Invitations bring diverse disciples to Leachville UMC

By Eric Van Meter
Special Contributor

When Ronnie and Sandra Kennett began inviting their Hispanic coworkers to church, they did not know what to expect. But three years after a young boy bridged the cultural gap, Leachville UMC has been rejuvenated by the Hispanic members of their congregation.

According to U.S. Census data from 2010, Leachville’s population of Hispanic/Latino residents sits at 12.6 percent, a more than three percent increase from 9.54 percent in the 2000 census. Ronnie Kennett, now retired, recalls his time working alongside many Hispanic persons at Adams Land Company, a cotton gin in Leachville.

“They were hard workers, and I developed tremendous respect for them,” he says. “But most of them had no church background.”

That changed when an 11-year-old boy asked his mother about visiting church. She remembered Kennett’s invitation, and the two began attending Leachville UMC.

Now, three years later, Kennett estimates that nearly a quarter of the 70 or so Sunday morning worshippers are of Hispanic origin. Many of these are children or youth, although half a dozen adults also have started attending regularly.

The influx caught the attention of the owner of Adams Land Co., who donated a van to help shuttle the children back and forth to church.

“The kids add so much to the church,” Kennett says. “They are bright and energetic, and they are involved in athletics and other community events. They’ve really been a new spark in our lives.”

Others in the Arkansas Conference have taken note of the new spark Kennett describes. Northeast District Superintendent the Rev. Susan Ledbetter says that Leachville’s efforts are a perfect example of what the Bishop’s Mission Plan hopes to accomplish. She especially notes the plan’s fifth point, which describes the need for congregations to look more like their neighborhoods.

“If we think of our ‘neighborhood’ as any place in our community and individuals’ lives where invitations to know and experience Jesus Christ may be made, then our neighborhood is the place where we take the time to develop the relationships and reach out to the people we see every day,” Ledbetter said.

“This story is the heart of faith sharing,” she added. “It’s a story about church transformation—coming alive in a new way and experiencing new fruit of vitality.”

Leachville UMC pastor the Rev. Doug Criss leads worship services in English, which Kennett says most of their Hispanic friends understand well. And when they don’t, children often step in to translate for anyone who has difficulty, particularly with the sermon.

Now that so many new people have become part of the Leachville UMC family, the Kennetts have turned their attention to sustaining the church’s outreach. Ronnie Kennett sees hope in the younger adults who have gotten excited about ministry.

“My wife and I are both in our seventies,” he says. “We love working with the kids, but someone else is going to have to step forward if it’s going to be sustainable. And I believe we’re starting to see that.”