St. Thomas is the only church in Elizabethton with bilingual sermons, although Elizabethton Church of Christ offers Spanish teachings and materials to visitors. Along with a bilingual sermon, St. Thomas is trying to save money to provide hymn and prayer books in Spanish, as Holder hopes the church’s Latino following grows.
Since the beginning of the Latino Partnership, a display of the image of Maria Guadalupe has found a permanent home at the front of the church. More commonly known as “Mary of Guadalupe” or “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” this image is a symbol of Latino identity and motherhood.
Jim and Joyce Butler, who run the church’s Latino task force, educate new Latino members of the church at the parish level, as well as provide them with worship materials and care packages. These packages usually consist of food and household items. When they can, the Butlers also provide housing and sustenance assistance.
Jim Butler is confident the church’s unique atmosphere will spark curiosity in the community.
“It’s important for people to know what we’re about, and I always say we’re catholic, but just super liberal,” Butler said.
According to Butler, this approach has had some success, possibly since most Latinos identify as Roman Catholic. A study done in 2013 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University said 57 percent of Latino adults in America identify as Catholic.
Holder maintains a laid-back feel at St. Thomas. He began a recent sermon by having the congregation open his personal Facebook on their phones to view a post he made earlier in the day.
The post read:
“That time you finally slow down enough to realize you’ve been spending more time on anxiety than on gratitude.”
This post summarized the Sunday sermon.
Holder led off the sermon by saying:
“Michael Jackson said it best, folks. You have to start with the man in the mirror. The only thing stopping you from being gracious is you.”
It is not uncommon to walk into St. Thomas and find the members in jeans and t-shirts. During Bible study one day last fall—Bible study is held every Sunday morning before the church’s regular service—Holder was wearing shorts and colorful, knee-high socks. A member of the study group asked about appropriate attire for an upcoming event, and he replied: “This is St. Thomas! Wear what you want!”
Recently, Holder performed what he believes is St. Thomas’ first full immersion baptism. After a Sunday service, he invited the congregation to join him at the Watauga River to baptize two new members of the church.
It is unusual for an Episcopal Church to do a full immersion baptism, with most priests traditionally sticking to affusion, a type of baptism where water is poured on the head of the person being baptized. However, Holder always offers both as a choice so members do what they feel is best, as is the St. Thomas way.
Holder attended Harvard Divinity School in the 1990s and is currently enrolled in a doctor of ministry program at Virginia Theological Seminary. Since 1997, he has spent time as priest at churches in New York, California, New Jersey and Alabama. He returned to his hometown of Elizabethton in November 2015 and stepped into the pastor’s position at St. Thomas.
Since his start at St. Thomas, Holder has been working on a rebranding on the church, which is currently celebrating its 75th year.
Only about 3 percent of Elizabethton’s 14,000 people are Latino, according to a 2015 Census Bureau estimate.
Holder says the church holds 30 to 45 people on any given Sunday, 15 percent of whom he says are Latino.
Holder praises St. Thomas’ congregation and how welcoming they are with new changes at the church.
“Everyone is keeping peace with each other and it’s really allowed us to build a group of just great people,” Holder said. “When we’re in the church we are blessed by each other, blessed by the human spirit.”
Holder’s desire to make those he teaches comfortable stretches past the St. Thomas doors. He often goes to homes, restaurants and even the mountains to deliver his teachings.
Once a month, Holder and about 10 members of St. Thomas gather at El Charolais restaurant in Elizabethton, to pray, offer care packages to those who may need them, and find new potential members of the church.
“[Holder] has his own type of power,” said Jordanny Hernandez, a manager at El Charolais. “You can see this is really an anything-goes kind of church.”
Hernandez says the restaurant welcomes and appreciates the visits from St. Thomas.
“What’s important is how he helps families in the restaurant, so we want to help him too and find more people,” said Hernandez.
Joyce Butler reaches out to those who join the church members at the restaurant. She encourages them to visit the church and provides them with pamphlets.
Through St. Thomas’ growing reputation in the area, Holder believes the church is on its way to gaining a larger and more diverse congregation. He uses the Spanish word “ojalá,” which translates to “hopefully” and “God willing,” to describe his expectations of the church’s future.
“The church has a lot of potential,” he said. “And “ojalá,” our prayers will be answered.”
top left: Hayley Nelson
right: The symbol of Maria Guadalupe displayed in St. Thomas. Photo courtesy of Timothy Holder.
bottom left: Holder pictured with members of St. Thomas at a baptism held at the Watauga River. Photo courtesy of Timothy Holder.