July 26, 2016
by Patrick Anderson
Rev. Herman Perez crossed the United States-Mexico border every day for 13 years to share his Christian faith with followers, but he and his family were ready for a change.
“Honestly, I don’t know, it’s really hard to explain this,” Perez said. “The Lord put it in my heart: He’s going to take me out of the area.”
The 53-year-old pastor followed his heart to Sioux Falls. During a serendipitous visit to South Dakota, Perez met a pastor from Celebrate Community Church, who told him they needed a Spanish-speaking pastor to meet the religious needs of the city’s growing Hispanic population.
A surge of immigrants from native Spanish-speaking countries is creating a run on local altars. Church leaders are on the hunt for pastors capable of shepherding Hispanic congregations as Central American and South American families come to the area for its low unemployment and lack of crime.
The Sioux Falls metro added nearly 2,500 Hispanic people between 2011 and 2014, a period of steady growth of native Spanish speaking families in the community.
Classroom data indicates the trend will continue. Intake numbers from the Sioux Falls School District show more children are coming from Spanish speaking families.
School officials funnel hundreds of new students into the district’s English Language Learners program each year. The percentage of Spanish speakers spiked in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.
“It was very apparent, particularly in our Elementary Immersion Center this year,” said Kristin Grinager, a former ELL instructional coach who is now high school curriculum coordinator for the district. “The classrooms changed.”
The trend has picked up in recent years, but religious groups have long been following the rise. The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Mary began offering a Hispanic ministry in 2002 after U.S. Census data showed a jump from 1990 to 2000.
Caminando Juntos offers English classes, counseling and legal services to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Sister Janet Horstman, the ministry’s immigration specialist, recently noticed a distinct increase in her workload. It comes not only from families who come to Sioux Falls from other countries, but from the secondary immigration of families who move to the area from Texas and California, Horstman said.
“As a community we try to pay attention to unmet needs and respond when we’re needed,” Horstman said.
Sioux Falls isn’t alone. Hispanics are one of the fastest growing groups in the country. Most live in the southwest and Florida, but pockets of the Midwest are experiencing some of the highest rates of growth, said Jens Manuel Krogstad, writer and editor at Pew Research Center in Washington D.C.
“Traditionally a lot of the Hispanic population in Iowa and South Dakota and parts of Minnesota have been centered around certain jobs and industries, especially meat packing,” Krogstad said.
Perez moved to the area from San Diego, Calif., last month with his wife. His son had already moved to Sioux Falls because of the work opportunities available, and Perez learned from him and others there was a growing number of Latino families.
Spanish speakers come in search of jobs. They also come for the growth itself – friends and family are in the area and so is a budding Hispanic community.
“It’s nice,” Perez said. “My wife likes it. I like it.”
Rev. Otto Garcia moved to Sioux Falls last year to lead the Spanish-speaking congregation at Centro Cristiano De Sioux Falls, an American Baptist church.
He was offered the job because the American Baptist system recognized the trend and needed a pastor. Garcia was already leading a church near the Los Angeles area, but the offer gave him a chance to escape a neighborhood filled with crime and violence. His home in Palmdale, Calif., was surrounded on all sides by gangs, Garcia said.
“It was a healthy environment for our kids,” Garcia said. “That’s why we fell in love with it.”
The trend isn’t just affecting Sunday head counts. It inspired churches to expand other support services to the growing number of families who need childcare, food, counseling and employment help.
A group of Lutheran churches has been doing its own research in anticipation of Sioux Falls’ growing Hispanic population. Researchers for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America predict the city will continue to add thousands of immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Spanish-speaking nations.
The ELCA joined the group of churches in Sioux Falls catering to that population. Rev. Jeanette McCormick moved to Sioux Falls in 2012 to lead Pueblo de Dios, a growing Spanish speaking congregation. She plans to transfer leadership to a person from the local Hispanic community soon, but the church has already hired an extra staff member and is looking for bilingual social worker to offer more support to families.
McCormick recognizes the growth not just in congregation numbers, but in need for her church’s youth programming and social services.
“I think we’re simply following a pattern that has always been there,” McCormick said. “Churches fill that important role in the community of being a gathering space.”
Source: Argus Leader