Lessons Learned: Miami Edition

Here’s the alternate and longer title of this post: What a Nondenominational Gringa Learned at a Hispanic Church of Christ.

As many of my readers know, this summer I spent 10 weeks in Miami, FL, working with a youth group. And the church wasn’t entirely Hispanic, but I’d say over half of its members speak Spanish as a first language and tan much more easily than I.

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I was a misfit in a lot of ways. First, although I hate to admit it, I’m a gringa through and through: blonde, pale, and of European descent, born and raised in the southern part of the USA, with no knowledge of Spanish. Second, as could perhaps be gathered from my undergraduate institution and church affiliation, I tend to be a bit more theologically liberal than traditional churches of Christ.

How did this work out?

Well, it took some adjustment.

But this misfit gringa was welcomed, accepted, and loved in a way that makes me terribly homesick for what I now consider my Miami church family. This summer was a huge opportunity for growth and shaped me in so many ways. Here’s what I learned:

1. Spanish. I hardly knew anything when I first came to Miami, but a little more than halfway through the summer, I really started trying to learn. The love I had for these kids provided the motivation I never had in high school. I googled verb conjugations and studied them. I read beginner books in Spanish. I went to Spanish church services. And the last week of the summer, I went to Spanish camp. My vocabulary consists mostly of ministry words and sappy phrases – “I’ll miss you,” “Talk to you soon,” etc. I had some embarrassing blunders, such as when I was texting one of the college guys – I was trying to say that it was good to see Mark (my boss) again when he got back from North Carolina, but it was too mangled for him to make sense of it, so he asked me in English what I meant to say. Turns out I had said “it was good for look Mark another time.” I also had to learn that te amo is “For boyfriend! Not for me.”

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2. Terms like “black” and “white” are actually pretty meaningless. One of the youth group guys told me that I was white because I was born in the US. I was trying to explain that it’s a matter of heritage, not birthplace, and that if I were born to white parents in Honduras, I would not be Honduran but white. He clarified with a look of surprise, “I’m not talking about your skin color, I’m not racist!” Although I’m not sure if “white” as a cultural stereotype is much better. When I got home, someone asked me if Dominicans are black or Hispanic. I was like…”I have no idea. They’re Dominican.”

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3. Undocumented citizens, a.k.a illegal immigrants, are people. They’re not a group, or a statistic, to me anymore. They are names and faces. They are people I have hugged and kissed and shared meals with. And within the comfort of our middle class American bubble, it’s pretty easy to say what they should have done, or should do, or what should happen to them. But it’s not so easy when you know where they came from and why they came here. It’s not so easy when you look into their eyes and see them as unique individuals.

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4. After you have spent one-on-one time with a student, they are about 75% more likely to come to the next youth group event. If you want good turn-outs, invest more in the kids than the activities. Relationships are what really matter anyway.

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5. God’s love transcends racial differences, cultural backgrounds, and language barriers. Hugs and laughter mean the same thing everywhere. Love is a universal language. And there is nothing more beautiful than a dark hand holding a fair one. One of the most memorable moments of the summer was the last night I was in Miami, saying goodbye to the family of one of the youth group guys. His mom tried to tell me thank you in broken English, and I responded that I would miss them in hesitant (probably grammatically incorrect) Spanish. It was kind of a Spanglish struggle. We looked at each other, shrugged, smiled, and hugged each other. That was all we needed to say.

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6. For a long time, my identity was wrapped up in my outspokenness, my opinions, and my beliefs. But I’ve learned that I can have deep and meaningful relationships with people without vomiting every doctrinal thought I’ve ever had about eschatology and substitutionary atonement. I don’t always have to be right…I just have to be me. And I know now that those are not the same thing.

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7. Just because there are things that frustrate you about a church, doesn’t mean you give up. No church is perfect, but for every reason to leave, there are a million ones to stay. And I say this as an exhortation to you as well: Relationships are worth working through differences, giving up preferences, and getting over pride. If I had given up and gone home the first time I felt like it, I would have forfeited so many incredible experiences and relationships that now I wouldn’t trade for anything.

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