By Sr. Michelle Collins
“That grant saved our life.” That is how Diana Fajardo began the conversation with me about the impact of receiving a Deaconess Community Mission Support Grant. With the grant, the ministry of El Centro Hispano can move into the next phase of impact by bringing on a teacher. “El Centro” is a community outreach center in Fort Lauderdale associated with Abiding Savior Lutheran Church. Diana Fajardo, an ELCA Mission Developer and a candidate for ordination doing her theological training through TEEM, is the director of El Centro. She also serves as the mission developer for “Todos Los Santos,” a Spanish-speaking congregation under development by Abiding Savior.
All the people involved with El Centro are from Latin America, with 80% of them being undocumented. The vision for El Centro is for adults (mostly women) to come together for training and education alongside their children, as an alternative to the typical model where the children get the opportunity for education while the parents work. The key need for the center has been a teacher who can focus on English language learning. The grant from the Deaconess Community allows El Centro to hire a teacher. This teacher learned English through the center and has been preparing for her GED.
“After 13 years, this is the first parent who is actually going to work for El Centro,” Diana said. Besides education, El Centro also hosts a food pantry. It is unique in the sense that those who come for food are also those who are working to pack, organize and distribute the food. El Centro has Summer camp for children and sports and recreation activities for youth. There is also a growing desire for community choir which El Centro is attempting to provide for.
One of the recent celebrations the community of Todos los Santos held was around becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Many volunteers at El Centro are gay. The leadership of Todos los Santos explored the question, “what does this tell us about God?” They felt compelled to strengthen their commitment to all people. They contacted the local Pride Community in Fort Lauderdale, connected with Reconciling in Christ, and on November 27, held a service of celebration and commitment to be an intentionally welcoming community. “I really want El Centro to become that place where two minorities—the Latino community and the LGBTQ community—get together….those are very rich communities in every aspect,” Diana explained.
As a Montessori trainer, Diana’s approach to teaching and training is deeply rooted in relationship, mentoring, and experience. The ministry of El Centro is ecumenical, even though they are clearly Lutheran. She sees everything she is doing as grounded in the Gospel, in being the presence of Christ and inviting people from a variety of traditions to come together to be the body of Christ. “I’m not selling church…I’m not selling Lutheranism. What I’m doing is showing them what being a Lutheran means, more than speaking about it, and then people get excited and start asking questions.”
Diana continues to build partnerships and embody the commitment to a holistic expression of the Body of Christ as she leads the ministry of both El Centro and Todos los Santos. The food pantry is a partnership with United Way. The program is applying for a Hunger Grant. The ministry of Todos los Santos is a partnership with Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Fort Lauderdale. One of the growing partnerships for the community is with the Fort Lauderdale police department. Through this growing partnership, the people involved with El Centro are coming to see the police as a positive supportive presence. “Domestic violence is a daily bread [for many], so at least they know they have the support of the police.”
I asked Diana how else the Deaconess Community can specifically pray and support the ministry of El Centro. She spoke clearly about the need for more professionals to provide support. Specifically, she asked that we pray for some professionals who are able to provide health care support—especially mental health care—to the immigrant community. Those who have crossed the border with their children face a lot of trauma and frustration, and there’s a strong need for professional health care and educational support. Additionally, she said she has a dream of having a choir director come and work with children, youth, and adults in the community. A voice coach already volunteers at the weekly music program at El Centro, but she would love to have a trained choir director to expand and strengthen that program. “The reason we invite the teenagers from the community is to become a glee club–to get them out of gangs and drugs,” Diana explained.
The ministry of El Centro and of Todos los Santos is a rich expression of diakonia—compelled by the love of Christ. They are reaching out to those who are on the margins. They are strengthening and uplifting leadership. And they are serving all people for the sake of the Gospel. Diana said it well: “If your faith doesn’t impact society, I don’t think it’s life.”