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SO FL SUN-SENTINEL
Lifting Up Many Voices
By Tal Abbady
August 18, 2004
For one man, it is a place to hear the Spanish-language hymns of his youth and keep from spiraling after the murder of his daughter and ex-wife.
For a budding businesswoman, it was the source of donations and support that allowed her to open her own store and live the success that eludes many immigrants. For yet another woman, it was simply an evening of song and prayer to the sound of maracas.
Whatever their circumstances, members of the Boca Glades Hispanic Baptist Church form part of a growing spiritual niche amid the trimmed suburban lawns west of Boca Raton.
Most say the place they call "Iglesia Bautista Hispana" is far more than a place to worship. Led by David Polo, who also was a pastor in his native Colombia, the church draws its flock from the South and Central American enclaves of Palm Beach and Broward counties to whom it offers practical help in the difficult path to assimilation. Its intimate services, such as the celulas de oracion, or prayer circles, and its rousing Sunday masses incorporate the communal, musical traditions of members' home countries.
At a Wednesday night prayer circle, Polo held a plastic guiro, a musical instrument typically made from pumpkin rind, while worshipers shook maracas and tambourines. Polo began the prayer circles as a way to attract potential congregants who are only free on weeknights or don't have families and would find comfort in the small, living room circles where members gather to pray and eat home-cooked food.
"People come to the celulas because they are wracked with illness or have personal troubles or have just arrived from another country and are jobless and disoriented," said Priscilla Acevedo, a Boca Raton resident originally from Puerto Rico who hosts one of the church's five prayer circles.
"Remember that when we gather here we are thinking of those in our countries and our prayers to them are made stronger," Acevedo told the group.
Miriam Gonzalez, 66, followed Acevedo's introduction with guitar-strummed melodies she learned as a girl in Nicaragua.
In the middle of each celula service, members fill out small paper forms in which they include their names and written supplications -- spiritual appeals asking for a personal problem, their own or someone else's, to be solved. Referred to as "petitions," they are collected by the pastor, who clutches the stack in one hand and prays that the appeals be heard.
Beginning in 1996
The Boca Glades Hispanic Church began in 1996 as a 30-member, Spanish-language ministry within Boca Glades Baptist Church. In 2000, with 65 members, it became independent and offered youth programs, Bible-study groups and services, drawing its membership from Palm Beach and Broward counties' growing Hispanic population.
Many of its members were born Catholic but joined Boca Glades for its focus on community outreach and festive services.
When he's not leading services, Polo is a successful hair-transplant surgeon whose practice recently was featured on Univision, a Spanish-language network.
The intimate, celebratory worship of the Wednesday-night groups is only one way the church meets the needs of its largely immigrant members. It also has become a referral service for those seeking immigration lawyers, low-cost medical attention, employment or English classes. Acevedo distributed a directory of legal and medical practices catering to immigrants at a recent celula.
"We have quite a few people who have come to us who are here illegally and need legal help or medical attention but don't know where to go," Polo said.
Members also have counted on the congregation's support to get on their feet financially.
Natalie Romano, 42, of Puerto Rico was able to open her Boca Raton store selling second-hand merchandise after the church took up donations of furniture, clothes, silverware and knickknacks for her.
"When you come here as an immigrant you seek out people who are most accepting of you. Protestant churches like this one have done a great job of reaching out to newcomers from other countries," Romano said.
Francia Bornstein, 46, who lives west of Boca Raton and leads Bible study classes at the church, said Boca Glades helps immigrants learn the ways of their adopted culture and assimilate.
"When you come here from another country, you have people trying to sell you things for 10 times what they're worth or take advantage of you in other ways," said Bornstein, who is from Venezuela. "Some of these people have come with nothing, and they found a community."
Finding a space to hold its swelling numbers has not been easy, Polo said.
Sunday services are held in a gymnasium in the Family Center on the grounds of the Boca Glades Baptist Church on Oriole Country Road. For a while, youth services and other meetings were held in a cramped trailer.
A year ago, Boca Glades Baptist Church officials asked Polo to change the schedule of his Sunday mass from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. because parking, shared by both congregations for Sunday services, was too tight. When Polo agreed, he lost half his flock. After working out a compromise, the Hispanic church now holds its service at 11:30 a.m. and has restored much of its Sunday attendance.
Among those to join its newly scheduled service is Leo Castillo of Delray Beach. At a recent Sunday service, he stood with Polo in front of the congregation while a small chorus of church singers serenaded to mark his 43rd birthday.
Castillo joined the church six months ago, shortly after his ex-wife and 19-year-old daughter were beaten to death in California as they walked to work on the graveyard shift at a laundry service. The much-publicized homicides left Castillo, originally from Mexico, a broken man.
"I don't master English, and it's helped to come here and be surrounded by my language," said Castillo, who works as a food runner. He attended the service with his 8-year-old son, Eric. "But above all, I've received such strong spiritual support here. This church is united, it's a family."