United Methodists have ministered to this Hispanic community in Loudon County for nearly 15 years, but a new building will put a visible seal on the church's long-term commitment to the people, leaders say.
Iglesia Metodista Unida Casa del Alfarero -- also known as Potter's House United Methodist Church -- was consecrated on May 2, two years after the Maryville District celebrated the groundbreaking. The new building sits on the lot between Philadelphia and Sweetwater, where a single-wide trailer served as a United Methodist meeting place for four years.
"The trailer was too small for the number of people they were trying to serve," said the Rev. Tony Collins. "This new building says to the community that the United Methodist Church is here to stay, and we're showing it by making a significant investment."
Collins is senior pastor at Loudon UMC, a parent church for the Spanish-speaking Potter's House located 10 miles away. Loudon UMC is the home church of Bonnie Howard, who first ministered to the Hispanic community through vacation bible school and English language classes in the 1990s.
Daniel Castillo became the first pastor for Casa del Alfarero in 2006. He says that two years to complete the church's construction did not seem overly long to him, although it did for others.
"We were depending on volunteer labor on the weekends, so we couldn't be sure when it would be done," says the native of Querétaro, Mexico. Construction in his homeland often involves concrete blocks, whereas the Potter's House is made of wood, he explained. "A building might take years to finish, so for me, the church was built very quickly."
Several United Methodist groups contributed volunteer labor, including Loudon, Fairview, Broadway, Friendsville, First Gatlinburg, First Madisonville, First Sweetwater, and Hiwassee College, according to Collins.
On one weekend, a man without United Methodist connections drove up and said, "I heard you are building a church here," Collins said. "He came back to work over the next three or four weekends."
The church was built with $92,000, including funds from the Maryville District and a $22,000 grant from Holston Conference Congregational Development ministries.
"We're excited about this outreach to Latino and Hispanic families and children in the Maryville District," said the Rev. Richard Edwards, Holston director of congregational development. "And we want to continue to be supportive."
Holston's congregational development team has also helped fund Castillo's pastoral ministry since 2008, Edwards said.
'We have roots'
Castillo, 30, pastors Casa del Alfarero with the help of his wife, Kacye Castenir, age 29. They have three children.
The couple met in Mexico, after Castenir of Fountain City UMC in Knoxville went south to do mission work. Castillo owned a spray-painting business, while volunteering at his Methodist church and feeling a call to full-time ministry.
The young couple eventually met the Rev. Jim Dougherty, a retired Holston clergy member who has led medical mission trips to Mexico for many years. Dougherty, who also serves as chair of Holston's Hispanic Ministries Team, helped bring the couple to Loudon County to pastor Potter's House, Castillo said.
"People out in the community love Dani, and he's doing a good job," Collins said.
Today, worship attendance at Casa del Alfarero ranges from 20 to 50, with three families as the most faithful core group. Youth ministry attendance varies from nine to 30.
The numbers rise and fall as churches from other denominations in Lenoir City, Athens, and Madisonville come and go in the area served by Potter's House. They offer events with free dinners, praise bands, or other attractive but short-term features, Castillo said.
"They may just want to increase their numbers," he said. "They do lots of things for a little bit of time, and then quit," Castillo said.
Many Spanish-speakers have roots in the Catholic church and are pressured by family and friends to resist commitment to other denominations, Castillo added. "But our focus, in the United Methodist Church, is on the people and on the community. We have roots here. They know we are here and available to them, and even when they have gone, sometimes they come back. They see this is the church."
In years past, the Maryville District ministry offered English classes, transportation, and other assistance to the community. Some of those services have since been trimmed to allow church leaders to focus on developing the ministry, Castillo said.
Yet, Casa del Alfaroro still offers programs throughout the week in the aging trailer as well as the new 30-foot by 70-foot building -- which includes a sanctuary, two classrooms, kitchen, and two bathrooms.
Monday night is for elementary-age Bible Club. Pre-teens attend Bible Club on Tuesday night. Youth activities are held on Wednesday night. Adults attend Bible study on Thursday.
Sunday worship is held at 5 p.m. Sunday. The congregation voted on the time because for many, Sunday is the only day they can sleep late, Castillo said.
Loudon UMC's choir director, Steve Thomas, and director of Christian education, Elizabeth Rudesill, provide weekly ministry assistance, Collins said.
Karen Neff -- who helped establish the Maryville District's Hispanic ministry by offering English classes, Bible study, summer camp scholarships, and many other opportunities over the past decade -- continues her work at Potter's House on Sunday and Monday.
On other days, Neff has a new responsibility: She's helping to develop an emerging Hispanic congregation at St. John UMC in Alcoa.
On Sunday, May 16, Castillo preached at St. John's first worship service for Spanish speakers in the church's chapel.
Support Casa del Afarero UMC by purchasing the bluegrass/gospel CD, "Working on the Building," by Loudon UMC member and artist Joan Lovelace. Cost:$15. E-mail TonyCollins@bellsouth.net.