez said. “They were ahead of us in realizing the future.
“These kids are English dominant,” he explained, “so people will ask, ‘Why don’t they go to English church?’ But they don’t feel they fit in there either because they’re ‘too Mexican’ or ‘too Central American.’ But when they go to a Spanish-only group, they aren’t comfortable there either.
“Their values are different,” he added, “because they’re bicultural.”
Maria Laura Valdez knows about being bicultural.
Born in Roswell, N.M., she grew up in Argentina. Her mom was from California and her dad from Argentina. They spoke English at home when living in Argentina, or Spanish at home when in the U.S. She also speaks Japanese, having studied it for 10 years.
“I’ve learned to be flexible and observe what’s going on around me, to be a good listener and to be curious about others, honoring our differences.”
After spending a year there in 2017 with Let’s Start Talking ministries, she returned to attend Sunset International Bible Institute, where she graduated in 2022. She hopes to do mission work in Japan someday, but in the meantime, she is a baker at a local café and supports other bicultural youth as a counselor at Jóvenes.
In navigating other cultures, she said she’s learned to listen.
“I’ve learned to be flexible and observe what’s going on around me, to be a good listener and to be curious about others, honoring our differences,” Valdez said. “I do this anytime I meet new people, including at camp.”
After lunch and a little free time, the campers divided into teams for water relays and games — a bit of relief from the still-rising temperatures.
Dinner with the Colgate congregation preceded an evening lesson brought by Alfredo Heredia, an IT professional who preaches for the Bedford Church of Christ, north of Fort Worth.
Heredia’s pointed lesson drew on data from the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
The preacher spoke primarily in English, but he occasionally translated summaries into Spanish, drawing lots of “Amens!” from older members seated behind the campers.
“We’re going to focus on what we need to be doing, and sitting at home on our phones at 2 in the morning is the first thing that all of us need to stop doing,” Heredia said.
“I didn’t get an amen on that one,” he ad libbed to nervous laughter. “I guess that means it’s going to be hard.”
However, he said he knows young people are “dealing with a lot.”
“But the answer is not on your phone — it’s in the Bible,” he told the young people who packed the front two-thirds of the hot sanctuary. “Jesus died for you. He doesn’t want you to die. He doesn’t want you to commit suicide, fall into sexual sin or drug abuse.”
“The answer is not on your phone — it’s in the Bible. Jesus died for you. He doesn’t want you to die. He doesn’t want you to commit suicide, fall into sexual sin or drug abuse.”
At the end of the lesson and three invitation songs, four young women had responded for prayer. He made one more appeal.
By the end of the week, seven young men and four young women were baptized.
Martinez, back at camp for her third year, said the lessons and classes are her favorite part of camp — that and this year’s camp theme, “Overcoming.” She especially liked that morning’s lesson about Joseph, “how he started from the bottom and got back up.”
Overcoming has lots of meanings – overcoming social challenges or spiritual challenges but perhaps most of all overcoming barriers to relationships.
Valdez described it as just “the simple curiosity of wanting to know more about the other person.”
And that’s one thing Jóvenes has in common with all great camp experiences.
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