Ulysses churches team up to reach diverse community

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10-year partnership grows beyond two churches that share facilities

by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest

Bilingual flyers in hand, members of two congregations—New Life Church and Templo Betania Hermanos Mennonitas—canvass their Ulysses, Kan., neighborhood with an invitation to their annual block party. Working in bilingual teams, they are able to communicate with every household, 40 percent of which speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Kansas isn’t the first state that comes to mind as having a high percentage of Spanish-speaking households. But over the years, the cattle country, familiar rural agriculture-based communities and more recently work in the oil and natural gas fields have drawn many Mexican and Mexican-American families to the southwest region of the state. In Ulysses, more than half the population of 6,000 is Hispanic.

Two years ago, the New York Times featured Ulysses in a story highlighting the changing demographics in rural Kansas (“Hispanics Reviving Faded Towns on the Plains” Nov. 13, 2011). While the descendants of longtime Anglo residents were leaving their small communities, the article explained, Hispanic families had flooded in to fill the gap, reviving the economy with an entrepreneurial spirit.

New Life Church, Ulysses’ Mennonite Brethren English-speaking congregation, is finding a similar spiritual revival in a partnership with Pastor Angel Martinez and his Spanish-speaking congregation, Templo Betania, which is also affiliated with USMB.

“Before they came to be with us, we were somewhat status quo,” says New Life elder Ted Goertzen. “But their passion for nonbelievers has awakened our awareness to the lost around us.”

The partnership began about 10 years ago as an agreement between the two congregations to share facilities. Pastor Martinez was meeting with his congregation in a cold, substandard building. “The only warm thing about it was their hearts,” recalls Goertzen.

Martinez heard that New Life was a place that would “lend a hand.” He found that to be true as New Life began to share their campus with Templo Betania and then pastor Nathan Gift partnered with them in ministry trips to establish a church in Martinez’s home region in Mexico.

“Those trips were really a blessing to me and my family,” says Martinez. “When we came back it was like we had charged the battery in our spirits.”

With the Hispanic church established under local pastoral leadership, the Ulysses churches have turned their focus to strengthening the fellowship between their two congregations and together reaching out to the community.

On a typical Sunday morning, the campus of New Life Church reflects the makeup of the town’s demographics. Some 60 members of the English-speaking congregation gather in the sanctuary for a service that just a few years ago switched from traditional style to praise team-led music.

Meanwhile, Martinez and his wife, Concepcion, who are both ordained ministers in the Pentecostal church, lead a younger and very lively congregation of 30 in the church’s fellowship hall. The sounds of their adoration and praise sometimes spill over into the more sedate atmosphere in the sanctuary.

“We’re pretty much a rowdier crowd, clapping and saying amen,” says worship leader Marcos Martinez, Martinez’s son. The children get involved, too, waving flags and dancing during the worship music.

On the first Sunday of every month the two congregations take their partnership a step further with a joint worship service and fellowship meal.

The congregations’ praise teams lead worship together for the joint service, tapping into Templo Betania’s talented drummers and musicians who play by ear alongside the more musically trained New Life praise team members. Templo Betania brings their flags and all the children join in the dynamic worship, tempered slightly for the mixed congregation.

“When we combine, we bring it down a little notch,” says Marcos Martinez. “New Life has a few more elderly members than we do, and we understand that at the combined service we need to meet the needs of a variety of ages. But we also want to let the Holy Spirit do what he is going to do.”

“It’s a rockin’ good time,” says Goertzen. “There’s a lot more hand waving and hallelujahs than we usually experience (at New Life). It’s a taste of what heaven is going to be like.”

The congregation sings in both English and Spanish. Sometimes Pastor Angel Martinez will lead in an emotional time of prayer as he feels the Spirit lead.

New Life is part of a network of Kansas churches called Crosspoint, who receive a weekly video-fed sermon and other teaching resources. Pastor Martinez, who has no formal education, and other leaders at Templo Betania appreciate the resources New Life can provide them through Crosspoint.

“I translate the teachings that are given during our fellowship Sunday and give them to the pastor,” says Marcos Martinez. “We learn a lot of things through the classes, and on Sunday mornings we work out of the resource packet and the music we get from them.”

Together the two congregations are finding creative ways to reach their diverse community. The annual block party brings the neighborhood together for a Saturday of food and games. A church float filled with children and decorated with both English and Spanish highlights their joint ministry as part of the community’s parade.

As in the community, the cultural lines sometimes blur between the two congregations. Second-generation children of immigrants may not speak their parents’ language or identify with their culture. Templo Betania has been able to reach young people who are in that place between cultures. And some Hispanic families from the community have begun to attend New Life.

“We would like our congregation to reflect the community,” says Goertzen. “It’s because we work together that they feel comfortable on either side.”

“Every tongue, every nation will bow down,” Marcos Martinez adds. “It’s sometimes challenging when you have two different races seeking the Lord with their own understanding, but we’re both seeking out those who don’t have Jesus in their hearts.”

Photos by Susan Ault

Photo 1: Children from New Life Church and Templo Betania Hermanos Mennonitas, two USMB congregations in Ulysses, Kan., participate in the monthly joint worship services as they wave flags during the service.

Photo 2: The passion Templo Betania has for nonbelievers has "awakened our our awareness to the lost around us," says New Life elder Ted Goertzen. 

Photo 3: Meeting the needs of a variety of age groups and cultures is the goal each month when the two congregations have a joint worship service. A music team comprised of member from both New Life and Templo Betania lead singing during the Jan. 5 worship service.

Photo 4: The monthly joint worship service also includes a fellowship meal. o

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