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Wapato pastor connects families to resources

Envisioning a new church start to be like first-century house churches or like lay-led base communities in Mexico, the Rev. Jillian Ross walks with people in Wapato to understand their lives and to build trust.

Jillian Ross
Jillian Ross

With a worshipping community of 50 people in five families—with 30 children—she helps under-employed and unemployed Hispanic families with food, water and other resources, with transportation and support services for medical care, and with solidarity as they work extra jobs to assure their children will have nice clothes and school supplies.

The Yakima Valley Hispanic Outreach Ministry was started seven years ago by the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) when two local pastors saw a need for outreach to Hispanics in the Yakima Valley.

Jill came three years ago to this congregation, supported grants, local foundations, benevolences and 15 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations in the Yakima Valley, the Tri Cities and the Walla Walla area.
The ministry exists to serve a marginal community, poor immigrant families whose skills, connections and resources are limited, Jill said.  Many are single-parent households with no father present. 

“Coping to provide children with the basics leaves mothers with no time or energy to help these children adjust and thrive,” she said.  “Most mothers lack the skills to help even first graders with homework.”

So her presence with the families is to ensure that the children thrive and that the parents know God is with them, and they will have enough food and love.

Working in ecumenical partnership, the church has an office at the Wapato Community Presbyterian Church and at the Central Washington Presbytery’s Campbell Farm, which helps host programs such as a summer program for children.  Worship services are held at homes, the Presbyterian church and Campbell Farm.

In August, Jill and Campbell Farm staff took nine children from nine to 12 years old for Abiendo Caminos, a week at Holden Village for Spanish speakers.  Staff and teachers for the week taught 200 people from Yakima, Wapato, Leavenworth, California and Minnesota.

“Some had never been on vacation.  They were in the wilderness praying to God in their first language and growing in self-esteem,” Jill said.  “One woman sat in a jacuzzi under the stars.  She said she had seen such an image on TV, but never dreamed of doing it herself.”

The children asked theological questions to learn what it is to be Lutheran and they will form the core of a confirmation class,” she said.

Most of the parents are monolingual Spanish speakers, while the children are bicultural and bilingual, Jill said.

The community has a social ministry focus.  Many families live in homes with no electricity or running water.

“So a pastoral call includes seeing that their needs are met.  There is much they live without,” she said.

While life is hard, parents have the same desires for their children as other Americans.  They want them to have new opportunities.  Parents work in the fields and are poor, but have dreams for their children.”

“Coming here after working in ministry among 25 million people in Mexico City—in some of the poorest neighborhoods—I was shocked at the level of poverty here in the U.S. among the 4,000 people in Wapato.  I was surprised at the lack of basic social services here,” she said.

Jill, a 1993 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union, went to Mexico first as a college student and then spent more than eight years in ministry there.

She lived with a Presbyterian pastor’s family in a small community, assisting him in ministry in six rural villages.  She also spent time in a Catholic Christian base community in Mexico City.

In both settings, local pastors saw their role as planting seeds for churches run by local lay leaders, in tune with the liberation theology of the Christian base community movement.

Representing the Lutheran Church at the San Pedro Marter Church, she helped the parish build ecumenical ties and felt respected and supported as a woman pastor.  Jill also worked with Good Shepard Lutheran Church in Mexico City.  There are 10,000 Lutherans in this country of 90 million people, she said.

In both work with the churches and travel to 28 states in Mexico, Jill sought to learn why people migrate and what it’s like for those left behind.

“Many leave villages where the way of life, language and cultural tradition had been self-sustaining but now cannot survive.  The rich cultures are fading,” she observed.

She first saw part of the story of migration when living in the Napa Valley in California.  She moved there as a visual artist and teacher and eventually decided to become a pastor.  Then she worked as a chaplain at the Marin General Hospital.  As a pastor, she sought ways to bridge the culture and language barriers.

While on a six-month sabbatical at Holden Village to explore her call after returning from Mexico, she learned of the opportunity in Wapato, where she now finds more of the story of migration as she interacts with children who are bilingual and bicultural, and opens their families to resources.

Through liturgy, baptisms, preaching and weddings, she intersects with people’s lives.

In a Bible study for adults and youth, Jill finds many are from Catholic or Evangelical roots, but have lapsed in church participation.  Adults come to church and Bible study so their children will learn about faith.

Meeting in worship and study, members of the families come to know each other and their gifts, and are stretched to be resourceful in a community with limited resources and services.

Jill believes there are alternatives to living in poverty or assimilating to the consumer society.  She models an alternative, unpretentious way of being fed from her years in Mexico where people rely on relationships enhancing healthy living, rather than the entertainment-focused life here.

She lives simply in a low-tech house.  She has a TV, phone and boom box, but no computer.

“I have means, an education and a job with steady income,” she said, recognizing that those aspects of her life separate her from those who lack education and steady incomes.

While people lack things, they want basics—transportation, good schools and clothes,” she said.

So she helps access resources and services to provide those basics.  When people need social services, Jill goes with them to help them access the services, but she clarifies, “I’m not a social worker.  We do not advertise social services.  We are simply a church helping meet needs in our community.”

She responded when the school principal contacted her, concerned that a family burned out of their home might become lost in the social service system.  Jill followed them as they moved from a hotel to a homeless shelter to a new home.

“I walk with people in the community.  As a church, we care about our neighbors,” she said. 

For information, call 877-7785.

By Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - Copyright © September 2004