When Ismael Ruiz-Millan stepped behind the pulpit on a recent Sunday, he turned to Revelation 7 for his message.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’
Called “God’s Dream for Us,” Ruiz-Millan’s sermon looked at how that throng of people came together – despite their differences – to worship God.
“Brothers and sisters,” he told the rural North Carolina congregation, “this is what God’s dream for us looks like. The challenge for us this morning is whether or not we want to dream along with God.”
As the director of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., Ruiz-Millan uses the hopeful image in Revelation 7 to guide his work in helping the United Methodist Church in North Carolina and the Divinity School strengthen connections with Hispanic and Latino families.
For church leaders, the Hispanic House of Studies serves as a resource center. For students, it offers opportunities that can enrich the Divinity School experience.
Ruiz-Millan, who moved from Mexico to the United States in 2003, became director in 2011. He’s hoping the post allows him to be a “cultural bridge to reconciliation.”
“When I pastored my first English-speaking congregation, I was the first Latino pastor they had ever had,” he says. “But they embraced me and loved me, and I also loved them. We learned how to love one another in the context of worshipping God together and studying the Bible together – and in the context of figuring out how to reflect God’s love to others. To me, that’s what God wants for the church: To be united and reconciled with God and consequently with all of God’s children.”
Ruiz-Millan talks more about his work in the following interview.
Please tell us more about your background.
I was born in San Luis Rio Colorado in Sonora, Mexico, and then I lived in Mexico City for nine years. Eventually, I returned to San Luis, where I finished college. I came to the States to improve my English.
I came to Raleigh because my uncle was a Methodist minister there. It was a temporary thing. I thought I would learn English, save money and go back to Mexico to get a better job. But before I came here, I had a conversation with my pastor in Mexico and I will never forget what he told me. He said that it was OK to have plans and dreams and hopes for more opportunities, but you also need to ask yourself what is God’s plan for your life. So as soon as I arrived in Raleigh, I started helping my uncle with Hispanic ministries.
What did you do at your uncle’s church?
He really needed help, so I had to do things that I never imagined doing, like teaching a Bible study and preaching. Some of the people started to ask if I had considered going into ministry. I said, ‘No way. I’m just here for a year.’
But after a while, I started to consider that. I had a conversation with my fiancée and told her how people kept asking me that question and how I was now considering it. To my surprise, she was asking herself the same question. She was feeling the same desire. That was really the first confirmation for what would become a joint calling for ministry.
Your fiancée was still in Mexico?
Yes. We got married in October 2003, and the next day we came to the States. We were really taking a leap of faith because we didn’t know what we were going to do.
What happened next?
I took the training through the National Plan for Hispanic Ministries in the Methodist Church and I became a lay missionary. I received an invitation to pastor my first church in 2004 in Greenville, N.C. It was a rural church, so it was supported by The Duke Endowment.
As part of the ordination process, I entered seminary at Duke Divinity School in 2006 and was part of the first class of Rural Fellows of the Thriving Rural Churches program at Duke, which is also supported by The Duke Endowment. I graduated in 2010 and was moved to a two-point charge appointment in Roxboro, N.C. And I was recently ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church.
My wife is currently a student at Duke Divinity. She is a Hispanic/Latino Ministry Fellow, which is one of the programs sponsored by the Hispanic House of Studies. She’s also going through the ordination process of the Methodist Church.
What appealed to you about the Hispanic House of Studies position?
As an immigrant coming to the United States, I have experienced the many challenges immigrants face being in a country that is not theirs. Sometimes there is a lack of understanding of why immigrants come to the States, and there is a lack of understanding within the Church. I felt I could identify with the vision that we were trying to articulate through the Hispanic House of Studies.
What do you want people to know about the Hispanic House of Study?
My desire is for it to be a resource center for students – and for churches and pastors and laypersons – who want to do ministry with Latinos. I’d like to bring together the pastors who are serving Spanish-speaking congregations because it is very easy to get isolated.
What is your biggest challenge?
I think, in general, there is an anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. When you are trying to articulate a vision of welcoming everyone into the Church, that sentiment is a challenge.
Our heritage in the Methodist Church is to minister to those who sometimes are neglected. Hospitality is in our roots, in our DNA. There is a tremendous opportunity here, but Hispanic ministry is often seen as optional – an add-on. If the Methodist Church continues to see it that way, the Hispanic population will not see the Methodist Church as an option.
Why did you take this post?
Through this job, I believe I can really encourage the Church in general to take more seriously Revelation 7. I believe that when God brought me to the United States, he allowed me to experience all these cultural changes to be a bridge to reconciliation. It excited me that through this office, I could do that in a wider way.
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church