By Rev. Matt Koerber
For this post, I interviewed two pastor friends in Pittsburgh. Jon Price and Alejandro (Alex) Martinez are pastors at Covenant Community Church (PCA) in Pittsburgh. In addition to being pastors, they are also family – Alex married Jon’s sister, which led to their friendship. Their church has a vibrant ministry to Hispanics in the Northwestern Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry. This ministry provides a window into a the little known (but rapidly increasing) world of Hispanic immigration in Pittsburgh. Alex recently completed seminary and pastoral training. He will be ordained as a minister this coming Sunday evening. I recently conducted a phone interview with them and was thankful for their many insights.
I opened the conversation by giving them both some background to the blog and then I asked Alex how long he has been in Pittsburgh and how he came to work at Covenant Community.
AM: I have been here for almost 5 years. I grew up in Mexico City, but had a scholarship to study in Texas for high school. I returned to finish my college degree in Mexico and met some missionaries who were working for MTW (Mission to the World, the PCA sending agency). I worked with them helping with ministry, and when a good friend moved to Guadalajara they asked me to join them as a liaison to the Hispanic community. We helped to start a nonprofit organization addressing poverty in the community. This included medical care and literacy classes. Praise God, we helped to establish a church and a daycare and kindergarten were also formed.
Alex’s trajectory began to change when his missions team hosted a group from Covenant Seminary. The future dean of Covenant, Mark Dalby, met Alex and recruited him to study at Covenant Seminary – they even had Alex live in their home. Alex was interested in ministry and after two years, he moved to Virginia for a ministry position. It was there that he married Jon’s sister and through that connection became aware of a job opening in Pittsburgh. I asked Jon how this came to happen.
JP: I was driving around Cranberry one day and I took a different route, passing through a neighborhood that I didn’t normally see. I noticed 5-6 Hispanic families outside the house as their kids came home from school. This coincided with another visit to a local park where I stopped and watched a very serious soccer game of all Hispanic players. It dawned on me that there were these families and people in our community that I hadn’t noticed before. At the time, we had two part-time ministry positions in our church – Alex came to mind and the church was open to the idea. I can’t honestly say that my initial desire to bring Alex on was part of a goal of establishing a Hispanic ministry in our church. I was trying to meet the needs of our church, but the Lord showed me pretty quickly that was not his ultimate goal.
I asked Jon about the Hispanic community in Pittsburgh. It is not as visible as other places where I have lived – Boston or North Carolina. Often, we assume that Pittsburgh has been missed by national trends in Hispanic immigration.
JP: I think that we tend to be blind to this. Immigrants in general are on the fringes, and the majority culture doesn’t typically look on the fringes. For example, the neighborhood that I drove through that day is easily missed. But, within 10 minutes of our church, the expected growth of Hispanics is 5% per year. That is the highest increase of any people group in our area. It is a very fast growth rate. One reason that the community is not as noticeable is because it is diversified – with regard to the areas in which people work. By contrast, in other big cities, immigrants may be grouped in one industry.
I asked Alex what factors were driving this recent growth rate of Hispanics in Pittsburgh and what we could know about the people.
AM: It is very different in each case. Many Hispanics come in the summers to do landscaping. They come with a work permit and stay for the summer. You find different types of people. Some are fleeing poverty or unrest, others are chasing the American dream. It is hard to perceive them, and hard to know when to count them. Generally, we would find people from the higher class have permits and those from the lower class are less likely to have legal status. Generally speaking, but interestingly enough, the lower-income people are more open to the Gospel and coming to Bible studies.
Alex told me about some Hispanic men that he knows who have recently come to Pittsburgh to start working in the roofing industry. This caught my ear because of a recent post in which we focused on immigrant workers in the construction industry. Essentially, these men had come here because the wages were better and they could compete more favorably in this market where there was a smaller supply of workers. (In contrast, the California roofing industry was flooded with Hispanics.) I asked the hard question about how we think about the negative impact that this can have on the American workers already here.
JP: That is a hard question. There are issues there on both the employer and employee side… the immigrant community gets caught in the middle. They would say, “I need to support my family. I’m willing to do what it takes to do that. If this guy is willing to hire me, I am going to take it.”
It strikes me that this history is not new to Pittsburgh. It was played out over the generations as immigrants from Europe flooded the three rivers area. The history of organized labor – we can think particularly of the Homestead strike – was inflamed by these difficult questions.
This led us to another challenging and difficult question. What is the legal status of the immigrants who come to Pittsburgh, and how should we think about that? I raised the topic and probed into this challenging area.
AM: Most often, workers in white-collar jobs have their paperwork in order. By contrast, those who work in labor intensive jobs are often not documented.
JP: Their legal status contributes to them being willing to take less money. The company can save money on benefits and take advantage of the situation.
Jon continued to reflect on the challenges of this situation.
JP: A lot of undocumented immigrants came here as children, through no choice of their own. They have been in the U.S. for many years, and they need to provide for themselves and their families. That group of immigrants is probably the ones who truly get caught in the middle. They have no legal standing, but have to work, so they may undercut the job market, but what else are they supposed to do? From my understanding it is one of the largest groups of illegal immigrants that we have in our country – perhaps as many as 15-30 million. Our biggest issue is how we respond to that group.
I asked Alex about how the political controversies about immigration have been impacting the Hispanic community. He told me that a lot of people are feeling more vulnerable. Public expressions of dislike have become more common and many workers are afraid of the authorities and more vulnerable to being taken advantage of. He relayed two stories to illustrate.
AM: One of the guys who is a friend, is a Latino who has lived here for years. Recently, he felt the shifted tone of public opinion even in Pittsburgh. Someone spit on his face and said, “Go back to your country.” He told me, “That never happened here in Pittsburgh, before. We had heard of it in other places, but not here. What is happening?” I think that when people hear immigrants being called names in public and in politics they start to act different. I have another case, from another lady who is attending the church. She was working in a restaurant and her boss wanted to take advantage of her sexually, or he threatened to fire her. She had to quit and leave without pay. She was afraid to go to the authorities. She said, “This never happened before. I know that I’m not legal so I can’t ask for protection from the government because I fear being kicked out.”
Knowing that we aren’t going to solve all of these problems in one interview or one blog post I asked about how their church was trying to serve in the midst of this situation.
JP: Alex has become a social worker!
They both laughed at this and Alex expanded:
AM: Praise God, we have some connections to the city of Pittsburgh. Many of the social workers don’t speak Spanish and they found out that we have Spanish speakers at the church, so they ask us to help out. For example, there is a refugee couple from Cuba – they speak no English at all. They came to Pittsburgh while they were still waiting for their visa and they needed many things. For about a year, we have helped them – finding a place to stay, getting their driver’s license, just figuring out how to go to the store.
JP: This particular experience with this Cuban couple really had an impact on our church. They saw the real visible needs and began to engage in ways that we had never even thought of before. The congregation is excited to serve. A couple of people have begun to explore ways to help them navigate immigration policies. One is considering a masters in ESL. The deacons are really active. 3-4 years ago we would not have been having these conversations.
AM: Many people from the church are coming to take classes on learning Spanish. They want to learn so that they can communicate with our new visitors.
I asked them how this changed the Sunday worship service.
JP: Some Sundays we are getting close to 20% Hispanic attendance, which many see as a tipping point for how a minority culture feels as it is part of the congregation.
Practically speaking, they have many in attendance each Sunday who do not know English.
AM: We have headsets for people who don’t speak English. I translate everything, from announcements to the benediction. We introduce one Spanish song each month. Fully in Spanish, with words and Latin music and Latin feeling. Interesting, many of the guys who come here do not have Protestant backgrounds. But, they sense that we care about them and they feel welcome. People are open.
Jon told me that several people have expressed faith in Christ at an outreach Bible study that Alex has been leading. He also told me that this ministry is impacting the church as a whole. He believes that because his church is immersed in Hispanic ministry, they are able to navigate the challenging topics with more compassion. In the midst of a hard time, God is working out his purposes. There have been bumps along the road and more challenges lie ahead. But as native English-speakers and native Spanish-speakers gather for worship we get a glimpse of God’s kingdom. The nations are streaming to the mountain of God. Jon concluded this way:
JP: This is an actual visible representation of the gospel at work.