By Tyler Sprouse, TWK Communications Specialist
With more than 40 community members, a strong youth presence, and an abundance of joy in the Spirit, the Agua Viva (“Living Water”) Hispanic Ministry Fellowship, a Latin American faith community in the Caney Fork River District, is flourishing.
How quickly things can change in a year.
In early summer of 2021, the community’s future was in jeopardy, and its roughly 15 members were reeling. It looked like they might not survive.
The Caney Fork River District Superintendent, Rev. Donna Parramore, was confronted with a difficult decision. In light of challenges and hardships the community faced in years past, she had a choice: assign a new pastor or risk a different approach.
“Rather than send this community a new minister,” reflected Rev. Parramore, “I decided to take the ‘holy chance’ of moving in a different direction.”
Parramore called on Rev. Myriam Cortes, the pastor of Iglesia Metodista Unida Ebenezer and chair of the TWK Committee on Hispanic/Latino Ministries, to help assess the situation, decide on next steps, and shepherd the community in a new direction.
“They [the Hispanic Fellowship] had no real plan for reaching out in the community,” said Rev. Cortes. “They needed a change in their DNA.”
According to one of the community leaders, Alicia Perdomo, this decision was frightening. “The moment we learned that a new pastor was not coming, we were worried for our ministry,” Perdomo said. “But, even during this uncertain time, I knew our community had a hunger and thirst for the love of God; because of this, I knew that, someway, we would continue.”
The perseverance that pulsed through the group affected other folks within the community–particularly those who, in the midst of the preceding turmoil, temporarily left. Fabian Valtierra was one such person. “I saw people trying to keep going,” Valtierra said, “and that made me want to come back.”
Over the course of the next four months, Rev. Cortes met regularly with members of the community, talking and worshiping with them and listening to their concerns. Standing at this pivotal threshold, knowing that the way forward was not at all clear, they made a decision to leap into the unknown–together, by faith.
“I remember telling the community, ‘It’s going to be a journey, but if you’re willing, we will walk together,’” said Rev. Cortes.
Alongside Rev. Cortes, the community also walked with the Hispanic/Latino Committee. From the beginning, they surrounded the community with their prayers, love, and presence. Some of the committee members have facilitated training sessions; others helped plan and organize the training events, as well as participated in the monthly meetings.
So they started down a different road. At the heart of this new approach was an emphasis on communal responsibility for their collective growth, witness, and learning. According to Rev. Cortes, whose own ministry passion centers on raising up and empowering the laity, everyone had to trust that “God’s power was sufficient to see this through.”
Meeting in members’ houses, the community dedicated itself to impassioned study. They completed El Aposento Alto (an Upper Room devotional guide), met regularly with Rev. Cortes’s church for Zoom training sessions and virtual worship services. They started (and are currently completing) the UMC lay missionary training through the Hispanic Latino National Plan, and they worked through resources from Discipleship Ministries and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
There were also learning opportunities initiated by the Hispanic/Latino Committee. Some of the committee members facilitated training sessions; others helped plan and organize the training events, as well as participated in the monthly meetings.
In the midst of such intensive learning, Rev. Cortes stressed that the group had to maintain an “outward, missional focus” in relation to the surrounding community. She wanted to harness their excitement for studying the scriptures, and, like a hydraulic engineer working with an irrigation system, channel it into an enthusiasm for bearing witness and reaching out beyond the walls of the house meetings. They were charged to share their joy with others. “I told everyone that they had to bring two new people to each event,” reflected Rev. Cortes. “They knew that I would follow up with them each week to see if they had invited new people.”
Up to this point, the group had been called the “Cumberland Hispanic Fellowship.” As they continued learning and growing, however, a particular identity took shape–one that necessitated a new name: Agua Viva (“Living Water”) Hispanic Ministry.
With a new name and a refreshed focus, they began collaboration with another United Methodist church: Crossville UMC, joining the latter on the first Sunday of every month for a communion service. Amidst the language barriers, Rev. Cortes emphasized something deeper and more fundamental that united the two groups: the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. “Although they [the service participants] may not fully understand each other’s languages, they understand the love that is powerfully present,” said Rev. Cortes.
Crossville UMC and Agua Viva Hispanic Ministry continue to celebrate communion together; they also collaborate on a bi-lingual youth program.
Looking ahead, Agua Viva Hispanic Ministry has numerous events planned, as well as visions for further growth: They have a blueprint in place for a scholarship program aimed at aiding children in the community; they have a local church training scheduled, with twenty-seven persons already registered; and they’ve made plans to hold routine budget trainings–all of which were initiated by the community members, in conjunction with the Hispanic/Latino Committee and the Hispanic Latino National Plan. They’re also pushing back against and expanding old leadership models, with female community members taking on teaching roles within Bible studies, a dramatic break from prior patriarchal structures.
When asked what this community means to them, their answers were unanimous. As one community member, Francisco Flores, put it, “Being a part of this ministry gives me the strength to keep going during the hard times.”
Another person exclaimed, “There is so much excitement here because of what God is doing!”
Where once the river bed was parched and dry, waters now surge and rapids burble. The evolving story of the Living Water Hispanic Ministry is evidence that God continues to transform deserts into flowing streams.