Spanish-speaking church fosters more than a community

By Kaylee Baker
UNC Latino Beat Writer
the Durham VOICE

Adults sang through their smiles as happy children skipped around a tiny sanctuary screaming the words to a worship song, grabbing and shaking hands and hugging legs belonging to members of their church family. The congregation of “Iglesia Hispana Emanuel,” or Emanuel Hispanic Church, kicked off its Spanish-speaking service with a musical salutation Sunday, Nov. 6.

Singer Rosa Ramírez, electric guitar player Andrea Hernández and bass guitar Eric Rangel, members of one of the kids’ bands at Iglesia Hispana Emanuel (Emanual Hispanic Church), led the congregation in Spanish worship songs during the 1 p.m. Spanish-speaking service Sunday, Nov. 6. (Staff photo by Kaylee Baker)

“No importa a la iglesia que vayas, si a Jesús tu lo quieres seguir, si tu corazón es como el mío, dame la mano y mi hermano serás.” “[It does not matter what church you attend, if Jesus is the one you want to follow, if your heart is like mine, give my your hand and my brother you will be.]” The lyrics to the song “Dame la Mano Hermano,” the congregation’s boisterous tuneful greeting, represent the church’s mission to build a faith-based community.

“We’re about community empowerment, connection, advocacy and equipping people for leadership in the church and in the larger community,” said Marty Ramírez, church volunteer and wife of Reverend Julio Ramírez-Eve. “It’s quite different from most of the Latino churches out here.”

Iglesia Hispana Emanuel, located at 2504 N. Roxboro St. in Durham, shares building spaces and Christian denominations with its sister church, Northgate Presbyterian.

Emanuel prides itself in its attention to diversity and small communal congregation. The church is home to about 25 official members and about 80 unofficial members, said Remírez-Eve.

Fourteen-year-old Jennifer Carreon, an eighth grader at Durham School of the Arts, said the church’s size produces a family feel. “We do everything together,” said Jennifer. “We’re all a family. A big, big family.” Jennifer plays piano for one of the church’s kids’ bands.

Jennifer began attending the church when she was 11 years old. Upon her arrival, the church taught her how to play the piano, an instrument she had given up on two times before. His passion for the piano was evident during the service, when she, along with her fellow pre-teenaged and teenaged band members, led the congregation in worship songs. Jennifer said she enjoys playing in the band because it allows her to grow in her faith.

Although born in Phoenix, Jennifer feels a much bigger connection to Mexico than she does to Arizona or North Carolina. “My Mexican background is more important than my American background,” she said. “[As a Mexican] you can give more, like the culture, the music and the food – and a little spice and rhythm — to the American culture.”

The church offers an English-speaking service Sundays at 11 a.m. and a Spanish-speaking service at Sundays at 1 p.m. Jennifer and her bandmates agree the Spanish-speaking service is favored among the congregation.

“We’re all Spanish speakers here,” said Jennifer.

Twelve-year-old Rosa Ramírez, the reverend’s daughter and a singer in one of the church’s bands, said the Spanish-speaking service is better because there is more music and more rhythm. “The English-speaking service, it’s just the hymn book, so every song has pretty much the same tune,” she said.

Although the band plays at both services, its members use their Latino roots to add flair to their songs during the Spanish-speaking service. “But with our songs, the songs in our language, we can do rock, slow it up, rap, or anything else,” said Rosa. “It’s up to us, because we lead the music.”

One of the church’s main ministries, in addition to a church-led soccer team, a kids’ club, family counseling and the Food Bank, is the kids’ band or music ministry. The friendships formed in these ministries often trump those friendships formed at school, said band members.

The strong ties of their friendships are evident in the laughs band members share in their casual conversations, which are often full of “Spanglish” phrases. Band members Jennifer and Rosa, 13-year old Catherine Caleron, 13-year old María Hernández and 12-year old Andrea Hernández, joke about their advanced skills in the language.

“When I’m hungry, I just tell my mom, “Mama, yo estoy ‘ungry’,” said Catherine, as she used her hands to describe the scenario, her eyes wide and joyful.

After an explosion of laughter died down, María added, “I get words confused with Spanish or I pronounce them wrong sometimes. So, I put Spanish and English mixed together in a sentence. My mom tells me I shouldn’t do that.”

Almost falling out of their chairs from laughter, the noise grew even louder when María said, “And then when I´m looking for my shoes, I ask my mom, ‘dónde están mis shoes?’”

The church allows María and other teenagers the opportunity to fulfill leadership positions and teach younger children about the Bible. This particular Sunday, María led a group of five preschoolers, four of who were mainly Spanish-speaking. She read English verses from Genesis, but was more comfortable with the Spanish pronunciation the names of members of Abraham´s family. After, she explained the verses to the students in Spanish.

The church strives to live by its motto, “vidas cambiadas por Cristo, cambiando nuestra comunidad” or “lives changed by Christ, changing our community.” Logistically, in order to live out its mission statement, Emanuel offers various programs, including music lessons, computer lessons and Spanish lessons.

Ramírez-Eve, originally from the Dominican Republic, said these programs are tailored to the community members who wish to participate in them. Because the congregation is small but growing, participants receive more attention during lessons. On the other hand, members do not always participate for long enough to gain from the classes.

“The community continues to grow, but sometimes the Hispanic community does not grow with the community,” said Reverend Ramírez-Eve. “This is because families sometimes have to move to other places to find better jobs, move back to their own countries, or have to face deportation. This issue is affecting the community. Every year we bring in new members to the congregation. Although we love new members, the constant change is difficult for our church and its families in general.”

Ramírez said the church´s attempted solution to immigration issues is to be an advocate in the community and educate its members. For example, the church hosted an NAACP meeting with hopes of educating the African-American population in Durham about immigration issues.

“We help give the Durham people a strong faith and a community who supports them. Our church is a space where people can pray and express their concerns, pray for the struggles their families have and bring to God the situations they confront,” said Ramírez-Eve.

Through the hardships and times of joy, the Emanuel continues to strive to turn the community into a family. As its website says, “Una iglesia para crecer en familia. Te esperamos.” [“A church that grows a family. We await you.”]