Rev. Francisco Pelaez-Diaz
Hispanic missionary pastor, College Hill Community Church
My story: “I came here five years ago from Puebla, Mexico, through an exchange program of the Presbyterian Church. I started a Hispanic ministry in [Dayton neighborhood] College Hill. After the program finished, I had to go back to my country, but the church wanted to continue the ministry and offered me a job. I’ve been here since then. I love in the McPherson Town neighborhood, and I love it.”
On creating a Hispanic ministry: “It has been exciting. Challenging at times, but good in general. Obviously, there was this need on behalf of all these Hispanic families who didn’t have a worship home. It is an assumption that most Hispanics are Catholic; the majority are, but there are others in non-Catholic Christian denominations, including Presbyterian. Our congregation is about 213 members in total. Attendance on Sundays is usually around 75 or 80, and at certain times we reach 120 or so.
It is not just a Hispanic congregation. We have African-Americans, we have Caucasians, we have Africans and Hispanics. We offer three services every Sunday: one in English, one in Spanish, and our most well-attended is bilingual. Usually the Hispanics who come for the Spanish service stay for the bilingual because they have children who are more comfortable with English, so in those cases we have something to offer the whole family.
On services offered: “Since we believe in being a multicultural church and welcoming everyone regardless of background or socioeconomic status, we believe in making this congregation a two-way effort. Americans learn Spanish, and Hispanics and Latinos learn English. We offer ESL classes and Spanish lessons, all free. The Dayton Library offers free computer classes, and at one point they even contacted me to teach one in Spanish because they wanted to reach out to the Hispanic population as well.
We have offered family workshops where we try to make parents aware of the cultural differences here, because one of the issues is that parents try to raise children the way they were raised in their own countries and the parents usually on’t receive any cultural training, so they don’t realize why their children grow up in America with a different set of values and social practices. We try to help parents and children adjust to the new cultural and bilingual environment.
We have a Spanish-language flea market, and in Hispanic Heritage Month, we have a festival with Mexican and Hispanic food. We do the Three Kings celebration in winter; in Hispanic culture, this is tied to Epiphany, when children receive their gifts [as opposed to Christmas for Americans], and we educate the congregation about that. We have a Hispanic-American Easter breakfast with both American and Hispanic food. We try to keep the Hispanic cultures alive and educate Americans about that, and vice versa.”
Why Dayton? “It is amazing the way this congregation has been able to embrace different people and cultures and languages. It has been surprising for me because I was expecting more resistance, and that wasn’t the case. It has to do with the history of this church. In the 1970s, the neighborhood was mostly white, and as other cultures began to move in, there was discussion about whether they wanted to keep the church there or move it somewhere else where it could still be mostly white. They took a vote, and by four votes it was decided that they would stay and open to everyone. They have a history of embracing diversity ever since, and they had no issue at all with welcoming these people and reaching out to me.
It goes all the way. There is now a church elder who is a Hispanic female, and a Hispanic deacon, and the congregation has always been open to giving us the opportunity to share power and express ourselves and be part of decision making. So it’s not just about allowing people to have their celebrations, it’s about the entire life of the congration. We are fully integrated. That is my dream, and that’s why I got involved in this Welcome Dayton initiative–because I believe it’s possible. I am living it every day.”