OKLAHOMA CITY — More than 200 youths, from as far away as Las Vegas and San Diego, traveled to the heart of the U.S. to hear preachers talk about holiness and to sing songs of praise — all in Spanish.
In the hallways of the Oakcrest Church of Christ, the teens fellowshiped — and flirted — bilingually, floating in between Spanish and English.
The fourth “Reunion Nacional Juvenil” (“National Youth Conference”) was designed to “preach the Gospel to the young people,” said Felix Martinez, minister for the Southeast Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. The Spanish-speaking congregation hosted the event, using the facility of the Oakcrest congregation.
The conference, launched by a group of Spanish-speaking ministers in the U.S., is similar to youth events in Mexico, said Victorino Martinez, minister for a Church of Christ in Rogers, Ark. The minister grew up in Mexico and graduated from the Baxter Institute, a ministry training school, before moving to the U.S.
One goal of the conference is to show young, Spanish-speaking Christians who grow up in small congregations that they are part of a larger body of faith, Victorino Martinez said.
The Rogers church brought a group of 35 to the conference, including 14-year-old Carla Martinez and 15-year-old Patty Rivera. Both were born in the U.S., the daughters of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. On Sundays they worship in Spanish with their congregation. During the week, they speak English at school.
Many of the youths, including those from Rogers, attend churches that are entirely Spanish-speaking. Some attend congregations with separate English and Spanish services. U.S.-born Latinos, who are fluent in both languages, can provide a vital link between the language groups, Felix Martinez said.
But the children of immigrants also can feel that they don’t fit in with either group, according to Dan Rodriguez, a third-generation Hispanic-American and associate professor of religion and Hispanic studies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
Rodriguez has researched churches and found that many Latino youths are “lost in the hallway between the fellowship hall and the main auditorium,” he said, referring to the common meeting places of Spanish and English services.
Rivera said that she has seen some of the youths at her church leave the faith after they move away from home.
She’s also seen others who have grown in their faith, becoming devoted followers of Christ as they mature, she said.
One such follower is Ben Hobbes, an Oklahoma Christian University graduate who was born and raised in Guatemala, where his parents served as missionaries. Addressing the youths at the conference, Hobbes asked how many of them were born outside the U.S. A few hands went up.
Then he asked them how many had family born outside the U.S. Almost all the attendees raised their hands.
“Add that to the fact that we follow Christ and his teachings, and you realize that we’re a pretty unique group of people,” Hobbes said.
That uniqueness often leads to questions, including, “How am I supposed to grow and develop if part of me feels like it’s almost in another world?” Hobbes said. “How do I take these parts of me and put them together in a way that honors and glorifies God?”
He challenged the youths to study God’s Word — particularly the stories of God’s people in exile, living in foreign lands.
Despite the struggles, God still used such people to do great things, Hobbes said.
“It could be that God has a specific plan for you just because of who you are and just because of where you came from,” he said.