At last, help is here for the Rev. Miguel Vilar.
Since 1987, the Episcopal priest from Puerto Rico has almost single-handedly operated a Hispanic ministry at Holy Evangelists Episcopal Church in Canton. Besides serving the 100 members of La Mision Episcopal Hispana at Holy Evangelists, Vilar has been both spiritual leader and social advocate for the burgeoning number of Hispanics in Maryland, whatever their faiths.
The work can be wearying for the priest -- and for his car. Tending to his charges around the state, Vilar has racked up 80,000 miles on his 1989 Subaru.
Now, thanks to a unique ecumenical project of the Lutheran and Episcopal denominations, Vilar finally has received assistance in the form of Peter Rosa, a 31-year-old intern from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio. Rosa arrived in Baltimore last month to work with Vilar in ministering to local Hispanics.
During his year-long internship, Rosa will be based at Messiah Lutheran Church, at Potomac and O'Donnell streets, a few blocks south of Holy Evangelists in the blue-collar, Formstone-encased neighborhood overlooking the Patapsco River.
Every Sunday at the Episcopal church, Rosa does the Gospel readings at a Spanish-language service run by Vilar. The intern had to get the permission of the local Episcopal and Lutheran bishops before he could take part in the weekly liturgy.
The work of Vilar and Rosa also includes regular visits to Hispanic prisoners at the Baltimore City Detention Center. And, through a proposed "Hispanic hot line" phone service, they hope to link recent immigrants with government agencies that might guide them through the sundry problems of settling in a strange, new land.
"Peter is going to be a big help," says Vilar.
Lutheran and Episcopal officials are excited about the year-long project mainly for two reasons.
First, they savor the prospect of ministering to the Baltimore area's Hispanic population, which is estimated at about 45,000 and booming.
Second, the two denominations are curious to see how their unusual interfaith partnership will work.
"At the national and local levels, Episcopalians and Lutherans have been carrying on a general dialogue for the last 20 years about how we can work together," says the Rev. D. Lee Hudson, the pastor of Messiah and the man Rosa describes as "my boss." The intern also answers to the Rev. Carol Cole Flanagan, the pastor of Holy Evangelists.
"Peter may be here only one year, but [the two denominations] may find we can do other things together in the future," Hudson adds. "We may come up with other ways to pitch our tents together."
The Rev. Jerrett L. Hansen, the local mission director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Division of Outreach, says cooperation is not entirely new to the two denominations. He cites, as an example, an area Episcopal church that lends worship and office space to a Lutheran congregation.
"But in this region, the [Hispanic ministry] project is the first to have such a high level of involvement by staff from both churches," Hansen says.
Even if the two denominations never reach an agreement on liturgical matters, Vilar says, "In social work, like running this ministry, we should be able to come together.Churches have to be united so they can work to help the people."
When Rosa's internship ends next September, the denominations will study its impact and decide whether the project should continue, Hansen adds.
Other local church groups, such as East Baltimore's Pentecostal congregations and the Spanish Apostolate of the Roman Catholic archdiocese, minister to the Hispanic community, Rosa points out.
"However, we're seeing some overlap with these different groups," he says. "The same work sometimes gets done twice. The Lutherans and Episcopalians are trying to avoid that. That's why we're coordinating our efforts."
A Bronx native who was raised in Puerto Rico, Rosa explains that his role during the internship is to be a "learner-server." He already has put in three years of academic study at Trinity and expects to be ordained next year.
"A key goal of our ministry," he says, "is to bring together all the different ethnic groups -- Cubans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, etc. -- and form a united Hispanic community. We don't want to deny each national identity. But, if they all came together as a group, they could build some real political and social power for themselves."