When Fredy Pavez was ministering to his congregation in Vina Del Mar, Chile, a Southern Baptist pastor from Amarillo, Texas, asked for his help. The cleric explained that his city had a growing Hispanic population but his church’s attendance was low, and he wanted to know if Pavez would consider coming to Amarillo to help.
So on July 4, 1999, Pavez arrived in the United States and became the pastor of Iglesia Bautista Fuente Viva (Living Fountain Baptist) in Amarillo. He saw that a key problem concerned communication — his predecessors didn’t speak Spanish.
“When you don’t have someone from your side who speaks your language, it’s really hard. So both sides were struggling to get together,” he says.
A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 80 percent of U.S. Hispanics identify as Christian, with the share of Catholics steadily dropping. Many Americans often don’t understand how diverse the Hispanic population is, says Pavez, and those differences can cause misunderstandings and distrust among congregants.
“Most people believe we all speak the same Spanish, that we all have the same background and education, and that everyone understands the culture the same way,” he says.
In fact, Latin America is home to many different languages, dialects, and cultural norms. A word that has a positive connotation in one country might have a negative one in another. Pavez notes that because he’s from Chile, people assume he likes spicy food. But that’s not what he’s accustomed to. “I lost 20 pounds the first month because most people think all Hispanic people eat spicy food,” he says.
Pavez realized his primary task at his new church was not to preach, but to listen. He began visiting families at home and at work to see what their needs were, both materially and spiritually. When new families came to town, members of the church’s benevolence committee would check in to ask if they needed new furniture or other household goods and to make sure the children had enough to eat.
“We went to send a message that we are here. This is what we are going to do for you. We’re giving you stuff, but we aren’t trying to buy you. If you want to visit our church, we will provide you with the Word,” he says.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas has called for “proactive involvement of ministry activity among immigrants, documented and undocumented, through prayer and action.” The organization states: “The Bible teaches and the ministry of Jesus instructs that believers are to minister to the ‘alien’ and the ‘stranger in the land.’ ”
We have to learn to walk with our head high and do what is right, do what is legal, to give us peace.
Pavez hopes that the American media and the U.S. government will recognize the important contributions that immigrants make and feel empathy for those who are fearful and wary. “What is in the media is scaring people to death,” he says.
On the flip side, he says, those who enter this country must respect its rules. “We have to obey the law,” he says. “I’m teaching the community to pray for and support our president, our leaders, and our community, because that is what the Bible says. We have to learn to walk with our head high and do what is right, do what is legal, to give us peace.”
Pavez sees a bright future for the country if people can all work together. “We have so much promise. Why we don’t concentrate on loving each other as Jesus says?” he says. “That way, we can possibly make a big difference in this world.”