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A Test of Faith : Presbyterians Aim to Revitalize Church, Reach Out to San Gabriel Latinos

December 11, 1986|DENISE-MARIE SANTIAGO | Times Staff Writer

When Luisa Silva was a child, the bell atop the Divine Saviour Presbyterian Church clanged half an hour before Sunday services, calling parishioners to prayer.

Silva, 77, whose great-grandfather helped found the church, has not heard that comforting sound for more than 30 years.

Members of the Irwindale church have been afraid to use the bell over the years, fearing it was improperly installed and might fall from its anchor. But even more worrisome is the condition of the 84-year-old stone church itself.

Some of the blue and yellow stained-glass windows are held in place by deteriorating wooden window frames and some of the floor tiles in the sanctuary are disintegrating.

'Hard to Keep Our Head Above Water'

"We're a very small church," Silva said. "It's hard to keep our head above water."

Silva and about 35 other members of the predominantly Latino church have joined with the San Gabriel Presbytery in a fund drive to repair the building.

However, efforts to restore the church's physical structure are only part of a five-year project undertaken by the church and the presbytery to strengthen the church's long-standing ties to Latinos in the central San Gabriel Valley.

"We hope it (the project) will make the Presbyterian church more effective in ministering to larger racial communities," said the Rev. R. Stephen Jenks, chairman of the presbytery's congregation development committee.

The project is focusing on Latinos in Irwindale, Baldwin Park, La Puente and Walnut who are not being served by a Presbyterian church, said the Rev. Victor M. Negron, who was hired in March to head the project and to serve as Divine Saviour's first full-time pastor since 1981.

"I think that all big ventures have to have a starting point," Negron said. "The same way Jesus began with 12 disciples, our church, even though it's small and has had a checkered past in terms of growth, can be revitalized to do a big work."

Negron said Presbyterian officials will meet next month to set specific goals for the project. Latino neighborhoods will be canvassed over three years about their particular needs.

Results of the survey will be presented to the San Gabriel Presbytery, which is sponsoring the project with the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii and the church's General Assembly.

The presbytery will decide whether Divine Saviour, whose congregation has dwindled from more than 100 at its peak, can meet the needs of the growing Latino community or whether new churches should be established to serve the target area.

"The Presbytery has become sensitive to the fact that we must develop services for Latinos," said the Rev. Rafael J. Aragon, associate for Hispanic Ministries for the Synod. He said about 3,000 of the church's membership in Southern California worship in Latino congregations, while an unknown number of Latinos belong to white parishes.

Potential and Need for Growth

Presbyterian officials say some churches, such as El Buen Pastor Presbyterian Church in Azusa and Emmanuel Hispanic Presbyterian Church in Claremont, are already serving Latino neighborhoods. But they say there is a need and a potential for growth in other Latino neighborhoods in the central San Gabriel Valley.

According to Negron, Presbyterian congregations have been largely composed of middle-class white members. Only in recent years has the church begun to reach out to women and minorities, including Latinos, blacks, Asians and American Indians, he said.

But Presbyterian ties to Latinos in the San Gabriel Valley date to 1888, when Divine Saviour became the first organized Spanish-speaking Presbyterian congregation in the state.

Although the Presbyterian Church is committed to integration, the presbytery's Jenks said, "we also realize that often integration has meant powerlessness to ethnics."

There is some value, he said, in maintaining congregations that minister mainly to ethnic groups.

"If you come into a group and are of a different color or language, you may find yourself in a situation where the majority culture doesn't represent who you are," he said.

Positive actions have resulted from a more racially diverse church, the synod's Aragon said, pointing to the church's divestiture of companies that do business in South Africa and opposition to immigration reform laws that allegedly discriminated against Latinos.

'Influencing Social Justice'

"Some of us have been influencing social justice," he said.

There has been resistance from some church members to the growing emphasis on ethnic ministries, Aragon concedes, because of fears "that many people in society have that Hispanics will take over neighborhoods or institutions.

"There have been some members who feel that we are letting too many ethnics into the church, but we recognize that the society is changing and we must change with it."

'Wagon-Loads of Boulders'

According to a short history compiled by church members, the stone building was completed in 1902.

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