Though his humble disposition doesn’t make it immediately apparent, soft-spoken Julio Ramirez-Eve (Class of 1996), has lots of responsibility riding on his shoulders.
As newly commissioned pastor of Northgate Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina, as well as leader of Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel, a Hispanic fellowship group that also meets at Northgate’s building, Ramirez-Eve is pioneering an unusual model of ministry. He is leading not one congregation merged from two, but two distinct congregations with their own operating budgets and leadership teams bound together under this one pastor’s care.
Before becoming the formal pastor of Northgate in December of 2009, Ramirez-Eve spent five years lead the Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel fellowship using the Northgate church facilities as a guest.
Since the Hispanic fellowship has 50 to 60 members while the English congregation has about 15 to 20, for now, the majority of Ramirez-Eve’s congregants are those from minority groups in larger society. And yet this particular mix, as he sees it, is appropriate as the face of the city of Durham is changing to become steadily more Hispanic.
According to an economic and demographic profile produced by the city of Durham, there were 225,093 people living within city limits in 2009. About 49 percent of this 2009 population is European American, while Hispanics are by far the most rapidly growing segment of society in Durham; growing from one percent of the city’s population in 1990 to 12 percent in 2009.
While most pastors struggle to balance responsibilities of church and family, Ramirez-Eve names his parents, wife and personal faith as significant sources of support as he pastors two yoked congregations and works to reconcile the dominant white culture with the influx of Hispanic immigrants.
Since he is also part of a community leadership team that works to bring many cultures together, for Ramirez-Eve, this ministry of reconciliation is about much more than his yoked church project – in fact it extends even beyond the city of Durham.
“The North Carolina community is changing,” Ramirez-Eve said. “People want to be a part of that change; it’s significant to the culture of the church.”
Two important tools for unity are food and worship, he says. The two groups bond through sharing meals and worshiping at the same time. They grow closer to their neighbors by feeding the hungry through Emanuel’s food pantry.
The biggest challenge facing Ramirez-Eve at the moment is making contacts with the greater community so that the members of the Hispanic fellowship do not become an isolated cultural island – instrumental to this effort are bilingual people who can navigate both cultures freely. He credits this cross-cultural facility in part to his experience at McCormick.
“Experiences at McCormick with people from different backgrounds and nationalities has helped me a lot.” Ramirez-Eve said. “It’s a big challenge to grow two congregations at the same time.” Ramirez-Eve is one of more than 250 Latin@s who have received a masters degree or higher from McCormick.
In his current position, Ramirez-Eve gains perspective from his associate in ministry Sam Miglarese, who volunteers to preach twice a month at Northgate.
“McCormick should take great pride in Julio’s accomplishment,” Miglarese said. “He’s got a great opportunity to build a multicultural community with hope for the future.”
Miglarese, who is Director of Community Engagement at Duke University and an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Durham, helped nominate Julio for the head pastoral position at Northgate.
Miglarese believed Ramirez-Eve was the right man for this church yoking project because of his training, pastoral skill and affable nature.
“The chance for that community to survive was to get involved with this multicultural opportunity,” Miglarese said. “Without Julio being their pastor, the community would have died a long time ago.”
The chance to survive by becoming a yoking church isn’t something all members of Northgate embraced – some left the congregation rather than take on the challenge of becoming multicultural.
Since their congregation is only 15 people, the Presbyterian Church would not have assigned a pastor to Northgate, Miglarese said.
Though it is three times smaller than Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel, the Northgate congregation contributes a comparable amount in offertory money. Most of those in the Hispanic congregation are recent immigrants working in the service industry.
“There is no sugar daddy in either congregation,” Miglarese said. “Money from the Presbytery makes ends meet.”
In addition to the denominational funding – which pays Julio’s salary and benefits – rent from small businesses using parts of the church’s space also helps pay the bills.
“Although we need more money, we need people more than we need money,” Ramirez-Eve said.
For the Hispanic fellowship, which consists of many young immigrants, Ramirez-Eve‘s main areas of concern include members’ strong need for community and struggles with economic instability. He wants to help the Northgate congregation learn how to open their hearts to the new immigrants and really understand them.
“Change has to happen today so we can enjoy tomorrow,” Ramirez-Eve said. “Finding out how to make one congregation can be difficult, but they want to try. That’s the good news.”
Joe Harvard, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church – a neighboring presbytery which helps financially support the yoked church – also has hope for Ramirez-Eve’s effort to help these two separate groups work as one unit.
“He’s been a bridge-builder,” Harvard said. “He doesn’t draw rigid lines. People experience each other’s culture and grow together.”