Several years ago my husband and I made the leap into learning Spanish and more about the Mexican culture and Hispanic culture in general. All was fun and exciting and we felt very daring, I’m sure, until we actually entered language school and faced the reality of learning a new language. You could almost hear the mental brakes squealing as we sat in our first grammar class—our mad rush into the glamorous world of missions work (!) came to a sudden halt as we spent the better part of each day repeating the proper pronunciation of the five vowels. Our afternoons were spent in the company of Spanish-speaking tutors who knew little or no English; it was Spanish, however broken, or awkward silence.
We praised God for these kind tutors—Bible students at the adjacent Hispanic Bible college—who kept their laughing to a minimum and who coached us through conversation practice on such thrilling topics as “In the Library,” “Around the Town,” and the perennial favorite, “At the Toy Shop.”
As we got to know some of the Hispanic students, they discovered that my husband and I are musicians. We began to sing with some of them casually and then to help lead worship in the chapel services. For the most part, I was something of a trained monkey on the platform—put the music and words in front of me and give me an intro, and off I’d go. My pronunciation and harmonization were sufficient to make me blend in with the group, but my mind was on grocery lists or my baby’s nap schedule; I really had no idea what I was singing. The demands of language school and caring for our family limited the time I had to parse out the elevated Spanish of the hymns, and I didn’t make the time for it.
One hymn we sang with the student worship leaders has remained with me: “Ya Pertenezco a Cristo.” I recognized the tune, but wasn’t familiar with the hymn in English, “Now I Belong to Jesus.” Frankly, I liked the song not because of the familiar tune, but because of the jazzy little arrangement one of the students had done. I always enjoyed singing this song, being sure to remember the E-flat our leader had thrown into the harmonization, and appreciated the nice little saxophone interlude he wrote between the verses. But my heart was not necessarily lifted beyond the confines of the chapel building roof with its lovely Spanish tiles.
By God’s grace and the hard work of so many tutors and teachers, we ended our year of language school able to talk about current events, our families, and those things which make our hearts beat: love, music, desires, hopes, and the wonderful calling of God to “Go Ye Therefore Into All the Nations.” We had graduated from The Toy Shop to “The Real World,” but I was soon to find out just how much farther I had to go in truly learning the Spanish language.
Our “Go Ye” took us not so far out of our cartographic experience and landed us in small-town Arkansas; my hometown, to be exact. There have been a host of hang-ups on being “sent out” only to arrive in the very place I was born and raised, but that’s another discussion for another day.
We found a growing Hispanic community here and a very small, struggling church that needed a pastor. When my husband first visited the church by himself, he stood out as the lone gringo among the few people gathered there. When the congregation discovered that he spoke Spanish and that he was a preacher they made the plea that he come, bring his family, and be their pastor. Seven years later, he is still faithfully pastoring and preaching to our not-so-little-anymore congregation.
Learning another language was for me an undoing of my entire person—mind, body, and spirit. Julie Spencer
When we first joined this group of believers, they were meeting in the basement of a large American church. We had no name—just “Hispanic Mission.” There were two families besides our own and a few folks who’d visit on occasion. We threw ourselves eagerly into the work. From the perch of seven years later, I can look back on my dear younger self and wince a bit at my sincere efforts to belong to this little group of believers. I can hear my halting Spanish, see the sheen on my brow as I try to remember how to conjugate every verb to perfection. I see my attempts at making Mexican dishes, only to realize that there’s a huge difference between the Tex-Mex we all know (and love) and authentic Mexican food. “Bless her heart,” I can say with true southern compassion.
But as I look back, I also see my weary face and the sometimes blank look I must have worn as we sang in Spanish. This was a true and unexpected sacrifice for me, giving up congregational singing in English. Raised in church, raised singing all the beautiful, glorious hymns we have in the English language—all of that was gone for me, at least on Sunday mornings. When I sang to God in our Hispanic congregation it was all about the vowels and consonants, not about the words. I felt content to sing the words correctly, but, for me, keeping up with what I was saying—well, I just couldn’t do it. I was often juggling a hymnal and a baby and trying to quiet a restless seven year-old boy. The words that might have brought comfort to me were often on my lips, but their meaning was never more than the black and white letters on the thin pages of our hymn books.
Learning another language was for me an undoing of my entire person—mind, body, and spirit.
The technical aspect of learning a foreign language was like having a toddler unpack all the linguistic knowledge I’d ever had, throwing it all over the floor of my mind, and then running outside to play. I am still picking up the pieces and often find it difficult to have one-on-one conversations with anyone, no matter what language I’m speaking.
There is a physical element to learning a new language; exhaustion is the most obvious result of intense language study. But there is also anxiety and its physical symptoms: sweating, visible awkwardness, exaggerated hand motions when words fail, and an unwillingness to meet anyone’s eye, lest they should try to engage you in conversation.
And over it all, around it all, is the spiritual aspect of learning a new language. When you set out to learn a new language for the glory of God, you must lay aside a part of yourself. You must assume that you know nothing—you must become as a little child as you approach this new world of sounds and syllables. You must learn to love God’s word in that language, to pray to Him in that language, and to sing to Him in that language.
Seven years into this Spanish-speaking adventure, and I can confidently say that my communication skills are on par with many of the seven year-old native speakers in our church. Which is to say, I have a long way to go in my journey to fluency in Spanish. But, oh the joy I have known in these seven years of fellowship here! Our church family has grown and we’ve been given a name: no longer “Hispanic Mission,” but Iglesia Betel, the House of God.
There is a wonderful mystery in all of this—how we have become a family in this little “house” called the church. My husband and I do not now see ourselves as The Missionaries who have come to bring the Gospel to Hispanics in South Arkansas. We feel much more akin to Luther’s beggar showing other beggars where to find bread. We have wearied ourselves with ministry but have learned to find nuestro descanso en Cristo.
My heart lifted when, at a recent Wednesday evening Bible Study, we began to sing “Ya Pertenezco a Cristo.”
Ya pertenezco a Cristo El pertenece a mí No solo por el tiempo aquí Mas por la eternidad
I realized I’d forgotten the words in English, but that the Spanish lyrics had become meaningful to me in and of themselves. “I belong to Jesus! He is mine! Not just for today—but forever!” Tears formed in my eyes as we sang the first verse:
Cristo el Señor me ama por siempre Mi vida guarda Él tiernamente Vence el pecado, Cuida del mal Ya pertenezco a Él
I felt I could say, “Sí!” and “Amén!” to all of it. Yes! Christ loves me—me!—forever. He tenderly cares for and guards my life. He defeats sin in me and protects me from evil, because I belong to Him.
And I belong to these people: my friends, my brothers and sisters in the Lord. What a treasure to stand with these loved ones and sing, with one voice:
Gozo indecible inunda mi alma ya libertado estoy y mi vida Llena está de felicidad ya pertenezco a Él
Indescribable joy floods my soul I am now free and my life is full of happiness I now belong to Him