Church celebrates Christmas in English and Spanish

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Julia Hernandez receives a candle after leaving a Spanish and English Christmas service with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Jasmine Martinez, and the child’s mother, Norma Pineda, far left, at Hawkins United Methodist Church Monday night.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[12/23/03]Jose Juarez of Monterey, Mexico, doesn’t speak much more English than “I don’t speak English.”

Now that he’s living in Vicksburg with his son and daughter-in-law, the language barrier keeps him and others who speak only Spanish from understanding local church services.

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“I would attend if they were bilingual,” Juarez said Monday evening through a translator.

He and about 100 others did just that Monday when Hawkins United Methodist Church held its first two-language service.

“Las Posadas,” a skit performed at the church about Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay for the night, dates to Augustinian Father Diego de Soria in 1587.

It was selected for members of Vicksburg’s growing Hispanic community. The Rev. Mitchell Hedgepeth, pastor at Hawkins, and the Rev. Goyo de la Cruz of Forest read Bible verses and sang with the congregation in English and Spanish.

Dr. Bob Ford, a physician and member of Hawkins, said church members first thought of reaching out to the Hispanic residents after going to Mexico earlier in the year.

“We just felt the calling,” Ford said, “and now we’re working on it.”

The church also plans to begin offering English as a Second Language courses. Ford said the classes will be taught through instructors at the Vicksburg branch of Hinds Community College. Classes will be from 5 to 7 on Sundays and from 6 to 8 on Tuesdays.

The Monday service didn’t go as planned. Sally Beville, director of Hispanic ministries for the United Methodist Church of Mississippi, had planned to lead the program while Hedgepeth and Cruz assisted. However, Beville’s house caught fire Friday, and it was burglarized Sunday, so she didn’t make it to Vicksburg. The two pastors improvised before the service began, each taking a leading role in the service.

Lin Cheslek, missions director at Hawkins, said she was pleased with the result.

“This is a challenge, but you have to start somewhere,” she said.

“I thought it went very well,” Hedgepeth said. “I watched people’s faces; they were involved and paying attention.”

Cruz said Mississippi’s Hispanic population is increasing, and the need for bilingual outreach is growing, too.

The 2000 Census showed 514 Hispanics living in Warren County, but some believe the actual population may be three or four times that number since many Hispanics are transient workers who aren’t easily counted by census workers.

Marie Thompson, 123 Katherine Drive, who also translated during the service, said bilingual programs will make Hispanics more comfortable with attending services.

“We’re lacking it (in Vicksburg),” Thompson said.

After the service, people gathered in the fellowship hall for soup, hot chocolate and a pinata.

Hawkins member Mike Biggers said he enjoyed the events. “It’s nice to see how other cultures celebrate Christmas,” he said.