Jan 04, 2024 5:28 PM

52 faces: From the Philippines to Iowa

Posted Jan 04, 2024 5:28 PM
<b>The Rev. Dan Fernandez wishes a happy birthday to a church member during service on Sunday, Dec. 24 at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Burlington. Photos/John Lovretta</b>
The Rev. Dan Fernandez wishes a happy birthday to a church member during service on Sunday, Dec. 24 at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Burlington. Photos/John Lovretta

Fernandez uses his life experience in his role as pastor.

By William Smith

The Rev. Dan Fernandez arrived at First United Methodist Church this past summer and is already integrating himself into the community. 

You’ll likely see him if you stop by a weekly meeting at the Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club.

When Fernandez first arrived, he was impressed not only by the church but The Loft – an extension of the church that acts as a store, and public meeting space and serves other functions.

“I’ve already acclimated myself in the community, and I’m trying to maximize myself in the community. You need to make yourself present to the community,” he said.

Fernandez is a native of the Philippines, but he, his wife, and their seven children have lived in Iowa for the past 20 years. He has a degree in agricultural engineering but felt God calling him to the ministry in 1987.

The next year, Fernandez was in seminary, earning a Master of Divinity degree. He had found his calling. 

The only thing that was missing was a white Christmas.

“I always tell my congregation that when I was a young boy I loved to sing, ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,’ ” he said.

Fernandez didn’t get his white Christmas this year. But he’s had plenty by now and will have plenty more.

“It’s no longer a dream. It’s a reality. Before we arrived (in Iowa), I got an email that there was a blizzard. And I thought, ‘Is that an ice cream?’ ” he said, laughing.

Fernandez served 13 years in the ministry in his home country while married to his wife Dodie, who is also an engineer. He was elected as a delegate for the First United Methodist Conference in 2000, which brought him to Cleveland, Ohio. He was recruited for a position in Iowa while he was in Iowa.

In 2000, Fernandez started working as a pastor in Fort Dodge. He’s been in Iowa ever since, crisscrossing the state as he is assigned to different ministries. He recently served Mason City and Eldora, but the length of those assignments varies greatly. Some last a year. Others last several years. The average is usually a few years.

It’s not a lifestyle that fits everyone. Fernandez serves the will of the church, which assigns him where he’s needed. He’s just three years away from celebrating 40 years in the ministry.

Moving around so much was hard for Fernandez’s family at first, but it eventually became part of their identity. 

“My daughter used to say, ‘Dad, we’re losing our friends,’ and I said, ‘No, you’re not losing friends. You’re adding more,” he said.

This was around the time Facebook was starting to gain in popularity, which made it possible for his children to stay in contact with the friends they had moved away from.

“They realized they have a lot of friends,” he said.

It took some time to adjust to America, and not just weather-wise. Learning English is a requirement in the Filipino school system, and Fernandez has continually improved his understanding over the past 20 years in the States.

But Fernandez still has a Filipino accent, and will likely carry it for the rest of his life. Despite his well-spoken English, Fernandez has had several racist encounters over the years where people pretend not to understand him.

“I speak better English than someone who has just come over from Germany, but no one seems to have a problem understanding them,” he said.

Fernandez has heard the same thing from other foreign pastors out of India, Pakistan, Korea, and Africa. All they can do is ignore the prejudice and preach God’s love. Like his pastor peers, Fernandez is often one of the few foreign faces of color in the community. His audience is overwhelmingly white.

“I try to look on our similarity, not on our differences,” he said.

That means immersing himself in the culture around him. He’s already introduced himself to the Burlington fire chief and has been making his rounds at other city departments.

Fernandez and his family – which now consists of grandchildren from three of his children – are Burlingtonians now. He’s hoping it will be a long stay.

“I thank God for the opportunity that I am able to serve our American brothers and sisters,” he said.