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Giving Fellow Hispanics A Feeling Of Home

Area ministries reach out to the growing population of Spanish speakers in the Ozarks.

Linda Leicht, News-Leader

May 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003
News-Leader. All rights reserved. 

Hugo Villagrana has filled dozens of bags with groceries. He hopes Hispanic families in Springfield who need help will stop by St. Luke's United Methodist Church today to accept them as a gift from God's people.

"We feel God calling us," said Villagrana of the work he and wife Norma are doing at the church. "Our purpose is to serve him."

The couple and their two young children recently came to Springfield from their native Mexico to start Mission Hispana la Trinidad to meet the spiritual needs of the Ozarks' Hispanic community. They found a population of Spanish-speaking people who have many needs, including food.

Mostly, they have been "helping," Villagrana said.

The Hispanic mission is part of the "Hispanic initiative" of the national United Methodist Church. The Rev. Sue Watson, superintendent of the church's Western Ozark Region, said that plan involves "the development of worshipping congregations" of Spanish-speaking Christians.

It also involves reaching out with a social mission.

Mission Hispana la Trinidad is only one effort to work with a growing population of Spanish speakers in the Ozarks.

Villagrana's parents, Fausto and Alma Villagrana, have been serving since 1996 at the First United Methodist Church in Monett, where chicken-processing plants have drawn a large Hispanic population to the small town that straddles Lawrence and Barry counties.

Other Christian denominations -- including Assemblies of God, Baptist, Episcopal and Roman Catholic -- have also reached out to that population in the Ozarks.

Last November, Hugo and Norma Villagrana left Mexico, where he was a civil engineer and she was a lawyer and teacher, to become missionaries in the Ozarks.

"I've been doing social work more than evangelism," said Villagrana, sometimes pausing to find the right English word. He has tried to help translate for people who often find it difficult to fill out paperwork, visit a doctor or speak with their children's teachers.

Some also find themselves in legal trouble, without necessary immigration documents.

The arrival of the Villagrana family took about a year longer than hoped, said Watson. "Because of September 11, the process was stalled," she said.

For many Hispanics in the Ozarks, that paperwork process has been overwhelming. They came anyway.

"Some are coming with green cards. There are others who are not," said Watson.

Legal status does not determine who is helped, those who are involved in Hispanic missions say.

"In the name of Christ, we reach out where there is need," said Watson.

Miseal Gonzalez has served as the Hispanic minister at First Baptist Church of Springfield for more than a year. His father, Samuel Gonzalez, is also a minister and founder of Centro Familiar Cristiano in Springfield in 1995.

Like Villagrana, the 24-year-old Gonzalez leads home Bible studies, coordinates activities and preaches. But most of the time he is "helping people out," often with legal troubles.

Letting people know that they are not alone can make a big difference, Gonzalez said.

Sacred Heart Catholic church has been a "welcoming parish" for Hispanics in the Springfield area since 1996. Immigration issues have always been a problem, but since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, those problems have grown.

Father Joe Peplansky and Sister Laureana Perez both respond to the many needs of their congregation. The "heightened awareness" of immigration issues since Sept. 11 has created an "intensity in fear" that has further complicated those efforts, Peplansky said.

An attempt to take a census of church members proved nearly impossible because of the tension, said Perez.

But there have also been some positive changes.

Peplansky has seen Sacred Heart's Hispanic membership become more stable with more children speaking English.

About eight of the church's Hispanic members are graduating from high school this year. At least four of them are going on to college. One has been accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"Their parents are beginning to see the need for education," said Peplansky.

For Perez, a native of Puerto Rico, her work with the Hispanic community is her way of living out the Gospel. But the opportunity to watch people regain their sense of worth and experience their own richness is a blessing for her.

"It's beautiful to watch."

Hispanic ministries

  • Mission Hispana la Trinidad at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, 1505 W. Atlantic. Spanish language worship services, 1 p.m., starting May 11. Free food pantry, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. first Saturday of each month. Call Hugo Vallagrana at 224-4934.
  • Hispanic ministry at First Baptist Church of Springfield, 525 South Ave. Spanish language Sunday services at noon in the chapel. Call Miseal Gonzalez at 447-4357.
  • Sacred Heart Catholic church, 1609 N. Summit. Spanish language worship at 12:30 p.m. Sundays. Call Sister Laureana Perez at 869-3646.

Photo Caption:Hugo Villagrana unloads food at St. Luke's United Methodist Church. Villagrana and others are hoping that Hispanic families in need will stop by the church to pick up groceries from the Hispanic food pantry.

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