Regular readers of "The Call" newspaper are familiar with the regular "At Lunch" series. In this first online lunchtime column, John Shearer dines with one of Holston's leaders in the growing Hispanic ministry.
When I met with Jeanet Berruecos Xicohtencatl, she selected the newly opened La Rumba Mexican restaurant in the Bearden area of Knoxville. The reason was not just the menu, but also the staff. One of the employees is taking an English language course Berruecos is helping coordinate through Pellissippi State Technical Community College.
Berruecos is director of Latino ministries for the Knoxville District, but on this day she almost seemed like a street evangelist. She immediately began handing out fliers about her language class to restaurant employees while talking to them in Spanish.
As we sipped on refreshing Mexican horchata soft drinks before enjoying our enchiladas, I learned that Berruecos’ life has gone through a few courses and stages as well. In fact, she has known more financial – and spiritual – challenges than her pleasant disposition reveals. She believes her past helps her relate to fellow Hispanics.
"I had experienced what I needed to understand them and to feel what it is like to be unable,” she said.
Growing up in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, she experienced a somewhat rare middle-class lifestyle. Her father was a civil engineer, while her mother was a nurse who owned a pharmacy.
Tough economic times that closed nearby factories changed her family's prosperous situation. “I remember I had good clothes and good shoes when I was little, but after that, nothing was the same,” she said.
Several encounters with Christian goodwill had postive impact on her life. She met a Holston pastor, the Rev. Jim Dougherty, who was leading a mission team through her area. In 1989-90, during her senior year in high school, she accepted an opportunity to live in Kansas as an exchange student -- an opportunity that was possible through her connection with another United Methodist mission group that came through her community to work. In Kansas, she greatly improved her English speaking skills.
Berruecos' mother was Catholic and her father a Methodist, but friction between Berruecos’ grandparents over the denominational differences caused her parents to avoid church altogether.
"I grew up without going to church and knowing God,” she said.
However, after her maternal grandmother became sick, she was treated by a doctor who was also a United Methodist lay pastor. He began sharing his faith with the family and coming to their house to lead Bible studies.
"We all accepted Jesus as savior,” said Berruecos, who was 12 at the time.
After living in Kansas, she returned to Mexico to attend college, studying international trade. Volkswagen had a factory located nearby, so she thought studying German might help her get a good job.
Berruecos moved to Germany, working as a nanny and learning the German language. When she returned to her homeland, she got a well-paying job as an interpreter for Siemens, another German company that provided parts for Volkswagen. Then she moved to Volkswagen to work in the trading department. Unfortunately, that job did not work out.
"After that, nobody wanted to hire me or pay me,” she said. “They said I was overqualified. That’s when I suffered and felt frustrated and knew what it was like not to have a job and to struggle for survival.”
After selling cosmetics and homemade cakes to buy groceries, she was able to get a job at Komberling. However, she realized then that job would not be permanent.
“I started thinking maybe I should pay attention to what God was telling me,” she said. She began to realize she wanted to serve God, not a company.
With the help of the Rev. Mike Feely and others with whom she had become acquainted, she received a scholarship to attend Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She roomed with the Rev. Clair Travis, who is now minister of youth and young adults at First-Centenary UMC in Chattanooga District.
After graduation in 2007, she was hired by the Knoxville District in the newly created position of Latino ministries director. She started her work in September 2007, using an office provided by Church Street UMC and living in the parsonage at Marble City UMC.
In addition to teaching language classes, Berruecos interprets the services for Hispanic worshippers at Washington Pike UMC. She also advocates for Latinos by serving on several task forces and committees and is a liaison for the Volunteer Ministry Center’s monthly medical clinic.
“Most of them cannot get health insurance because of a lack of proper paperwork,” Berruecos said.
As for future goals, she wants to help the Volunteer Ministry Center open a more permanent health clinic for Hispanics. She also would like to see the Knoxville District open a safe community center patterned after the St. Andrews Center in Chattanooga.
Most of all, she wants to continue being a Christian friend to those in need, she said.
"My main purpose is to show them that God loves us,” she said.