Late in the day on a Sunday afternoon, sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of the First Baptist Church on Partition Street in Saugerties. The congregants gathering in its glow are members of the Monte de Oración Christian church, the first church in Saugerties to offer bilingual services in Spanish and English.
“Raise your hand if you’re joyful,” says Aldy Perez, an ordained minister filling in for the regular pastor (who also happens to be her husband), Reverend Jose Manuel Perez. Aldy usually takes a supporting role in the services, but on this day she commands the center of the altar while her husband is away guest-preaching at a friend’s church in Connecticut.
The First Baptist reverberates with sound and energy as native Venezuelan Pastora Aldy and daughters, Gabriella, 18, and Angely, 13, sing faith-based songs in Spanish, amplified by microphones, to the accompaniment of much hand-clapping. Two congregants join the mother and daughters on the altar to sing and offer praise, backed by two men playing electric guitar and drums in the loft overhead. The musicians continue to play throughout the service, in fact, accompanying the preaching as well as the songs.
The service is conducted in Spanish by Aldy and translated into English by Gabriella, who performs that task each week, usually with her father officiating. Young Angely, like her mother, also takes a special role on this day, standing in as guest preacher for her father, delivering the sermon in English with her sister translating it into Spanish.
The congregants sit or stand as they like, many standing and swaying with eyes closed and one arm raised fervently in praise. There’s a continual flow to the service, without any stops and starts between song and prayer. Most of the parishioners are young families with several small children, who roam freely throughout the service but without being disruptive; the atmosphere is more akin to a festive family get-together than a formal church service. (In contrast to the way that some churches ask their members to turn and shake the hands of the congregants sitting near them, Monte de Oración encourages its members to approach every single person there to greet them, which they do with enthusiasm and warmth.)
About halfway through the service, the children in attendance are invited to go downstairs with their teacher to play and to be taught Bible studies and learn songs in both Spanish and English. The church sponsors a youth group every Thursday as well, presided over by the pastor’s daughters Gabriella and Angely along with Linda Lopez’s 16-year-old daughter. When the services are over, all converge downstairs for a shared dinner prepared by one of the congregants, at a cost of $5 per dinner to help defray the expense of keeping the church going.
You can chart the ethnic profile of Saugerties by looking at its churches and when they were founded; first came the Dutch, English and Germans with their attendant Protestant denominations, then the Irish and Italians who built the town’s two Catholic churches. Though the new church doesn’t have its own building, it represents the first significant change in the town’s demography since the Italians settled Glasco.
Church member Linda Lopez says that the Monte de Oración (“mountain of prayer”) was first formed by pastor Jose Manuel Perez about 15 years ago in Kingston, where the church met in different locations without having a permanent home.
When Perez relocated his family to Saugerties, the church moved as well. “We started here having the services in my home, across the street from the First Baptist, in January of 2011,” says Lopez. “We were looking to get a Baptist or Methodist church in Saugerties that we could give a donation to, to be able to have services, and sent a letter to the pastor of First Baptist. In April he called us.” The first service in their new home was held on Mother’s Day in May of 2012, says Lopez, adding that while they had just a few members in the beginning, they now have around 40 parishioners.
Monte de Oración is growing in size, says Lopez, in no small part because of its pastor. “I was not a church-going person until I lost my son five years ago,” she says. Devastated and seeking comfort, she tried out “every church there is,” she says, until finding Monte de Oración and Reverend Perez. “This was the pastor who made me feel the Lord,” she says. “I became a completely different person with the help of my pastor.”
The services are non-denominational Christian. According to Lopez, about a third of the church members don’t speak any English, but are bettering their English language skills through the church services, because they hear the words spoken in Spanish followed directly by the English translation, which allows them to make the connections and learn the new language.
“It is very meaningful to have a Spanish service in Saugerties,” says Lopez. She was born and raised in Kingston and has lived in Saugerties for 25 years with her husband Nick, who is originally from El Salvador. “There are many, many Spanish people in Saugerties now,” she says, “but when I met my husband 25 years ago, there were very few.” Saugerties is drawing in the Hispanic population, she believes, because it’s so similar to the small county towns and villages in the places that area Hispanics came from.
“In my opinion, I think a lot of them come to Saugerties because it’s such a great, friendly hometown,” Lopez says. “It’s such a wonderful, homey place. I’ve been to El Salvador many times to visit my husband’s family, and Saugerties is like a little farm town from there. It’s country life, it’s quiet, everybody knows each other, everybody tries to help each other, and they’re friendly. And the schools in Saugerties help the Hispanic kids so much, especially with the Head Start program.”
The bilingual services reflect not only the growing number of Hispanic residents in Saugerties, but the growing number of Hispanic-owned businesses in the town and village, says Lopez, pointing out that Tango Café and Starway Cafe/Pizza Star are both owned by Argentineans, and Main Street Restaurant is co-owned by a native of El Salvador.
The bilingual services are an important addition to the entire community, she says. “It’s about bringing the Lord to everyone; anyone is invited to come and enjoy. Our doors are open.”
Services are held at the First Baptist Church in Saugerties every Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday evenings at 7:30 p.m.