All José Nieto could surrender to Christ was his life. Men with knives and shotguns had taken everything else.
Hiking to a lagoon near San Cristobol, Venezuela, in 1994 for his baptism, Nieto, known as “Goyo,” and his friends were ambushed by robbers.
“They took everything we had — except our shorts and socks,” Nieto said. Despite the hardship, they continued to the lagoon, where Nieto was immersed.
Raised Catholic, the 19-year-old was in turmoil after the death of his grandfather when a friend invited him to a Church of Christ.
“I was touched by what I heard, not by what I saw,” he said. “It was the very first time I had attended a worship service where people were holding Bibles.”
Four years later, he met his future wife, Sarah, who traveled to Venezuela with a mission team from Harding University
in Searcy, Ark. She inspired him to learn English and enroll at Harding.
Goyo Nieto met his wife, Sarah, when she traveled to Venezuela on a mission trip. The couple has a daughter, Gisele. (PHOTO PROVIDED)
Now the couple serves Latinos in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Brewer Road Church of Christ, where José Nieto co-ministers with Gustavo Prato, is a Spanish-speaking congregation attended by 280 souls. The church offers a campus ministry, parenting and marriage classes, one-on-one Bible studies, translation assistance and a reading club.
José Nieto also reaches out to his community through soccer, playing weekly in a city league and coaching in a children’s league.
How did you get into ministry?
I preached my first sermon two years after being baptized. After that, I started to share Bible lessons more frequently with the youth group and at home Bible studies. I also taught personal Bible studies with non-Christians.
A year later, a group from one of our U.S. sponsoring congregations came for a visit. They asked our ministers about the church’s biggest need and wondered if they could be of help. Our major need at the moment was another evangelist.
The ministers decided I was the best candidate they had and presented the idea to the congregation. At the time, I was attending college, and even though I was not planning to become a preacher, something inside told me that I needed to say yes to this proposal. I started working part time with the church in San Cristobol, but soon I realized that ministry was my real vocation.
Why, in your opinion, has the Hispanic church grown so rapidly in Winston-Salem?
The Hispanic population in Winston-Salem is close to 40,000 people — about 15 percent of the total population. About 80 percent of our Hispanic immigrants are from the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Over the past 15 to 20 years, many family members, friends and relatives have migrated to the area. Even people who originally settled in California and Texas have gradually moved to Winston-Salem, trying to keep their kids away from gangs and to be closer to family members.
Thus, many people know each other, and those who don’t became friends at work or in their neighborhoods.
I strongly believe this familiarity has been a key factor in our congregation’s growth, because gaining people’s trust is important when evangelizing Hispanics.
Another crucial factor is that we meet some of our community’s basic family and individual needs.
How does your congregation evangelize?
At the beginning of our ministry, I spent most of my time helping church members and visitors navigate the school system, translate documents, learn about the home-buying process. I felt more like a social worker than a preacher.
‘I spent most of my time helping church members and visitors navigate the school system, translate documents, learn about the home-buying process. I felt more like a social worker than a preacher.’ —José ‘Goyo’ Nieto
Then our sponsoring congregation, South Fork Church of Christ
in Winston-Salem, came to the rescue and hired Gustavo Prato as a full-time marriage and family therapist. That added a new dimension to our service to the community.
We have used soccer as an evangelistic tool. Several visitors who initially came to play soccer have since been baptized and are active members. We also have children’s and women’s soccer teams.
We have partnered with the local community college to provide English as a Second Language classes. We have offered summer tutoring camps in partnership with the YMCA. We have a few members who have the gift of evangelism and have been very helpful in sharing their faith.
Since many of our members bring visitors regularly, we try to provide solid, Christ-centered preaching. Gustavo and I make efforts to use local agencies such as Family Services to meet different types of needs. I’ve been leading a campus ministry at a local high school for six years, serving both students and parents.
Can English-speaking churches without Hispanic members effectively reach out to Hispanics?
As I mentioned before, trust is very important when trying to reach the Hispanic community, because there is a certain degree of mistrust due to language, cultural and social barriers. This is true of non-Christians and Christians alike at some level.
Sadly, not everybody is open and willing to accept people who are different from them. For those reasons I believe that churches without any Hispanic members are more likely to attract second- and third-generation Hispanics. These two specific groups are more comfortable with the U.S. culture, and there is no language barrier.
Socioeconomic differences create another barrier to overcome — regardless of language.
What issues must churches consider as they strive to reach young second- and third-generation Hispanics?
Many have an identity crisis that intensifies with the normal struggle of teens in their search for meaning and their place in this world. They may look Hispanic, may speak English, but don’t see themselves as Mexicans, Salvadorans, etc. Many have never visited their parents’ homeland. I believe this feeling of not belonging neither here nor there creates a fertile environment for the development of neighborhood gangs that offer acceptance and security that society — and in many cases, churches — fail to provide. That is what they need — the security Jesus and the church provide.
What approaches do you find to be especially effective in reaching Hispanics?
I don’t believe there is one approach that fits any evangelistic outreach program — no matter what culture we may try to reach.
Congregations must adapt to the specific needs of that particular community. First-, second- and third-generation immigrants have different needs and struggles, and even people from specific countries or geographical areas have different needs than those that speak their same language. In the same way Australians and Americans are not the same, Colombians and Mexicans are two different cultures.
As a general rule, I could say that a servant-minded ministry is essential when reaching out to Hispanics. Congregations need to focus on meeting specific needs that will create a trusting environment. That will eventually open hearts and minds for the planting of the Gospel.
Can English-speaking and Hispanic members be effectively integrated?
There is, of course, a need to prepare congregations through deep Bible study on the importance of welcoming strangers and offering them the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Also, congregations need to be educated and informed regarding the main differences in the cultures and world views of groups that will be targeted. This goes for educating both the non-Hispanic and the Hispanic groups.
Church leadership needs to be shared, and both groups should be encouraged to be involved in various activities together.
We can’t ignore the fact that Hispanics are the second-largest ethnic group in this country. The mission field is right in our backyard.