By Roland Lovstad
Like starting a mission in a foreign country, Gospel mission on the U.S.-Mexico border is a process of planning and coordination, especially when three LCMS districts are doing the work.
Since beginning about 10 years ago, Frontera (Spanish for “frontier” or “border”) Ministries — a cooperative effort of the Pacific Southwest, Rocky Mountain and Texas Districts — has given high priority to identifying and training leaders. Now, as three unique training efforts are up and running, the districts are working with a second goal of planting new churches.
“With our three districts covering the border, we need to get together and keep talking about how we are doing Christ’s mission to Hispanic people, in particular along the border with Mexico,” states the Rev. Randall Golter, president of the LCMS Rocky Mountain District. “The fundamental reason is that there is a need for the Gospel, which knows no geo-political boundary.”
By working together, he said, the districts can see what God is doing through His people in various parts of the church and how the districts can learn from each other.
Last September, the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations held a consultation at one of the border locations — Ysleta Lutheran Mission in El Paso, Texas — to gather information for a document providing theological guidelines on immigration and ministry to immigrants.
While immigrants are coming from all parts of the world, the Hispanic growth has been significant: census data shows that one of every six U.S. residents is Hispanic, and one of every four people under 18 is Hispanic.
Frontera Ministry grew out of a 2001 conference of pastors and laity from congregations within 50 miles of the Mexican border from Texas to California, according to the Rev. Kenneth Hennings, the LCMS Texas District president. As the participants focused on how to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with concentrations of Hispanics on both sides of the border, they encouraged the mission executives of the three districts to continue to move the mission forward.
From that, Frontera Ministries was formed to encourage the exchange of information and build cooperation. Hennings, who was the Texas District mission executive and a co-convener of Frontera at the time, said, “We wanted to make sure Frontera was represented by people doing ministry on the border, so we have a number of pastors from these districts that serve on the board along with the three district presidents and the three district mission executives.”
Since its beginning, Frontera has expanded the range of the mission to include roughly 80 miles on each side of the border. In addition to twice-a-year meetings of the board, the directors of the three district training centers also meet for a day before the regular meeting. The ministry also connects with the Institute for Hispanic Studies at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and Lutheran Hour Ministries.
“As we looked at the challenges, we said the first and foremost task is to recruit and train workers — not necessarily pastors because of the time it takes to train a man to be certified for pastoral ministry,” said Gary Norton, the Pacific Southwest District mission and ministry facilitator, who also was a Frontera co-convener. “Instead, we want to be able to train workers so they could be used in the planning and the development of new churches.”
Planting churches on the U.S. side of the border is within the realm of the districts. However, Norton noted that Frontera Ministries also is sensitive to Mexican government laws regarding churches, as well as seeking to maintain a good relationship with the Lutheran Synod of Mexico, a partner with the LCMS.
The training in each district has taken different forms.
In Texas, the Missional Worker center began about two years ago, focusing on intentional outreach in the Rio Grande Valley. The center’s goal is to enhance the ministry of LCMS congregations by identifying and training members who have a desire to do outreach, according to the Rev. Ed Weber, a district missionary serving the Rio Grande Valley. He and the Rev. Steve Morfitt serve as co-directors of the program.
“To use an Advent analogy, we are training modern-day John the Baptists to be ‘voices’ crying the message of repentance and comfort in the wilderness of today,” Weber said in an email.
The 12-month program begins with a one-day seminar, followed by continuing education, coaching and mentoring. Monthly seminars focus on understanding the Bible, Christian doctrine, leadership and specialized ministry topics. So far, about 50 men and women have been involved and are using their talents in diverse ways — such as working with couples and families, serving the elderly, reaching unchurched women and using music for street evangelism among youth and children.
Norton notes that little Christian gatherings spring up in concentrations of Hispanics on both sides of the border. “From that group arises a candidate to be their pastor who is not fully qualified,” he continues. “So we in Pacific Southwest have been involved in the training of these workers. Congregations have sprung up where people have gathered and a stronghold has been established.
“We’re certainly training more Spanish-speaking workers on the U.S. side than we are in Mexico, just because this is where we are stronger,” he said. There are about 50 people enrolled in the U.S. training program.
The Rev. John Durkovic, a former missionary to Guatemala, works half time for the district and half time for the Center for Hispanic Studies with the responsibility to establish learning places. A number of district pastors who are comfortable in speaking Spanish volunteer to teach courses.
Working with LCMS World Mission, the Rocky Mountain District launched the Lutheran Hispanic Missionary Institute (LHMI) four years ago at its Ysleta mission site in El Paso. LHMI provides courses in basic theology to prepare men and women for lay leadership roles. After completing the first level of study, students may continue with the Center for Hispanic Studies to become LCMS-rostered pastors or deaconesses. Until this year, when English was added, the courses have been taught in Spanish.
“A study by Duke University identified access to theological education to be the biggest need for Hispanic ministry in the U.S. across all denominational lines,” stated the Rev. Richard Schlak, LHMI director. “For this reason LHMI offers its courses at an extremely low cost — $50 per class — to the students,” he said in an email.
LHMI also develops educational materials that are used in many parts of the world for catechism instruction and worship.
The institute now offers instruction via the Internet. Although most of its students are in the U.S.-Mexico border area, LHMI has students in Colombia, Venezuela and Peru, as well as states in the U.S. heartland. Last summer Schlak taught a one-week course on worship in Colombia to 70 students.
“We always try to coordinate with whatever theological education program might be available in their own country,” Schlak said. “Our goal is not to compete with others, but to help others and to facilitate missions.”
Until last fall when Lutheran Hour Ministries transferred its ministry center to Mexico City, Melissa Salomon served as director of Lutheran Hour Ministries in Mexico, working out of the border town of Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. “I have benefited from the broad cross-participation of leaders who see the border as the unique region that it is and who think and care deeply about the movement of people coming from the sout
h to the north and what unprecedented opportunities this gives us for Gospel proclamation,” she commented.
While the border has been a gateway from south to north, Salomon believes the issues of border ministry are important for the church at-large as the LCMS becomes more culturally diverse. “This includes a whole variety of important issues having to do with multicultural outreach, leadership, church planting, mission movement, worship and spiritual-life models,” she said in an email.
Salomon, who served with LHM for 15 years, is now a coordinator of Edificando Generaciones, which is continuing work that was begun in the Tijuana area. She also serves on the U.S. side of the border with the mission planting team of Concordia Lutheran Church, Chula Vista, Calif.
Lutheran Border Concerns Ministry (LBCM), an independent Lutheran organization, has operated out of San Diego since the 1950s, offering social ministry in the poorest areas of Tijuana. LBCM has expanded its ministry to home construction with the help of volunteers from churches throughout the U.S. During the 1990s, five churches also were dedicated.
The Rev. Ramon Contreras, LBCM ministry coordinator, has participated in Frontera meetings and sees formal education for pastors and laity as a next step in bulding strong, committed leadership. Via email, he noted that the training has been on the U.S. side of the border to this point. “Since we are in the beginning of that new stage, to educate and train people, we have seen more people getting involved to do ministry,” he stated. “There are more possibilities to expand the ministry to other locations by training the locals and sending them to the open mission fields.”
Noting the growing Hispanic population — about 25 percent of the 9 million people in the Rocky Mountain District (Colorado, New Mexico and Utah) are Hispanic — Golter points to the great potential for Gospel ministry. While congregations recognize the mission field in their communities, many don’t know how to approach it, he said.
He said Frontera Ministries is trying to point the way to address the Global South movement, adding, “How can we get the Gospel to them?”
Roland Lovstad is a freelance writer and a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Perryville, Mo.
Posted March 9, 2012