- Associated Press - Monday, July 7, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - When Jorge Lopez and his parents attended Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, it was a complex experience.

Like every Sunday, they were at Mass, but for his Catholic parents, they were just following the motions of the neighboring pews. What they didn’t understand wasn’t the religious ceremony, but rather the English language spoken during the Mass.

“My mom and dad could pick up some words and play along,” Lopez told the Williston Herald (http://bit.ly/1m2MeZ0 ). He is a first-generation American from Mexico who works for ONEOK in Williston.

Lopez is fluent in English. His parents are not, and represent a growing permanent population in Williston.

If there are two places to witness this cultural shift in motion, look no further than the churches and schools, which are taking proactive approaches to an increasing need in Williston: second-language English speakers.

In Leah Ryan’s English as a Second Language summer class at Hagan Elementary, the number of students doesn’t tell the whole story. Three kids sit a large desk writing the phrase of the day in notebooks -“green with envy”_and what they think it means.

It’s not simply a writing-and-spelling exercise, but one to enhance comprehension for the students, who are mostly second-generation, mostly fluent in English, yet not exposed regularly to the American culture.

“The sayings are very cultural-based,” Ryan said. “If they’re in a conversation and hear these, they’ll lose out on part of that conversation, which could be with another teacher.”

In recent days the students have learned the Americana phrases of “ants in your pants,” ”blow off steam” and “cold shoulder,” among others.

In Williston Public School District No. 1, the need for more English as a Second Language services has grown exponentially. The school board recently approved a full-time ESL coordinator and teacher, and a part-time tutor for the upcoming school year. Their ESL population, not limited to Spanish, has jumped from one in the early years of the oil boom, to nearly 100 at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

The influx has brought in a dozen new language speakers of the first and second-generation American variety. District 1 now services students speaking Spanish, Turkish, Swedish, Pidgin English, Twi, Swahili, Portuguese, Russian, French, Creole, Tagalog and Chamorro, all with varying levels of English proficiency.

“The goal is to get them up where they need to be for next year,” Ryan said of the summer ESL class, which has just a fraction of students actually enrolled.

The Rev. Joseph Evinger also noticed the trend of a more Hispanic population coming to the morning Masses at St. Joseph’s. Actually, he saw the increase everywhere in Williston. So did the Rev. Russell Kovash, pastor of St. Joseph’s, who found out Evinger and Father Biju Antony were somewhat fluent in Spanish.

On Sept. 29, 2013, the first Spanish Mass was celebrated in Williston, and would be held every second Sunday of the month since.

It was a natural fit for the church’s new population and after word got out, turnout was pushing 100 people. It went down in the winters, Lopez said, because many Hispanics in Williston work construction jobs that end after the fall months.

“We saw a lot of Hispanics in our community and many not coming to church,” said Evinger, who leads the Spanish Masses. “It’s been awesome. There’s a deep faith that has taken place.”

Lopez, a choir member for the Spanish Masses, excitedly bounced ideas off Evinger to expand the Mass. Some included a larger choir and food after the Mass for the Hispanic population to gather and get to know each other better.

Reaching more of the Hispanic population is a challenge for both Lopez and Evinger. On the weeks the Mass is smaller, volunteer help can be thin, and they know they’re not reaching everyone in Williston.

Lopez said he tries to recruit more Hispanics to the Mass at Walmart, where he sees most the population, and also started meeting with a group of people every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the Williston Area Recreation Center to play soccer.

“We have a lot of plans right now,” Lopez added. “We’re taking baby steps in the project.”

Evinger studied Spanish for a couple of years in college and spent seven weeks in Peru, which he said helped him learn the style of Mass better. Spanish is Antony’s fourth language, and he fills in for Evinger at the Spanish Mass when needed.

Evinger said he hopes to go beyond a once-a-month Mass in the near future. Parishioners currently stream into Williston from as far as Minot to attend the Mass, and Dickinson -also located in the Bakken - is the only other Catholic church in the Diocese of Bismarck to host a Spanish Mass.

“That’s definitely going to happen,” he said. “It has brought this community together.”

As parishioners found their pews before the start of Spanish Mass, Lopez and the rest of the choir were tucked away in O’Neil Hall next to entrances of the church, warming up for show time. Still in its beginning stages, there is no music for the choir.

In a cappella, they sang Santa Mariá Del Camino:

“Ven con nosostros al caminar Santa Mariá ven.”

Everyone in attendance knew exactly what was going on. The cultural shift in Williston was happening right before their very eyes.

___

Information from: Williston Herald, http://www.willistonherald.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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