EAST SIDE Hispanic church thrives

The church is celebrating its 50th anniversary next weekend.
YOUNGSTOWN -- An East Side church is building bridges between cultures and generations.
Spanish Evangelical Church, 1408 Rigby St., was established 50 years ago when a group of steel workers who came from Puerto Rico had little choice of where to go to church. There was a Baptist church for Hispanics, but the group decided to establish a Pentecostal church affiliated with the Assemblies of God, which is based in Springfield, Mo.
Services were in Spanish, but as the congregation grew a need arose to add English, said the Rev. Rolando Rojas, pastor. Marriages were bringing in spouses who spoke only English, and in Hispanic families the second and third generations born in the United States were not learning Spanish.
Faced with similar circumstances, most Hispanic churches have remained with totally Spanish services and others have switched to all English, the Rev. Mr. Rojas said. Spanish Evangelical took a different route -- bilingual services.
"It's a good combination. We've adjusted very well," Mr. Rojas said.
Mr. Rojas said that each Sunday he switches between presenting the service in Spanish with an English translator and speaking English with a Spanish translator.
"We try to make it flow. Keep it short. Make it easy," he said.
Several ethnic groups
One challenge to the system is that within the Hispanic community there are several ethnic groups including Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Bolivian, Mexican and Guatemalan, and different regions use different words, he said. A word that may be OK to use with one group could mean something different to another.
Mr. Rojas consults a Spanish dictionary used universally by Spanish speakers, and the congregation lets him know if there is a problem.
The bilingual emphasis also has overflowed into many other aspects of the church including Bible studies.
The practice has attracted Hispanics from throughout the Mahoning Valley and Pennsylvania. It also has brought in college and high school students interested in learning Spanish and knowing more about the culture, Mr. Rojas said.
Church programs
The church offers classes in Spanish, and in English for Spanish speakers. In addition, agencies, the courts and the pastors of other churches have called upon Rojas and his parishioners to act as translators. Pastors of English-speaking churches also have asked for literature for Spanish-speaking parishioners. The church also visits area jails and the Juvenile Justice Center and offers orientation to new immigrants, Rojas said. Five churches have called upon Rojas and his congregation to provide translation on mission trips into other countries.
Spanish Evangelical, which has an average attendance of 160, also tries to appeal to the other cultures represented in its congregation, which includes blacks and whites, he said. That means musical events will include not only salsa and other Hispanic music, but also hip hop and soul, he said.
The church was housed in several places until 1961 when it bought a building at 823 Wilson Ave. It was there until 1996 when the congregation moved into the former Roosevelt Elementary School at Rigby and Jackson streets. Currently, the congregation is trying to sell the old school building and build a church, Rojas said.
Celebration plans
Plans for next weekend's anniversary celebration include a banquet from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Elm Tree in Struthers with Puchi Colon and the Salsa Praise Band. Four original members of the church will be honored.
Next Saturday, the church will have a picnic from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Willow Ranch with a pig roast, cultural foods, bouncy rides, a petting zoo and hip hop music. Services Sunday will feature the Rev. Dr. Adolfo Carrion, superintendent emeritus of Spanish Eastern District of the Assemblies of God.
Mr. Rojas is the seventh pastor of Spanish Evangelical. He has been leading the church for nearly five years. The Rev. Cruz Collazo was the longest-serving leader, having been pastor for 27 years.

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