Iglesia el Siervo del Senor: Retaining Old Catholic Traditions in a New Reformed Church

Federico Machado is the pastor of The Servant of the Lord Church (Iglesia El Siervo Del Senor) in Chula Vista, California. Worship services in this church are designed to meet the needs of part of the Hispanic community in the Chula Vista area.

Because he ministers to many who were at one time Roman Catholics, Machado is careful to include in his worship services elements from that worship tradition which make his congregation's worship unique, rich, and meaningful. Candles, vestments, colors, church seasons, and religious processions are all part of this congregation's worship experience.

Pentecost is approaching. |We will celebrate it in our 'special way at The Servant of Our Lord Church—just as we celebrate all the days and seasons of the church year. Throughout the church year—from Advent to Pentecost—our worship is strongly influenced by our Hispanic history and traditions as well as those of the Reformed faith.

The Hispanic Church Year

It is hard to think of a Hispanic Pentecost isolated from the church year and the Spanish influence. Our Pentecost does not start with a "sound like the blowing of a violent wind [which] came from heaven and filled the whole house" as Acts 2 relates. The only wind that we remember is one that blew the caravels' sails and transported the conquerors and missionaries to our shore. We did not have "tongues of fire" that separated and came to rest on us to give us the power to understand and proclaim the gospel; instead we faced the fire of the guns that our conquerors used to force us into submission. Pentecost—and Christianity—came to us with the missionaries, the crucifix in one hand and the whip in the other.

Our Pentecost, then, is more apocalyptic than prophetic, ingrained in Revelation 7:9-10. Leaving behind the disgrace brought by the conquerors, we say with the multitudes: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." Great sad and catastrophic events preceded our acceptance of the Christian faith: wars, slavery, plunder, and the rape of our women. With our conversion we lost our identity. The iniquity increased. Many adventurers in our land, thirsty for gold and riches, did not hesitate to kill our people to own it.

Thus, becoming Christian was so confusing and sometimes devastating for our people that, if not for the similarities of rituals and practices between what the missionaries brought and what our people had always believed, we could have found nothing to relate to in this new religion. Fortunately the cycles, the rituals, the seasons, and the traditions all had meaning for a people who had once celebrated the rural cycles of sowing, planting, and harvesting.

Gradually we learned to live around two great feasts: the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Resurrection Day. We learned that we are born, live, die, and rise with him. Since we lost our former identity, we identify with him in all aspects of our lives. During the four Sundays of Advent we await his coming with eagerness and expectancy. We celebrate las posadas, an old Hispanic practice in which groups of people dramatize the Joseph and Mary story by going from home to home singing and seeking lodging in an inn. They are received with candies, delicacies, and tasty drinks.

We are born with him on December 24th at midnight in a worship service in which the new day brings "the desired of all nations" who fills his house of glory.

During the Christmas season our homes are decorated with miniature mangers, oxen, mules, and other symbols to revive and refresh in our minds the warm and lovely story of the holy and humble rejected family. It is not Santa Claus but el nino Dios (the child God) who at midnight brings toys to the children while they sleep.

Epiphany is another great feast we celebrate. Money gifts are placed under the children's pillows while they sleep to remind them of the gifts the wise men brought to recognize and celebrate the king of heaven and earth.

And how could we start the Lenten season without going to receive ash on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday? How could we live those forty days without fasting every Friday and eating fish? How could we experience Lent without going to church to confess our sins and commit ourselves to start a new life? We see nature and life during this season through purple colors. We journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, enter the city with him on Palm Sunday, die and rise with him.

During this time, we live the sorrow, affliction, and bereavement that the disciples and Jesus lived during the Passover at Jerusalem. Our church is full, and we join in or observe many rituals together: the washing of feet, the institution of the Lord's Supper, the reading of narratives of the passion of our Lord, the liturgy of the light with the lighting of the Paschal candle, the renewal of our baptismal vows, the great paschal vigil, and the "singing of glory" which involves playing the bells to announce that Jesus has risen from the tomb. We celebrate Resurrection Sunday with joy, as many in the church are baptized and the church performs dramas about angels and saints.

When Pentecost comes, we move from heaven to earth, from dreaming with glory to working hard in the field. During this new green season, labor—sowing and harvesting— acquires new meaning in life.

We then move on to other smaller feasts: Trinity Sunday, the next Sunday after Pentecost; the nativity of John the Baptist; the Saints Peter and Paul, apostles; the Transfiguration of our Lord; Mary, the mother of our Lord; Saint Michael and heaven's angels; and Christ the King, which closes the Pentecost season and heralds the coming of Advent.

Losing Identity

Many Hispanics who come to North America are moved by "evangelical" and "pentecostal" missionaries to turn away from this familiar and loved observance of the church year— to renounce their tradition and culture. They are told that in order to become truly Christian they must get rid of all the color and pageantry and ritual of their former worship. In its place they are urged to follow a secularized religion that highlights such "feasts" as Father's Day, Mother's Day, Independence Day, and Saint Valentine's Day.

In most cases everything that recalls the Catholic rites and practices is set aside, devalued, or discredited by such missionaries. The new converts are forced to leave all the good that their former religious tradition offered; they are "rebaptized," trading in their church year for a secular calendar. They are told to celebrate Holy Communion only once every three months (or once in a while) and to reject the symbolic means of communication, such as candles, vestments, colors, seasons, rituals, liturgies, and religious processions.

This conversion can be a devastating experience—one in which many lose their faith and turn away from the church.

A New Vision

In the Servant of the Lord Church we have a new vision for bringing people to Christ. Accepting the Catholic religious tradition as an integral part of the Hispanic culture, we graft the Reformed faith, the green and new sprout, into the Catholic tradition, the old and strong stem. We believe this is the most sincere, honest, just, and effective method of bringing unchurched Hispanics to the Lord and his kingdom. If, in the process of being reevangelized, people lose their culture and identity, they pay a high price for the gospel they receive.

So Pentecost to us in San Diego has a new meaning. We proclaim the gospel to redeem, reform, and improve the Hispanic Catholic tradition. We give the Hispanics what they expect in worship: the confession of sins, the introit, the Kyrie, the Gloria in exelsis, the two lessons of the Old and the New Testaments, the reading of the Holy Gospel, the sermon, the Nicean or the Apostolic creed, the Peace, the Lord's Prayer, Holy Communion every week, and the benediction.

Holy Communion is so vital a part of the Hispanic worship service that a saying has been coined: "Una misa sin comunion es como una comida sin sal" (A worship service with no Holy Communion is like a food without salt). Holy Communion is so central that people meet in worship around the table. The Lord meets us at the table, and we come forward to eat his bread.

Like most Christian Reformed churches, we traditionally have two worship services on Sundays. During the first one the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments are honored and given their highest place. In this service we use candles, colors, banners, and vestments as conveyors of religious messages to move the Hispanics from non-biblical Catholic beliefs to a sound Reformed doctrine, using and keeping the Catholic tradition as a means to support them in the reevangelization process. We guide the newcomers from the known to the unknown, from the related to the unrelated. Since we realize that Hispanics think and act according to their feelings, we emphasize the use of emotion during the second worship service; this service usually features practical preaching, teaching, and counseling in a pentecostal or charismatic atmosphere.

In all our worship we use the treasures of our tradition and our faith to find new ways of praising God together. And we go forth from our worship ready to function as servants of the Highest God, our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ.

Exceprt

Federicho Machado wrote us a letter as well as an article. We are placing the letter here since it provides further background to his liturgical thinking. Of course, we loved his letter!
—RW Staff

Dear RW:

When I came to the Christian Reformed Church and the United States, I was concerned about the ways of worship I saw in the Los Angeles area. I did not see anything which was similar to the way we worship in Latin America. Even though I like the Reformed faith, I missed all the elements that connected me to the act of worship at church: vestments, candles, colors, holy communion every Sunday, written prayers, the church cycles, and so on.

When I moved to Grand Rapids to complete my seminary training, the first thing I did was to buy and read Into His Presence by Dr. James De Jong, making a lot of notes in the margins; my uneasiness with the church subsided a bit. After that I made a survey, visiting churches in the area that were said to have unusual styles of worship. I found only one that used some of the elements that could be used to worship "properly" in my culture. And one example was not enough. I still had the image of an exclusive church.

Then one day I received a gift that changed my perspective of the Christian Reformed Church. The Reformed Worship magazine came into my hands in the form of a gift. A horn was on the cover, as if to announce a new age and venture; it appeared to me as a symbol that invited the church to come back to the oldest traditions. The next Sunday I started to read this magazine and found many, many interesting things in it. The first article shook me in such a way that I could not stop wondering how it could be true: a Reformed Worship magazine advocating the old traditions—the church year, the set prayers, the three lessons and a psalm every Sunday—and inviting readers to live the four Sundays of the Advent season. It was amazing to have the support of a Reformed magazine to help me shape a Hispanic ministry that had not begun yet.

From then on, I devoted every Sunday evening to reading and rereading the first Reformed Worship issue. I highlighted the main parts of every article, meditated on them, and translated them for my wife. The impact I received from Reformed Worship was so great that in my Christmas vacation that year in Grand Rapids, I translated into Spanish all the Holy Communion seasonal liturgies Synod had approved since 1968—and I've been using them in our church in San Diego.

I was afraid at first to present my ideas to the Board of Home Missions. I had developed the hypothesis that the Hispanics are Catholic by tradition, mystics by heritage, and emotional receivers of the gospel, and I had already had negative reactions to my ideas from former Latin America Anglo missionaries. But that first issue of Reformed Worship seemed to affirm my direction, and every following issue was written in the same way. My soul received strength and courage to start and continue a Hispanic ministry done by a Hispanic native in the Hispanic way. Many times I have been discouraged. Many times others have highly criticized and rejected openly my work. But the support of the Reformed Worship has been with me for almost four years.

I believe you are doing a great work in publishing Reformed Worship. Our denomination has been labeled "low" in liturgy, and I believe we have to change. Sometimes I think we in the Christian Reformed Church will not have any other option but to go back to our roots in the first four centuries. Since the Reformation we have been iconoclasts, but we have to change. We have to learn from the fathers of our church.

I hope you remember that Reformed Worship, more than being an informative magazine, is an education instrument;consequently, you will not see the fruits or the feedback you expect soon. Maybe you never are going to see them; nevertheless, you are shaping the ministry of the CRC. More and more pastors are following the church cycle. More and more churches celebrate the Lord's Supper more frequently. Reformed Worship is working to make the CRC more creedal, more "catholic" I would say—which is enough reason for this magazine to exist.

Federico J. Machado
San Diego, California

Federico Machado is Assistant Regional Director for Hispanic Ministries of Christian Reformed Home Missions for Southern California.