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Story Magazine

Spring/Summer 2015

Seeing the future: Alum starts Spanish-speaking congregation as community changes

by By Kelly O'Hara Dyer, Correspondent


At Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Naples, Fla., Pastor Steve Wigdahl, ’84, and his congregation have been engaged in a multi-year visioning project that includes not only imagining what comes next for their church, but also what lies ahead for their community, their region and the larger church as a whole.

Naples, located on the southwestern tip of Florida, is both a prime destination for snowbirds fleeing colder locales and a historically wealthy and prosperous retirement area.

At the same time, southwestern Florida as a whole has been changing in recent years. One change is the fast rise in population of members of Hispanic and Latino communities from around the world. And with this rise in population, an attendant rise in poverty and other problems stemming from those issues has begun to surface.

“After living in Naples for a few years, there’s no doubt that the per capita income is very high in this town,” Wigdahl says. “And along with that, a lot of the communities here are gated communities. I began to ask the question of our congregation, ‘Are we aware that for a church, a gated community is really not a very good model?’ I also asked, ‘Is a congregation a gated community?’ And of course the rhetorical response is no. It is a community that reaches out and welcomes all people. For us to do ministry beyond this [area], we need to go where the people are.”

In gauging this growth and anticipating the needs of these new arrivals to south Florida, Emmanuel has acted preemptively in a number of ways.

For one, in 2007 the church bought 25 acres of land to the northeast of its present location in downtown Naples. “Estimates have said that by the year 2025, 65 percent of the population of Collier County will be to the northeast of the present city,” Wigdahl says. “That’s a big shift. The area where we’ve moved, to the northeast, is an area that does not match the economy of our location downtown. This makes a real change in terms of doing ministry.”

Another way Emmanuel is planning to meet the changes in its region is through more directly serving these new communities.

Two years ago, the church called Pastor José Lebrón, a former pediatrician and elementary school teacher in the Dominican Republic, to join them in a mission development project for their area. Lebrón was called specifically to serve these new Hispanic and Latino arrivals, and to minister to their communities in ways that reflect the needs of those congregants.

As a result, Lebrón has recently begun offering the church’s first Spanish-speaking services at its main location, with plans in place to eventually transition to a new congregation start in the location to the northeast.

“With José, he’s already helped us to understand that when you use the word Hispanic or Latino, you can’t assume that everyone from that culture bears a similar identity,” Wigdahl says. “We have people that are coming up here from Mexico, from Cuba, from Central America, and every part of that has a contextual component in terms of the Hispanic culture. We’re at around 50 people now, who attend [the Spanish services] on a regular basis,” he says. “It’s an interesting thing, because location plays a major role in terms of how people assemble. We are aware that once we move to our new location, we might be more convenient in that setting than in our present site.”

Janet Anderson is a parishioner at Emmanuel, and also part of the team coordinating this new outreach effort. She is also a former longtime chair of Luther Seminary’s board of trustees. Anderson says the Emmanuel congregation recognizes that as the needs of its community change, the church wants to be able to evolve to serve and embrace their new neighbors in ways that meet their needs.

“It is intentionally a multicultural, diverse ministry in an area that is 40 percent Latino, and more than 50 percent Caucasian, with small percentages of African-Americans, Haitians and others,” Anderson says. “Pastor Lebrón is called to serve the entire community. That’s what makes us different. We are a hybrid.”

Wigdahl also says that Emmanuel’s plan to serve its wider community has been a deliberate and considered one.

“We’re following more of what you’d consider an accompaniment model, where we come alongside the community,” he says. “We don’t impose ourselves, but we want to be able to serve that community where the needs are. When we moved out to the northeast and asked what the greatest needs were, it became apparent that an after school program was needed [to serve students in three nearby schools]. That was a window of opportunity for us.”

Wigdahl says his congregation is also actively considering the future of the larger church as a whole, and that during their contemplation, they have come to believe they can play an integral part in cultivating future church leaders from within these Hispanic and Latino communities.

“Within this congregation, we have a lot of retired people, but they’re looking for a deeper meaning than just coming down here and playing golf and relaxing,” Wigdahl says. “That’s the heart of who we are in terms of Word and Sacrament ministry, and shaping the life of Christ in a worshipful setting. We have a great opportunity here … to have this congregation be a catalyst in raising up a new generation of leaders for the church in the 21st century. We have an opportunity to broaden the work of the church within the demographics that are here. For instance, it was difficult for us to find a pastor from a Spanish-speaking background to even be able to fill the call that we were extending! They’re just not out there [because] the Lutheran church has not raised up those leaders yet.”

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