A Many-Layered Chi Alpha
U.S. missionary Belkis Garcia Lehmann, who has served for more than 30 years on staff with Chi Alpha, the campus ministry of the Assemblies of God, likes to focus on people who are overlooked.
“I don’t like seeing people get forgotten,” says Belkis, 53. “I notice those people.”
That may reflect Belkis, a Cuban American, herself growing up as an outsider. She didn’t look like her siblings. And unlike most of her Hispanic classmates, because her family didn’t immigrate in one of the major Cuban waves, she couldn’t speak English.
All that served to prepare her for ministry, taking care to ensure Chi Alpha reflects the diversity of those worshipping before the throne of God revealed in Revelation 7. In 2011, Lehmann helped launch the Chi Alpha Diversity Task Force, a representative group of campus missionaries and pastors; four years later, she became the organization’s national diversity specialist. She now is diversity director. Additionally, she is spearheading the effort for the ministry to have a greater presence on historically Black colleges and universities. She met her husband, Stephen, who also is a career missionary, at a Chi Alpha Reach the University Institute.
When Lehmann joined the Chi Alpha staff in 1991, of the organization’s roughly 250 missionaries on campuses across the U.S., she represented one of only 10 Hispanics. Two decades later, the numbers had increased, but to just 18 nationwide.
However, by 2021, Hispanic missionaries had become the largest minority group with 152 —10% of Chi Alpha’s 1,539 staff. In all, 14% of all Chi Alpha directors and 22% of Chi Alpha staff are ethnic minorities.
“The body of Christ is not a homogenous ethnic group,” says first-generation Salvadoran Jasmine V. Yanez, a U.S. Missions career associate assigned to Richmond (Virginia) Chi Alpha. “It’s a tapestry woven together, made of different cultures, languages, and people groups. Our students are seeing people who look like them, empowered to reach their campus.”
Diversity of staff allows giftings that serve to strengthen the group, Lehmann says. That means being intentional about embracing an array of giftings.
“We’re our experiences, family culture, ethnic culture, personality, and other giftings,” Lehmann says. “The Latin church is strong in evangelism and prayer. We don’t mind talking to strangers.”
As a Miami Cuban, Lehmann’s cultural background is relationally oriented, similar to other Latin Americans, Africans, and some Asians, rather than time-oriented Europeans, she says. Lehmann and other Hispanics have natural affinities to reach those from non-European cultures.
“We can sit and eat for hours,” Lehmann says. “That makes sharing the gospel a little easier. It makes us stronger overall as an organization.”
Yanez, 29, is part of the national Chi Alpha Diversity Task Force working in the area of mobilization. Among its functions is helping ethnic minorities be fully funded in their missionary support, which the organization discovered is a barrier to staff longevity.
Lehmann notes that many Hispanics seeking to become Chi Alpha missionaries have cultural and economic challenges. Some grew up either in poverty or next to the poverty line and have limited networks in which they could raise support. Many are first-generation college graduates.
To help minorities raising support overcome challenges that arise from their backgrounds, Chi Alpha offers grants of 15% per month to minority intern missionaries who reach 85% of their monthly support.
“Our goal is to bring culture change where being a fully funded ethnic minority missionary is normal,” Lehmann says.
Though Lehmann’s parents both worked as professionals and in time came to faith in Christ, she still found cultural and economic challenges.
“The concept of being a missionary was crazy to them,” Lehmann says. It still is to her extended family members, who aren’t Christian.
The physical appearance of Andy Estrella, 43, a first-generation Dominican from Long Island, New York, often puts international students at ease. Saudi, Indian, and Pakistani students all have taken Estrella, director of Chi Alpha at Missouri State University in Springfield, as a son of their own homeland simply because he looks like one of them.
He’s found his background as a Dominican American helps him bridge the gaps with other cultures, often through something as simple as shared love for plantains and mangos.
“My home is where God’s mission is,” Estrella says. “That allows me to celebrate being Hispanic and embrace and love other cultures. The beauty of God’s kingdom is displayed in the cultures of the world.”
Estrella agrees that the example of having Hispanic staff will increase the numbers down the line and, ultimately, reach more with the gospel.
“The very fact that somebody has accomplished it allows for other people to believe that they can,” he says.
Looking forward, birth rates and demographics portend for more Latino students on campuses across the United States in coming decades.
“As we continue to be a very Latino-friendly ministry, we’ll have more Latino staff and greater ability to reach the world,” Lehmann says.
PHOTO: Jasmine Yanez is on staff at the Richmond Chi Alpha in Virginia.