Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
Name: Alma Perez Ovalle
Occupation: High school Spanish teacher at Sarasota Christian School
Congregation: Bahia Vista Mennonite Church, Sarasota, Florida
1. Tell me about your earliest memories of church.
When I was born, my parents were participating in the Rio Grande Valley Bible Institute in Edinburgh, Texas, and so my earliest memories of church are clapping my hands as a little girl, singing in Spanish, being around people all the time, and hearing my dad preach in Spanish. I remember loving church. I remember running around with all these little Hispanic kids like myself and my brother. It seemed like a place there were always lots of people.
2. If you had to choose one lesson that your parents taught you about faith and Christianity, what would it be?
My dad was a Spanish Mennonite pastor by the time I was three or four. As preacher’s children, you just kind of live the life your parents are living and I never saw anything wrong with it. I just absorbed it all.
My parents lived out their faith and love of Jesus in practical ways by opening their homes to strangers: troubled teens, Mennonite Voluntary Service workers, musicians, MCC workers, refugees that were coming through. If you have conversations with my brother or my cousins, they’ll tell you the same thing. It kind of felt like there was an open door.
As an adult you look back and you reflect on what the most important things were, and I really see that my parents entered into relationship with people. Relationships with the church people, our family and our neighbors, but even more than that, the community. I remember my dad going to see the local baker every Sunday morning to get Spanish bread. And my dad would visit the guy that sold us our cars over the time we lived in Texas regularly, just to talk to him and be with.
The strangest relationship I remember is my dad entering into was a friendship with my elementary school principal. It was one of those things! I remember saying, “Dad, do you have no boundaries? Is nothing sacred?”
But my parents were about reaching out and expanding into territory where some people thought they didn’t need God because they weren’t “needy.” It just kind of felt like my parents were about sharing God’s love with everyone.
As a child, I’m confident that I soaked it all in. I became part of what my parents were passionate about. Definitely I know that I’ve grown up and I embody those same principles and that same compassion and care for those around me, by loving them through the eyes of Jesus.
3. You are a parent of three teenagers (a 19 year-old son, a 17 year-old daughter, and a 14 year-old son) and also work teaching high school. What advice or words of wisdom to you have to offer others who are raising or working with teenagers?
My advice is to take it one day at a time. Have a big plan; an overarching plan for your kids. We take them to church, we read the Word, we pray together, we sing and volunteer. We do all sorts of things that build their faith up and encourage them.
Right now we, my husband and I, have a lot of conversation with our 19 year-old to discuss how the freshman year of college went. And we ask him how it went and how are your finances? We have tough conversations, knowing that you trust in the Lord, you trust in your children, but some of those hard questions still have to come.
I would say not to be afraid to be strong and to let your children know what you expect of them, what you hope for them and what you pray for them. Ultimately it is their life and their path with the Lord that they’ve got to walk. I have three kids in three different phases. I’m still hanging on to that last one, but I’m starting to enjoy letting go of the older ones and knowing that God is in control.
4. You’ve written about the movement of the Spirit during simultaneous interpretation/translation. I wonder if you can say a little more about this. Why does this feel like such a holy time?
I feel it’s like a river flowing. When I interpret simultaneously it’s literally how I feel; like there is this washing in a circular motion where the person is speaking, I hear it and then I have to say it to the person at the other end of my headset.
For me, that’s what I feel is so powerful; that movement of the Holy Spirit where it feels like what’s happening is beyond me. Interpretation is one of the things that I feel that the Lord developed in me from a young age. I was 19 when I started doing this.
And now, fast forward, I just feel it’s time for me right to start training a new group of people to do this. I’m going to be working with Andrew Bodden down in Miami and with a group in Orlando to work with young people to start training them on how you interpret. I feel it’s time to pass on the baton, not that I don’t want to do it anymore, but I just feel that younger people need to be more involved in conference work and have a commitment to their church if that’s a ministry that their church would have.
I see and work with young people. I worked with my church and the youth for many, many years. I feel that we just have to pour into people that love of serving others. I think that is when people understand that your relationship with God involves giving back. As a young person, maybe there’s just something they can do, whether it’s a full-time job or serving their church or conference or denomination.
I’m very passionate about passing that on to others and building others up so we can find their gifts.
5. You are a member of the Mennonite Women USA board. Why are you passionate about this organization?
I work a lot with women’s groups here in my conference, including Southeast Mennonite Women, with Hispanic Mennonite women, and then I am on the board of Mennonite Women USA. It’s just the Lord’s work!
When I was 24 I moved to Florida and at 25 the Southeast Mennonite Women group asked if I would be on their board as the Hispanic representative. Something that impacted me way back then was their vision to have a young single woman be on that board. I didn’t have children I didn’t have a husband. I was just out of college, and I was in a Spanish Mennonite church here in Sarasota.
I’m passionate about working with women because I just feel that we can encourage each other. We can find hope and we can find healing in each other’s stories. We can connect on that base level, without race, background and culture. Maybe we’ve all been single at some point. We’ve either married or had a child or experienced other things that bind us together in our womanhood.
Being on these leadership boards is just a way for me to connect to women and build relationships and have the Lord be glorified through the building up of women.
6. What’s the craziest question someone has ever asked you about being a Mennonite?
So, a couple of months ago, someone said to me that I was not a Mennonite because I didn’t look like a Mennonite. That was so fun, answering that question. It was one of my co-workers and he said, “A student said that a Mennonite is only a Mennonite if they can trace their roots back to Europe and back to Germany or somewhere back over there.”
That was really, really fun helping that person to understand that I choose to walk my faith through the Anabaptist lens and through my own viewpoint of the three core values. For me living in community is super, super important. It’s everything that I am about.
7. What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend in Sarasota?
There’s so much to do in Sarasota. I like going to the beach in the early morning and taking pictures of the water, the beach, the sand, weeds, different things that grow. Sometimes I spend time trying to find foliage to take pictures of. Or sometimes I’ll go to the beach with the kids; sometimes by myself.
I just love being with my husband and just hanging out with the family, having some down time, going to church.
You can view past seven question interviews online.
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