Couple provides spiritual support to Spanish-speaking population of St. Joseph

Saturday, March 19, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. JOSEPH — When the Rev. Ben and Christine Haley moved to Ecuador as missionaries, they thought their lives forever after would be abroad.

Both felt called to mission work early in life and carried out that calling in different countries before meeting through their mission organization and marrying a year later.

"It's something God put in me, to feel more at home in another place," the Rev. Haley says.

And to feel comfortable with people from other cultures, he adds. But despite this — and much to their surprise — the Haleys ended up back in the United States after several years in Ecuador and now work as international missionaries in St. Joseph. Their church, Iglesia Bautista Camino de Esperanza (Way of Hope Baptist Church), recently marked two years in the city.

The congregation came about out of a desire Frederick Boulevard Baptist Church had to create a church for Spanish-speaking people in the community. The Haleys came to lead it in part due to connections Mrs. Haley had, having grown up in Gower and graduated from Missouri Western State University. King Hill Baptist Church also got on board with the plan, and Iglesia Bautista meets at 2:30 p.m. Sundays at its facility at 5708 King Hill Ave. It also has a mid-week Bible study.

The Rev. Haley notes that the church averages an attendance of 15 to 20 people at Sunday services and that — perhaps contrary to common assumptions — many are from countries other than Mexico, including Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba and Guatemala. Also contrary to stereotypes the Rev. Haley is sometimes confronted with, many are here legally.

"But our main focus isn't whether they're legal," he says. "More important than their legal status is their spiritual status."

He adds that he's run into a lot of prejudice directed toward Hispanics and people of other cultures. Born and raised in Texas, he's not an immigrant himself — at least not in the traditional sense. But in another sense, the U.S. is almost entirely a nation of immigrants, he points out.

The Rev. Keith Manning, pastor of King Hill Baptist and a member of Iglesia Bautista's governing board, also has a background in international missions and, like the Rev. Haley, has witnessed the potential for that kind of outreach in St. Jospeh.

"The nations have been coming to America for centuries now," he says. "It's possible to do international missions without ever leaving St. Joe."

Of course, some distinct differences exist between ministering to people in their native countries versus ministering to them in the U.S. Mrs. Haley notes that the main one she's experienced is the transient lifestyle of a lot of the people who are or have been a part of Iglesia Bautista — but the challenges of trying to form relationships under these circumstances are balanced by some of the benefits of her work.

"I like meeting people from different places and hearing their stories and helping them understand our culture," she says.

The cultural and language differences facing Spanish-speaking people here — as well as them often being far from the support of family and the familiarity of home — create some ministry needs different from what the Haleys experienced serving in Ecuador. But beyond these are basic needs that hold true everywhere.

"We just want to keep reaching out," the Rev. Haley says, "and to help people get into right relationships with God."

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