The awful news spread quickly last week. The building of Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee was destroyed by a fire. (See photo by Pastor Gilbert Varela) It’s such a painful blow for this faithful congregation! Lord, please, have mercy upon them, encourage them, revive them!
I’ll forever be grateful for my ties to Eastminster, which began in the fall of 2001 while I was Hispanic Ministries Coordinator of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. I asked the Eastminster session for permission to use their facilities to reach out to Hispanic residents in the area. They voiced some concerns, since their Anglo membership was small, aging and declining. Earlier that year, the sanctuary ceiling had caved-in. Pews and aisles were buried under mounds of debris. Without the means to clean things up, electrical power had been cut, doors padlocked, and worship relocated to the fellowship hall. Hearing my proposal, the session questioned the church’s ability to be in ministry with Latinos, and they wondered what risks might be entailed. Nonetheless, on faith the session agreed to grant use of several rooms.
In early 2002, my wife, Bacilia, and I started offering English classes and Spanish-language Bible study at Eastminster on Thursday nights. Within a month or so, a group of 25 undocumented immigrants were participating. Most of them were from Mexico and Honduras, working low-paying jobs and wiring funds back home. Although none had Presbyterian backgrounds, they already were beginning to sense a connection.
One Thursday night, they asked if they could go into the sanctuary. Hearing that it was in shambles, they still wanted to take a look. I found a key and a flashlight, and we ventured in. Aghast at the condition of the once-elegant worship space, they turned to me and asked, “How soon can we return to clean up this mess?” I referred their question to the session, and soon a Saturday work day was scheduled. All day long, the Latinos labored alongside the Anglos, carrying out rubble and moving pews. The church women prepared lunch. At day’s end, an unlikely bonding had taken place. A host of barriers had been discarded with the rest of the trash. Any qualms by church members about the Hispanic ministry were gone. More work days followed, and within a few months the sanctuary was restored.
On the heels of this experience, a Sunday-afternoon Spanish service got underway, while the Anglo members continued to worship on Sunday mornings. I was called to serve as pastor of both groups, and eventually they blended into one growing, multi-lingual congregation. The fusion triggered a seemingly endless string of innovative ministries—some successful, some not, but each filled with life, love, and laughter. One long-term goal was that the session become half-Hispanic/half-Anglo, and gradually, by God’s grace, the goal was reached. (See photo of congregation in 2010) After eight amazing years, my family and I left to serve the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala, where we still are.
Now the sanctuary has been reduced to ashes, along with the fellowship hall, the classrooms, and most everything else. Though it might appear that another Presbyterian church has bit the dust, I wouldn’t write-off Eastminster yet. This church has a history of coming back from the dead. It’s their resilient character, their godly nature, an essence that’s built into their very name—Easter. I praise God for this church, with humble people who respond in unexpected ways to adversity, saying things like, “How soon can we return to clean up this mess?”