NBTS E-Story

Eria and Hector Santiago

In the Language of Your Heart: Spanish Program for Lay Leaders

What language do you display on your tablet, laptop, and phone? English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, German, and Dutch show up on the screens of our Seminary community. And if your heart were a tablet, as the Second Letter to the Corinthians suggests in Chapter 3, what language would you select for its most critical programs?

For Eira Santiago, a student in the Seminary's 1-year old Spanish-track Certificate Program in Theological Studies, the answer depends on the context.

Eira and her husband Hector emigrated from Puerto Rico less than two years ago. The official language of her workplace, Thomas Grover Middle School, is English, which she studied while getting her B.A. at the University of Puerto Rico in Physical Education. Now as she supervises 8 custodians that clean 252 classrooms daily for 1,200 students, Eira also employs Spanish, especially one-on-one. Hector who fabricates large ceramic crucibles for melting precious metals earned his degree at Missouri Baptist University and also is enrolled in the NBTS program.

Since the oldest of their three children is 7 and attends public school, Hector and Eira worry how to keep their Puerto Rican language and culture alive for their kids.

On Sunday morning, the answer is clear. At the First Baptist Church of Trenton, they serve as ushers to greet participants and help lead the congregation during all-Spanish worship. "We understand the church is a big responsibility," explains Eira whose name is German. "You need to have good preparation to give other people the truth. It's confusing out there with many new churches; you have to explain with love and respect, what Jesus taught."

Hector feels a strong call to reach out to youth. Gangs are prevalent in the church's Trenton neighborhood. "We are missing the teenagers and young adults," he says. "We don't have a youth minister."

Demographics of American churches show increasingly the Spirit is moving hearts in Spanish-language worship services (see the Pew research cited below*). Yet most divinity programs in the U.S. require English-language proficiency.

Today unmatched growth in ethnic churches is found in populations that are chronically under-served, according to Matilde Moros, Assistant Dean of Special Programs & Initiatives. Students like the Santiagos in the Spanish certificate program are stepping up to meet the need.

As Moros explains, multiple approaches are critical. "We need to keep encouraging Hispanic leaders to complete Masters of Divinity, Masters of Arts, DMins and Ph.D's. We can't let up on that," stresses this Latina who also serves as faculty supervisor of field education for all the Master of Divinity students at the seminary. "But we have to realize the barrier to entry is very high."

Masters candidates first demonstrate a proficiency in English, must have a bachelor's degree, and commit to a two or three-year course of studies including a field practicum.

By contrast, students in the Spanish Track Certificate in Theological Education program earn their certificates by attending classes on Saturdays, taking up to two courses, costing $300 per course, in each of 4 semesters, including Church History, Servant Formation, Servant Leadership, Biblical Interpretation, Christian Ethics, Old Testament, New Testament, and Theology.

"To become a leader you have to know the truth," explains Hector. "At worship you hear the minister's message, about how to live for the week. But at the Seminary I learned how the apostles and the first Christians started the church. We never heard about the persecuted church at worship. For us worship is easy now, but the first Christians fought and died to help people understand about Christ."

The demands on young families like the Santiagos are tremendous. Hector works 12-hour days. The couple rises at 4:30am Monday to Friday. Spending every Saturday at the Seminary is a huge stretch for them--in time, money, and babysitting. But they are committed. "Someday we will be pastors," exclaims Eira. Hector nods in agreement.

To Moros, the new program reflects the changing face of our country. "In the distant past, immigration was typically irrevocable," she explains. Like the men from China who completed our transcontinental railroads, our country's initial voluntary and involuntary immigrants were typically very poor or slaves. They couldn't return home. In the Americas, however, people can and do return. "Here they have homes, work, children, but still they can go and visit grandma and connect with churches back home. Perhaps they will help build a school. The relationship continues."

As people increasingly live in multiple worlds, the Seminary's commitment to in-language education will need to grow as well. As Assistant Dean Moros points out, two critical aspects of Reformed Tradition trace directly back to Martin Luther. "The first is Luther's insistence on translating scripture to the vernacular, accessible to everyone. The second is the education and leadership of the laity." The Spanish-track Certificate Program serves both at traditions at once.

* For demographics and trends, see the following:

1. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: U.S. Religious Landscape Survey--Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic. February 2008.

2. Pew Hispanic Center: Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion. March 2007.

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