Rev. Elsie Lisbeth Quintanilla-Perez is a new American. She was granted citizenship in January. Her husband, Rev. Jose Marino Chacon Mayorga obtained his US citizenship a few years ago. Both grew up in San Salvador, the largest city in El Salvador. They met in church and have been a couple since they were teenagers.
Throughout their childhood and youth their country was at war. The Salvadoran Civil War between the military-led government and rebel forces started in 1979 and was resolved in 1992. Neither had directly experienced much of the effects of war, as most of the fighting took place in rural areas – the mountains. That changed in 1989 with the last offensive.
“War came to the city,” Chacon said. “We had friends who died in bombings.” In addition to the violence they experienced disruption in all aspects of society.
“Everything in the country just stopped,” Quintanilla said. Inflation sky-rocketed. Soon people were paying half a month’s wages for a loaf of bread.
The warring factions added to their ranks by taking men from the villages with them, considering anyone 12 years old or older being qualified to join the fight. That put Chacon’s uncle, Jorge Luis Mayorga, in a bad situation, which led to him seeking refuge in the United States, along with two million other people from El Salvador. Most went to Los Angeles or New York City.
Quintanilla describes El Salvador as “the little one” when looking at a map of Central America. She describes the people there as being very hard working, and always looking for a way to improve their lives. Prior to the move to the U.S., Jorge Luis Mayorga had been studying to be a doctor, and he had also served eight years as a district superintendent.
While still living in El Salvador after the war, Quintanilla and Chacon lived through another tragedy there that wasn’t of man’s making. A 7.7-magnitude quake struck El Salvador in January 2001. It was the worst to hit the country in a decade. Then, two more powerful quakes shook the country the following month.
Neighborhoods in El Salvador were buried. Homes collapsed. More than 1,100 people were killed. Another 1.3 million were displaced. During the earthquake, Quintanilla was teaching at a Catholic school. One of her first grade students was killed in a landslide. For more than a month there was very limited access to water, food or transportation.
The earthquakes were the events that brought 200,000 refugees from El Salvador to the U.S. under the Temporary Protection Status provision of immigration. That’s not how Quintanilla and Mayorga got here, though. It was through family connections.
After Chacon’s uncle Jorge settled into the U.S., he petitioned for his siblings to move as well, and they did in 2003. Chacon’s parents Ana Luisa Mayorga and Marino Chacon moved to Wisconsin, where Marino Chacon is a United Methodist pastor. They petitioned for their son, Jose Chacon, to move here, which he did in 2007.
Quintanilla could not come directly when Chacon did because she was involved in conducting a medical mission at the time. The mission was providing medical services, dental care and glasses for 450 people a day, so she felt obliged to see it through.
After arriving in the U.S., her immigration advisor told her she needed to wait five years before returning to El Salvador.
“Coming here isn’t easy. You have to adjust to the language, the food, the weather,” Chacon said.
While in El Salvador the couple took course of study classes through the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education Ministry taught by visiting professors. They also traveled to the U.S. and took classes at Garrett Seminary as international students. The work they did for course of study has been recognized as a bachelor’s degree.
“Now that we’re in the U.S., we’re no longer international students,” Quintanilla said. She recently completed all the required classes for her master’s degree. Chacon just has three classes to go.
When they first arrived in the U.S. they lived in Wisconsin for a year. While attending classes at Garrett, Rev. Geovanna Chavez, then serving as the Missouri Conference Hispanic ministries coordinator, was on campus recruiting. One of Quintanilla’s friends signed them up for the interview.
“She told me about the interview, and I said I would think about it, and she said, ‘No, I scheduled an interview for you,’ and she told me when I had to be there,” Quintanilla said.
The interview went well, and from there things started moving fast. Chavez said the Missouri Conference would like them to start a new Hispanic ministry in St. Louis. Mayorga’s brother had leukemia, and Chacon was in the process of trying to donate him a kidney. But then his brother developed an anomaly, and his heart was only functioning at 50 percent of capacity, meaning he was no longer a candidate to be a kidney recipient. The couple moved to Missouri in June of 2009, and Mayorga’s brother died two month later.
At first they started their new ministry, La Trinidad, at Shaw United Methodist Church, but that church 17 closed as a legacy church to make way for a new church start. Next they were with another new church, The Connexion. As The Connexion tried different models of launching a new church, La Trinidad moved to Concord Trinity. When they had their daughter, their apartment was small. Rev. Barbara Phifer of Arlington UMC told them that parsonage wasn’t being used, and the community could use a Hispanic ministry, so they moved to Bridgeton and started a second campus for La Trinidad there in 2014. They both have Sunday worship services in sanctuaries shared with the anglo congregations. Concord Trinity campus worships at 12:30 and the Arlington campus worships at 5 p.m.
Most of the people attending La Trinidad at Concord Trinity come from a Catholic background, while most of the people attending La Trinidad at Arlington come from an evangelical background.
Chacon said back in El Salvador there is tension between Catholics and evangelicals, and he finds that tension present in the Hispanic community in St. Louis as well. Many of the people coming to La Trinidad have never been to a United Methodist Church before, and like the welcoming atmosphere, but are confused by it’s practices.
“The Catholics look around and say, ‘But where is Mother Mary?’ The evangelicals say ‘Why do you baptize babies?’ The way we do communion is a problem for both,” Chacon said. “It takes a lot of explaining to convey our different understanding of the sacraments.”
Some would rather they didn’t bother. Quintanilla and Chacon were contacted by the Catholic Church, which sent them a list of a dozen parishes in St. Louis, advising them to send people their way.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry, but if they want to be Christian they are welcome to worship here’,” Chacon said.
The couple did a column in the local Spanish language newspaper, and in the column they mentioned the location and times of their worship service. In the next issue of the paper, a column from the Catholic priest included the worship times and location for 12 Catholic parishes in St. Louis.
Quintanilla said the Catholic Church is strong in St. Louis, but the pentecostal/evangelical church is also strong, but their strength is through many small congregations rather than a few large ones.
“Here people can be themselves and have a real, personal experience with God,” Quintanilla said.
Last year La Trinidad had 11 youth in its confirmation class. They currently have nine in the 2018 class. The youth take part in the youth group with the hosting churches.
“It’s the youth who really feel Methodist,” Quintanilla said.
Some people carry prejudice toward people from other countries. People from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras sometimes hold a grudge against Mexico as violence in Mexico prohibits them from crossing Mexico to enter the U.S.
“We had a family from Columbia who were here for two years and stopped coming. When I asked, they said ‘We like you, but we don’t like the Mexicans.’”
While the adults who are first generation conflict over cooking styles, the youth would just as soon go for a pizza or hotdog. Quintanilla and Chacon see the assimilation in their own daughter. They only speak Spanish at home so she will be bi-lingual, but the culture takes effect.
“When she walks into a room, she says ‘Hi guys!’ instead of ‘!Hola amigos!’” Chacon said.
“It’s something every immigrant family goes through,” Quintanilla added. “This is the only country she has ever known.”
Chacon said recent political rhetoric has created a climate of fear in the Hispanic community. Many are working multiple jobs, saving as much money as they can in case they are deported. Some are even sending money to the home countries to have homes built there that are ready for them if they have to leave, something Chacon said he had not seen before the election of President Trump.
“I know a couple where the husband and wife each have two jobs, and they have children. One works while the other takes care of the children, and they don’t have time to be together,” Chacon said. “Families are working hard to have a better life in this country. It would be sad to see them have to leave. I’m very grateful to the United Methodist Church and the opportunity to be part of Hispanic ministries here.”
When Chacon applied to become a citizen it took four months. When Quintanilla applied it took a year. Many people in La Trinidad have permanent resident status but aren’t citizens. That’s starting to change. People who were previously reluctant to become citizens because they didn’t want to relinquish loyalty to their home countries are now entering the process to become citizens. Two people are currently mid-way through the citizenship process, and two more are just starting. Families have approached Chacon and Quintanilla, asking them to sign documents that state they will take care of their children if they have to leave them behind. Chacon said a climate of fear stemming from the national discourse has effected many families personally.
“People have a feeling of ‘They don’t like us’ when they look around their city,” Chacon said.
A mission group of 70 people from Concord Trinity traveled to El Salvador in 2014. Chacon took them into the mountains, where they saw children without shoes and people carrying water long distances. They brought them food and Bibles, and people wanted the Bibles over the food. One man in the mission group told Chacon that he felt bad for how he had treated Hispanics in St. Louis, and seeing the conditions that they were coming from had changed his life and given him a new perspective.
Chacon has a broad view of the current administration.
“I think there are good and bad things about President Trump’s administration. It’s not all bad, but the immigration side isn’t good,” Chacon said.
Chacon has turned down many invitations to protests finding them not to be a helpful part of the process in arriving at change in policy. Quintanilla is currently petitioning to bring her mother to the U.S. Due to gang violence El Salvador continues to be a difficult place to live.
“We don’t have a civil war anymore, but now we have social wars,” Chacon said. “Like the soldiers in the civil war, the gangs also recruit boys ages 12 and up to fight for them. They don’t care if they are in the villages or cities. It is everywhere.”
There are people in La Trinidad UMC in St. Louis on both DACA status and TPS, who are concerned every day when they watch the news. Quintanilla is happy that La Trinidad gives them a place to worship, and that as a citizen she work for change.
“People need a space where they can breath. Here they feel welcome and safe,” she said. “I know I can’t change everything, but I can start small and make changes in my community.”
Sharing Christ through Higher EducationThe General Board of Higher Education Ministries offers Course of Study classes in El Salvador, open to people from five other Central American countries, twice per year in April and December. The classes are four days long. Professors come from other countries to teach the courses. They also coordinate a program with the University of Costa Rica so course of study students can complete their bachelor’s degree.
Part of the program is a Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE course, so the pastor can be better equipped for caring for others in their community.
“Our programs are geared toward helping pastors be effective, transformative leaders,” said David Martinez, director of Specialized Theological Education and Ministry for GBHEM.
Martinez worked with Quintanilla and Chacon and is excited to see them in ministry in Missouri.
“They are a tremendous couple. They bring so many gifts, as pastors, preacher and as musicians,” Martinez said. “They are very effective.”
The GBHEM program in El Salvador currently has about 45 pastors enrolled.
For more about GBHEM’s international education programs, go to www.gbhem.org.