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In heart of Dallas-Fort Worth, two Spanish-speaking congregations merge

'We are bringing together three churches,' says an elder of the English-speaking host church.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Besides a Family Dollar store, the shopping center across the street from the Hillcrest Church of Christ features a Latino market called Supermercado El Rancho.

Those with dirty clothes can’t miss the nearby lavandería (“laundromat”).

Five years ago, Arlington’s burgeoning Hispanic population inspired Great Cities Missions — best known for training and recruiting missionaries for Latin America — to plant a Spanish-speaking congregation in the heart of Dallas-Fort Worth.

That church plant shares space with the English-speaking Hillcrest church and is known as the Arlington Iglesia de Cristo — Spanish for “Church of Christ.”

On a recent Sunday, the Latino body took another step in its growth and development by merging with another Spanish-speaking congregation.

Elders of the Hillcrest church welcomed the merger. Most Sundays, the English-speaking service starts at 9 a.m., followed by Bible classes at 10:30 (children and teens of both language groups meet together) and worship in Spanish at 11:30.

“How can this diverse body come together and grow? Some say it can’t. I say, if God is behind us here today, how can it not work?”

But on this Lord’s Day, about 200 Christians joined together at a bilingual celebration assembly and then ate grilled cheeseburgers and carne asada — a Hispanic specialty with fajita beef — at a multicultural potluck.

Today, we are bringing together three churches,” Hillcrest elder Alfred Wood told the combined group. “When you consider how many different countries, cultures, races and the ages of brothers and sisters that are represented here, how can this diverse body come together and grow?

“Some say it can’t,” Wood added. “I say, if God is behind us here today, how can it not work. Amen?”

“Amen!” the crowd replied.

Jesus Rodríguez, minister for the Spanish-speaking Arlington Iglesia de Cristo, visits with Manuel Calderón, left, at the celebration assembly at the Hillcrest church.

When God answers prayers

In the 1950s, Arlington — once a small, rural community — became a boomtown as the opening of a General Motors plant sparked a population explosion.

Amid an influx of young families, the Hillcrest church opened on the east side of town — growing so rapidly that, even with a 450-seat auditorium, it required two Sunday morning services.

“When I came and visited around 1968, you went in the auditorium and sat shoulder to shoulder,” Wood said.

But over the decades, longtime members who raised their children in the congregation moved away. The neighborhood around the church struggled economically. The nearby population grew more and more Hispanic.

Church leaders tried to sell the building and move to a more desirable area. However, nobody made a suitable offer. God, it seems, wasn’t finished with the Hillcrest church in its original area.

Church members arrive for worship in Arlington, Texas. The Hillcrest Church of Christ and the Arlington Iglesia de Cristo (“Church of Christ”) share space in the building.

“This has always been home to me,” said Johnnie Nelson, 71, a Hillcrest member for 60 years. “So I was thinking about how many days, months, years we’ve prayed for growth. And God just gave it to us.”

But that growth didn’t come in the way members might have envisioned.

“They don’t sell the building because God knows that we need it,” said Jesús Rodríguez, a native Puerto Rican who moved from Arizona to Texas with his wife, Carmen, to help plant the Hispanic congregation.

Nationwide, the Latino population has topped 57 million, up from 22 million three decades ago, census data shows.

“We want to see more churches planted by Hispanic teams in predominantly Hispanic communities in major U.S. urban centers,” Scott Emery, a former missionary to Chile who is Great Cities Missions’ director of U.S. teams, said in 2015. “We are in need of good candidates for such teams and in need of partnering churches willing to support them.”

In Arlington, the number of Hispanic residents exceeds 116,000 — representing nearly 30 percent of the city’s 393,000 residents.

In September 2012, the Hillcrest church began sharing its building with the Arlington Iglesia de Cristo.

Along the way, the English-speaking congregation found a new calling in helping nurture and grow its Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters.

When Woody Woodrow retired in 2015 after 20 years as Hillcrest’s minister, the elders — Carroll Hickey, Dan Smith and Wood — hired a bilingual preacher named Trey Henry, who grew up in mission fields in Colombia and Honduras.

Much of Henry’s work is typical for any minister: sermons, classes, bulletin articles, outreach, visits, weddings, funerals and interactions with the English-speaking congregation.

But there’s an added dimension to his ministry in a congregation in which the native speakers have become the minority in the church hallways.

“I regularly work to help brothers and sisters understand each other across language and culture,” Henry said. “My goal here is that we all work through life together learning more and more what it means that we’re all made in the image of God. … The Spanish comes in handy when trying to help folks cross the bridge of the unfamiliar.”

Members of the Spanish-speaking congregations — newly merged — and their English-speaking host church enjoy a fellowship meal after Sunday worship.

No specific roadmap

Since 2012, the Arlington Iglesia de Cristo has grown to about 75 members. The children and teens — most of whom speak English — meet in combined Bible classes with the Hillcrest young people. The English service averages Sunday attendance of about 65.

Gabriel Rodríguez, son of Jesús and Carmen Rodríguez, serves as youth minister for the Hispanic and Anglo teens and leads worship for the Spanish-speaking assembly.

Christopher Cabrera reads from Psalm 133 during the Celebration Sunday assembly in Arlington, Texas.

“Everything is in English,” Gabriel Rodríguez said of the combined youth classes. “If I have any kids that have trouble with English, I accommodate that by translating or allowing them to speak Spanish to me. But all of my kids — pretty much 100 percent of them — understand English really well.”

On this recent Sunday, the Hispanic church plant merged with the Freetown Road Iglesia de Cristo, a group of about 60 served by preacher Juan Carlos Bautista.

After meeting in the annex building of a Church of Christ in Grand Prairie, the Freetown Road group had outgrown the available space. But there is plenty of room for the merged body at Hillcrest.

“Our members are more young families,” Carmen Rodríguez said. “They have people who are a little older with more experience … and a little more wise in their responsibilities as members of the body of Christ. So we sincerely hope that our members can learn from them to have that same attitude, to get more involved and see the potential of everything they can do and become leaders in the group.”

While Hillcrest hosts the Hispanic church plant, four other congregations help sponsor it: the Granny White Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn.; the Legacy Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas; the North Davis Church of Christ in Arlington; and the Woodland West Church of Christ in Arlington.

Hillcrest’s elders said they envision a day when the English and Spanish congregations might truly become one body — with elders from both groups working together to lead a combined church.

But the elders said they don’t want to create problems — with either language group — by moving too quickly. For now, the focus is on making sure that everyone who worships in the Hillcrest building considers it their own.

“We don’t use ‘they’ and ‘us,’” Smith said. “The hardest thing we had to do was get them (the Spanish-speaking group) to feel comfortable with this building. They would say, ‘Oh, this is your building; we can’t do this or that.’ And we kept saying, ‘Yes, you can. You’re part of us.’”

Trey Henry, right, is the preacher for the English-speaking Hillcrest church. He grew up in Latin American mission fields and was hired in part because he is bilingual.

A 15-minute free period before Bible class each Sunday is designed to enhance fellowship between the Hispanic and Anglo members.

“In that time, we can all be together in the halls, sharing a doughnut and getting to know one another,” Smith said. “We need to wear our nametags more often. I think for the next couple of months (after the merger), we certainly need to do that.”

Keeping the focus on God will allow everyone — regardless of native language — to move forward with no fear of the future, Henry suggests.

“We have no specific roadmap,” the minister said, “besides seeking to have servants’ hearts toward each other and giving ourselves over to the guidance of God.”

Filed under: National News Top Stories One Nación Under God Texas

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