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A greater church family

Sonya Luna leads the church in Michigan in Latinx ministries

Despite the pandemic in 2020, Wesley Park United Methodist Church was one of many congregations paying 100% of Ministry Shares. That enables the Michigan Conference to make a difference with programs like Latinx Ministries.


GLENN M. WAGNER

Michigan Conference Communications

A Google search estimates that in 2020 there were 128.45 million families in the United States, more than doubling the 53.8 million households reported in 1960.

The Bible teaches the importance of families, citing filial respect for parents as a source of long life and security. “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”  (Exodus 20:12) 

In the book of Acts, a Roman official named Cornelius is praised along with his devout family. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”  (Acts 10:2)

Proverbs 22:6  teaches the importance of family in passing faith along to children. “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old, they will not turn from it.”

Healthy churches, like extended families, can be a source of support for many.

This report will first look in greater detail at Wesley Park United Methodist Church, a vibrant congregation that, like a strong extended family, finds ways to maintain healthy ministry even during a pandemic. 

The second part of this story will lift up the significant state-wide Latinx ministry led by Sonya Luna with financial support from Michigan United Methodist Ministry Shares that is extending church family across cultures.

Supportive faith community

Dean Prentiss, Pastor of the Wesley Park United Methodist Church, is enthusiastic about the importance of family.  Wesley Park UMC is a vital congregation located just 4.6 miles southwest of downtown Grand Rapids, MI, in suburban Wyoming. Dean’s genuine smile and gracious spirit flow from a deep appreciation for the importance of family and the necessity of a healthy greater church family.

Dean has served in Michigan United Methodist churches for 26 years and at Wesley Park for the past decade. He especially values that Wesley Park is a loving and supportive faith community.  Dean is profoundly grateful for the way that the church family is enhancing life for Will. Will Prentiss is 15 years old, deaf, and thriving. The church holds a central place in Will’s life. Sign language is woven into worship, and the church has learned new ways to communicate. There is a deep appreciation at Wesley Park for how strong the church can be when all are welcome and included. Dean and Adrianne Prentiss were divorced in 2019. They have worked to intentionally create family in new ways sharing parenting and worship, thanks in no small measure to the love and support of Wesley Park.

Advent at Wesley Park church
No social distancing is needed in the stable. Pastor Dean Prentiss enters into the Christmas story in a personal way. ~ photo courtesy Dean Prentiss

Dean is also enthusiastic when he speaks of leading a congregation that is a community based on a desire to affirm the value of every human being and seeks to embody the love and grace of Christ. A significant expression of that love is in the way Wesley Park is sharing their church building space with the Restoration Community Church. This congregation of 150 African immigrants, primarily Congolese and immigrants from Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda, worships in Swahili each week on Sunday afternoon following the morning Wesley Park service in English. A council composed of members of the Wesley Park and Restoration Community congregations meets regularly to keep the community functioning well for all.

Dean praises the way Wesley Park has continued faithful ministry even when the pandemic has forced the church to adopt virtual worship and meeting practices. For 20 years, Wesley Park has sponsored a local food distribution with contributions and volunteers through a Feeding America Food truck. Because of concern for the volunteers, support for this program is continuing financially during the pandemic with increased giving. Similarly, the quarterly hosting of Family Promise ministry with homeless families has shifted during the pandemic to other shelters for the families, but the church’s financial support has continued.

Outdoor communion at the church
In 2020 Wesley Park and La Nueva Esperanza UMCs celebrated World Communion Sunday in the outdoors. ~ Facebook photo/La Nueva Esperanza

Members continue their faithful stewardship via online giving, Easy-tithe, and mail-in contributions. Dean notes in amazement that the increased electronic footprint of the church ministry during the pandemic has similarly expanded the circle of support for the church’s work in the wider community.

Dean readily talks about the ways the church is continuing to be the church. Worship is live-streamed on Sunday and followed by a Zoom coffee hour for members and friends to connect. On a recent Sunday, during that coffee hour, the community spontaneously shared their praise and cherished memories about a beloved member who had died the previous week, not realizing that the new widow was listening in on the call and was blessed and supported by the holy exchange.

Dean notes that not all of his congregation has internet capability, so they have set up a system so that the service can be listened to by telephone. When weather permits, the service can be broadcast on FM radio to the church parking lot. The church has established a “Joshua” task force to monitor area COVID infection rates and decide how and when it is safe for in-person meetings.

Dean praises other ways the church is working to create a sense of family in a trying time. Dean hosts a mid-week Zoom check-in with his congregation that has birthed ideas like putting together a new recipe book and an online variety show. Dean also maintains a daily online blog focused on the lectionary. He is continuing his education at Vanderbilt Seminary in Nashville, TN, to become a homiletics mentor to help newer pastors hone their preaching skills.

In their generous financial support for the connectional United Methodist Church via local church Ministry Shares, all can give thanks for a church family that is as diverse as is Jesus’ love for the entire world.

Bridge between cultures

Sonya Luna is the full-time Michigan Conference coordinator of Latinx Ministries.  (Latinx refers to people of Latin American origin or descent).

Sonya is not new in this leadership role. She began this significant cross-cultural ministry in 2008 as a missionary for the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, representing the National Plan for Latino Ministries in Michigan. For 12 years, her salary was shared by the General Board of Global Ministries and the Detroit Annual Conference.

Centro Familiar Cristiano United Methodist Church VBS
Centro Familiar Cristiano UMC hosted Sugar Crash Summer Program in 2020. Fun faith-based activities like a painting contest. ~ Facebook/Centro Familiar Cristiano UMC

As Michigan brought its two annual conferences into one in 2020, the Michigan conference hired Sonya full-time to continue her vital work resourcing, coordinating, and providing leadership for United Methodist Hispanic Ministries across the state. In 2019 Michigan’s population of 9.987 million was 3.49% Hispanic (447,000).  Sonya notes that the median age of Michigan’s Hispanic population is 24, which has inspired her team to target leadership development for young Hispanics in Michigan as a major priority of the new strategic plan for Hispanic ministry. Sonya has worked with other Michigan United Methodist church leaders to develop this detailed plan for Latinx Ministry in Michigan that contains specific recommendations for new church starts.

Sonya has spent a lifetime learning how to bridge between the Anglo and Latino cultures. Her father was born in San Antonio to Mexican-American parents but raised in Pontiac, MI, as a Baptist. He married Sonya’s mother, a Polish Roman Catholic. Both Sonya’s parents became public school teachers in Ypsilanti, MI, and raised Sonya in the loving community of First United Methodist Church in Ypsilanti. Her parents found United Methodism an acceptable compromise for their family between the Baptist and Roman Catholic traditions of their upbringing. There is no doubt that Sonya loves her home church and is grateful for this community that has given her a strong foundation for her faith.

Pursuing her Bachelor of Arts degree at Kalamazoo College with a major in Human Development in Social Relations, Sonya spent her junior year as an exchange student in Oaxaca, Mexico, at Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez. It was there that Sonya met her future husband, Jorge Cruz. Jorge had been on a similar exchange to Kalamazoo College the preceding year. Sonya and Jorge maintained a long-distance relationship for four years until Jorge was finally allowed to enter the United States on a short-term fiancé visa. Sonya and Jorge married and are proud parents of a seven-year-old son. Sonya has received additional training for her leadership role by earning a graduate certificate in non-profit management from Eastern Michigan University.

La Nueva Esperanza UM Church
In October 2020, La Nueva Esperanza gathering supplies for families affected by Hurricane Eta. “May God bless them.” ~ Facebook/La Nueva Esperanza

In her Conference role as Coordinator of Latinx Ministry, Sonya wears many hats. She is an important link between Michigan’s two United Methodist Hispanic congregations, Centro Familiar Cristiano Iglesia Metodista Unida in Melvindale and La Nueva Esperanza in Grand Rapids. 

She is proud of the work being done by the Melvindale congregation under the able leadership of the Rev. Patricia Gandarilla. This Spanish language congregation hosts a summer program with mission interns, is active in leadership development, and sponsors food trucks that regularly distribute food in Melvindale. Interested persons can follow the Melvindale ministry on the church Facebook page.

Under the capable leadership of  Pastor Ricardo Angarita, La Nueva Esperanza offers daily devotionals online, worship services in Spanish, and is also involved in leadership development. This Grand Rapids United Methodist Church also shares information about the church on Facebook.

Sonya is enthusiastic about the international reach of a new Hispanic online church community, Nueva Vida, led by certified United Methodist Lay Minister Alan Muniz.

Sonya also works with several Hispanic mission ministries around the state, including:

  • Misión Holland ably led by Rev. Daniel Flores and Rev. Thelma Flores. This mission is especially focused on outreach to Hispanic farmworkers in the Holland area.
  • The Neighbors Program hosted by the Elsie United Methodist Church in Elsie, MI, with Lay leader, Patsy Coffman, provides outreach and support to Hispanic workers on dairy farms in the area.
  • Port Hope United Methodist Church, near the tip of Michigan’s thumb, also provides outreach to dairy farmworkers in the area and offers English as second language courses.
  • Her home church at Ypsilanti First United Methodist offers English as second language classes and outreach to Hispanic families in the area.

Sonya helps with the organization for an annual multi-day Hispanic youth leadership academy at Adrian College, which seeks to mentor Hispanic 9th-12th graders as future leaders for the church. (See photo top of page)  Because of the continuing pandemic, academy leadership is working to make this training available online.

Sonya has also maintained important connections with a state-wide program called Justice for Our Neighbors MI. This advocacy organization provides pro bono legal assistance to immigrant communities in Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Kalamazoo, Ypsilanti, and Metro Detroit (Melvindale and Dearborn).

Families come in many shapes.  Families are blessed when effective leaders like Sonya Luna encourage, equip, and inspire people to work together for the greater good.

Our Michigan United Methodist family is stronger and reaching new ways to make disciples for Jesus thanks to Sonya and her leadership for Latinx ministries in Michigan.