Written by Daniel Hazard
"I thought of my whole journey with the Latino community, and I knew right then where God wanted [my] money to go."
— Peter Barbosa
Not many of us have an epiphany, a moment when we realize without doubt that God is speaking to us, right there and then.
But Peter Barbosa did.
Barbosa, originally from Puerto Rico, is a professor at Samuel Merritt College in Oakland, Calif., where he teaches biochemistry and immunology and does AIDS research. He's also a member of First Congregational UCC in Oakland, Calif., which he loves because it's multicultural and multiracial. "It's fantastic!" he says.
As he became active in the national life of the UCC, Barbosa, who is Hispanic, grew aware of a leadership problem among his people.
"Our people really do not get training in UCC seminaries," he says. "So they come into our denomination with a completely different mentality and a different polity. Then we have a lot of pastors who just don't stay."
50-Grand for God's mission
One day Barbosa was discussing these challenges with the Rev. Mari Castellanos of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries staff.
"You know what we need?" Castellanos said. "We need a scholarship fund to get Latinos into UCC seminaries."
"I've gotta tell you," says Barbosa, "when she said that, I just felt the Holy Spirit. I just felt that God was using the Holy Spirit to talk through her. I still get goose bumps when I think of that moment."
Prior to this encounter, Barbosa already had told God that he had $50,000 in his life savings that he wanted to use for God's mission. He was just waiting for God to tell him where.
"That moment I heard Mari talking about a scholarship fund," he says, "I thought of my whole journey with the Latino community, and I knew right then where God wanted that money to go.
"So I offered that $50,000."
Educating would-be pastors
Barbosa hopes his commitment will encourage others to see the importance of this project and to make gifts of whatever amount. As contributions from different persons come in, each quarter he will contribute an amount equal to that quarter's gifts — until individuals have contributed $50,000 and he has matched it.
Although Latinos/as are the U.S.'s largest ethnic minority, Hispanic membership in the UCC remains less than one percent. Across the country, generally, mainstream denominations such as the UCC have not been able to meet this challenge to encourage more Hispanic members.
The Héctor López Scholarship Fund hopes to educate Hispanic candidates for ministry in socially and theologically progressive UCC seminaries. As pastors, these persons then will be required to return to ministry within Latino/a communities and, as their brochure states it, "to proclaim the liberating Gospel message of salvation, full-inclusion, justice and peace."
What started as a program of the Council for Hispanic Ministries is now a four-way covenant among CHM, Local Church Ministries, Justice and Witness Ministries, and Wider Church Ministries.
LCM has committed $200,000 over four years, and JWM will add $50,000 with another $50,000 under consideration. WCM has joined the covenant only recently.
"Now the whole church is working together, which is the way I think it should be," says Barbosa. "And even though CHM basically has no budget, they have come up with $17,000 over the past three years and that is really spectacular."
López, a UCC pioneer
In 1966, Héctor López became the fi rst Hispanic in the United States to be ordained in the UCC. Thirty years later, when he accepted the call to be Central Pacifi c Conference Minister, he became the UCC's fi rst Hispanic Conference Minister in the United States.
"To me," says Barbosa, "Héctor López is truly one of the biggest pioneers in the church. He stands for so much of what I think we believe in, particularly the multi-racial, multi-cultural movement and the social justice movement. He's one of my heroes. I've grown so much by having him in my life."
"Héctor has been a mentor and a leader to many persons, Hispanics and others alike," says the Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries. "He's shown a visible and courageous commitment to the UCC and to our identity as a church of liberation theologies."
"When he retired, we couldn't think of a more appropriate way to honor him than to establish the Héctor López Scholarship Fund to develop future Hispanic leaders for the UCC," she adds.
God gives opportunities
The Fund's goal is to establish a $1 million endowment, although it is prepared to begin work when it hits the half-million-dollar mark.
To date, however, individual contributions have been disappointing. Besides the institutional gifts of $267,000, only $3,000 has been received from individuals and matched by Barbosa.
Barbosa sees the López Scholarship Fund as a long term solution for increasing the number of Hispanic pastors in the UCC.
"I just feel lucky that God has given me this opportunity," he says. "I hope others will see this as an opportunity, too."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.
Make a Gift
Contribute online at www.ucc.org/make-a-gift.
Contribute by mail at:
Héctor E. López Scholarship Fund
UCC Financial Development Ministry
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115-1100
For more information, contact Peter Barbosa at 415/509-7049 or CHMscholarship@aol.com.