Sevierville spirit: Husband-wife team leads fast-growing Hispanic congregation
By Annette Spence
Pastors Wilmer and Susana Lopez celebrate
Holy Communion at El Ministerio del Espiritu
SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. -- Three years ago, Susana Lopez was a translator in a furniture factory. Wilmer Lopez made a living out of laying tile and carpet.
Today, the couple is co-pastoring what might be the largest Hispanic congregation in east Tennessee, and one of the fastest-growing Hispanic churches in the United Methodist denomination.
El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo, or “Ministry of the Holy Spirit,” is located in Sevier County, a congregation of First United Methodist Church of Sevierville. The Spanish-speaking congregation worships every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday night with an average attendance of 100 or more each night. Few of the worshippers attend all three services; most attend the night that fits their work schedules.
“It’s a noisy, wonderful time,” says the Rev. Charles Maynard, superintendent of Holston Conference’s Maryville District. He’s describing the standing-room-only services held in the chapel across the street from First United Methodist’s main building, yards away from the Great Smoky Mountain tourist traffic that streams through Sevierville each day.
When El Ministerio had its first United Methodist service in August 2010, just 18 people attended.
“Within eight months, we started to grow fast,” says the Rev. Susana Lopez, age 33. It wasn’t long before church leaders yearned for more space to accommodate their enthusiastic crowd, chock-full of children.
With three children of their own, Lopez and her 36-year-old husband are pastoring a church for the first time. They’re also introducing United Methodism to a community more familiar with Catholicism. A recent Gallup poll showed that while the majority of U.S. Hispanics are Catholic, younger Hispanics are increasingly shifting toward Protestant churches.
“At first, the people were afraid of what it means to be United Methodist,” Lopez says of her congregation. They believed worship services would have to be subdued, that music would have to come from a hymn book.
“We tried to show them that we could worship in our own way, while teaching what it means to be Methodist in the Wesleyan tradition,” Lopez said.
See more Sevierville photos on Flickr.
ANSWERING THE CALL
Since she was 18 years old, Susana Lopez knew that God wanted her to be a pastor. “But like Jonah in the Bible, I tried to run from it.”
Lopez was pressed to answer the call in 2010 when her brother, Arturo Reyna, called about a Sevierville congregation needing leadership.
The Rev. Reyna is a United Methodist pastor who helped start several Hispanic congregations in southwest Virginia and east Tennessee, territories of Holston Conference. Reyna saw another opportunity when he learned of a Pentecostal congregation that had been renting space from First United Methodist Church in Sevierville.
“The Hispanic pastor who started it was moving to Arkansas. He wanted to leave the church to someone who would take good care of it,” said Reyna, Hispanic coordinator for Holston Conference, which includes 897 total churches.
Reyna knew both his little sister and her husband were gifted to become preachers. When First United Methodist Church decided to adopt the Pentecostal congregation, Reyna summoned the Lopezes from their home in Galax, Va.
“I’m ready,” Wilmer Lopez said to his wife. “Are you ready?”
Within a month’s time, the Lopez family had moved in with the Reyna family in Morristown to begin training as pastors and transforming El Ministerio into a United Methodist church.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN
The new pastors quickly settled their congregation’s concerns about worship. The Pentecostal congregation had dwindled from a high of 65 to fewer than 20. The people who remained preferred to keep their loud, casual, contemporary worship with electric instruments and several praise singers, Susana Lopez said.
The style is typical of other Hispanic worship services in Holston Conference, including the tendency to surpass the standard one-hour time frame by an hour or two.
Children freely whirl around the sanctuary during music, preaching, and communion, joining in as they please. Inviting children to participate in communion was a United Methodist tenet the congregation accepted “quite well,” Susana Lopez said.
However, placing a woman in a pastoral role was more of a challenge for congregants with conservative cultural and religious backgrounds. In all the churches he works with, Reyna sets up regular Bible studies to educate church members about why United Methodists ordain women, baptize babies, and so on.
“The church is growing, so there will always be newcomers,” Reyna said. “But if we train our people in scripture, they will speak up about what we believe. Susana doesn’t have to defend herself. The others will.”
Aiding the success of the Lopezes’ leadership is the fact that they are a husband-wife team with different heritage, Maynard said. Susana was born in Dallas, Texas, to a Mexican family. Wilmer was born in Atlantida, Honduras. El Ministerio is a congregation comprised almost equally of people from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, with a few from Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
“Not only is the congregation able to see their pastors are different in gender and culture,” Maynard said, “but Susana and Wilmer are able to relate to people differently.”
“I am the right hand, he is the left,” Susana says of her partnership with Wilmer.
El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo has a busy schedule, a busy future, aided by a cast of lay members. Six days a week, the church has a 6 a.m. prayer service, attended by three to 12 people.
“We have no days off, and every sermon has to be different,” Susana Lopez says.
In April, the church had its first wedding. In May, Susana Lopez will graduate from Hiwassee College and consider her next step in higher education.
Last year, El Ministerio helped spin off a second congregation at First United Methodist Church in Gatlinburg, about 13 miles away. Leading the congregation are Susana’s niece and Wilmer’s brother, Edna and Marvin Lopez, another Mexican-Honduran couple. They preach to about 40 regular worshippers on Thursday and Sunday nights, largely Guatemalan and working in the tourist industry. A recent revival service drew 100 from the community to the church known as Iglesia Metodista Unida de Gatlinburg .
See Gatlinburg photos on Flickr.
Soon, church leaders will have to address the problem of needing more space for the Sevierville congregation. It’s a good problem to have, says Reyna, since Holston Conference hasn’t chartered a Hispanic congregation since 2001.
In fact, Reyna was the first pastor of the only Hispanic church officially chartered by Holston: Iglesia Puerta Del Cieolo Metodista Unida, or Door of Heaven United Methodist Church, located in Galax, Va.
Since then, Reyna has helped start most of the nine other Hispanic congregations in Holston. The Spanish-speaking church in Sevierville “could be the next chartered congregation,” says Reyna, to help the United Methodists serve a growing population.
- Sevierville spirit: More info on Holston Hispanic ministries (The Call, 4/15/13)
- Are we being the neighbor? Update on Holston Hispanic ministries (The Call, 11/16/07)