The Mariachi Bridge
Missionary to America Alex Merlo
“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and requested of him, ‘Sir, we want to see Jesus.’” John 12:21
Alex Merlo sits back in his chair and smiles. He is remembering the dedication of the San Pablo building, the beginning of the worship service. The organ cared for so long by the Anglo congregation was in full voice as the congregation sang the theme song of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” At least that’s the way it went at the begining.
Suddenly, a transition in the music, a bridge, as the mariachi band picked up the melody and the singing continued but in Spanish and English lifting the worshippers to see beyond this world to a multiethnic host surrounding the throne of God, praising Him. But there is more to the story.
Recently Pres. Dan Gilbert sat down with Pr. Merlo to understand how this happened. You can see their interview by clicking the link below. What follows is some of what Dan Gilbert learned.
Alex Merlo began life in Honduras. Like many from Central America his family, like the Germans before them were looking for a better life. They are also people of deep faith, although not usually Lutheran Christians.
Pastor Jock Ficken of St. Paul Lutheran in Aurora, Ill. saw the opportunity to partner with with Alex and under Alex’s leadership St. Paul reached out to its changing neighborhood. As Pr. Ficken looks back he believes there was too much paternalism in how the Anglos related to the new Spanish speaking members. “We Anglos understood we had to work with people of a different culture. What we did not see was we had a culture that the Spanish speakers had to navigate.” Sin is real, people are broken. It took patience to navigate the cultural side roads. It took forgivess to get them back on track. Jesus died for every ethnic group – He is the Bridge that unites us. “By grace we are saved” became not just a Bible verse; this became the guidestar to a successful Hispanic mission.
As more Spanish speaking immigrants moved close to the old German church Pastors Merlo and Ficken realized there was an opportunity for both ministries to grow. St. Paul helped San Pablo transition to become the lead mission at the Aurora location. Arrangments were made between the partners for San Pablo to own the building and the Anglos to move elsewhere.
The intention of the Anglo church was to provide a place where Spanish speaking people could worship. The sanctuary had been built by other immigrants, people of faith from Germany fleeing persecution. The walls of the church in Aurora, Illinois had absorbed German, but later as the children of the immigrants adapted English, the walls learned those words. Now Spanish would grace the walls. That is not the end of the story.
The Spanish mission in Aurora attracted young couples with children. At school their children spoke English. The Spanish speaking parents loved the mariachi music, loved their language, but saw the need for their children to grow into Anglo culture. An English worship service was added. The neighborhood and the church are becoming more diverse. The gospel continues to be shared in Spanish and English.
Pr. Merlo credits the Anglo leaders, especially Pr. Ficken, with being good mentors. “They cared for us, they opened their hearts to know us. They showed us Jesus.”