A good sermon moves us spiritually. A once-in-a-lifetime sermon moves us across the country.
I experienced the latter on the campus of Indiana’s Manchester University in 2016. Richard Zapata, an Ecuadoran pastor at Príncipe de Paz Church of the Brethren in Santa Ana, Calif., was one of the guest speakers at National Young Adult Conference.
His message began with a photo of his family projected on the screen: his Mexican wife and co-pastor Becky, their 20-something daughters Estefany and Gaby, a son-in-law Rafael, and their grandchildren Nathaniel (Nano) and Naason (Nono). They all live together in Anaheim, about 20 minutes from their church.
Richard began to talk about his church with infectious love and enthusiasm. He shared that services are entirely in Spanish. Members come from a handful of Spanish-speaking countries including Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, turning potlucks into boldly flavored and occasionally spicy multicultural feasts. But there was one problem his church was facing: it was growing too quickly. Services in the sanctuary were (and still are) standing room only. The church’s location in the heart of a residential area made street parking a nightmare.
This did not sound like the Church of the Brethren I knew. I grew up in the parsonage of Lewiston Church of the Brethren, set among cornfields in southeast Minnesota. Our potlucks, while absolutely delicious, sometimes ended up being five variations of pasta with a couple fluff salads and an apple pie. And we never had an issue with overcrowding. Rather, like many Brethren churches, the Lewiston congregation and Stover Memorial Church of the Brethren in Des Moines, Iowa (which I’ve attended for the past 10 years), have been in discernment about their future for years, largely due to their dwindling membership.
So when Richard ended his sermon with a generous invitation to come and serve his church, and in return have housing and meals covered, I instantly heard God saying, “Go.” That nudge turned into a push over the subsequent 18 months, and it manifested itself in a myriad of ways. A close friend received a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, reminding me that tomorrow is never promised. While I had been working my dream job of writing for travel magazines for the past six years, I reached a point where it was time to give back more tangibly to the world. And my biological clock was sounding the “I think it’s time for you to settle down and find someone to start a family with” alarm, so if I was going to make the leap to southern California, now was the time.
On Jan. 5, my 29th birthday, I packed up my Honda Civic with clothes, a few mementos of home, and my two cats, and we embarked on a cross-country journey to Santa Ana, where I plan to spend the next six months of my life.
Landing on love
There was something absolutely terrifying and beautifully freeing about taking a leap like this. I had some idea that I would be helping with youth ministry and communications work while serving at Príncipe de Paz, but I had no idea what my room at the church would look like, how I was going to handle the language barrier (I took some Spanish in high school but I’m far from fluent), and what kind of structure my days would have. The planner in me did not like this feeling one bit. The adventurer in me was pumped.
After nearly 2,000 miles of driving through the plains of Nebraska, snow globe mountain scenes in Colorado, Martian-like terrain in Utah and Arizona, and a quick photo op at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign (much to the chagrin of my cat Max), we made it.
It was twilight when I parked the car at the church, and Daniel Lopez, one of the church elders who helps with cleaning, opened the gate for me and co-pastor Becky. She led me through the industrial-lit hallway of the educational building next to the church, unlocking the door to my new home. It was freshly painted bright green with white trim. New lights were installed in what was formerly the pastor’s office. Chairs, a table topped with a starter kit of snacks, and a mini-fridge sat in a corner. A few men carried in a dresser drawer a few minutes after I started unpacking my bags. My bed was perfectly made with fresh blankets and a towel neatly placed in the corner. This was home.
The feeling of being welcomed so warmly as a stranger overwhelmed me. And I continue to feel like I’m living the Orange County edition of Eat. Pray. Love. each day that I’m here. One of the neighbors brings me tamales some mornings. Another makes me enchiladas. Some Sundays, an elderly woman hands me a container of frijoles (beans) or potatoes (patatas). She calls me hermano misionero (brother missionary) and I refer to her as querida hermana (dear sister).
Servando, a former Mexican soccer referee who is now in charge of security at the church, has become my caring abuelito (grandfather) who checks on me almost daily and takes me out for a weekly lunch at a Mexican grocery store or his favorite fast-food Chinese joint. We navigate our Spanglish together and share a few jokes over each meal. Before I can finish saying “gracias” for all he does, he kindly interrupts me, pointing into the air with his index finger and saying, “Gracias a Diós” (thanks be to God). Nothing could have prepared me for the love I was going to feel here.
Planting new seeds
The building that houses Iglesia Príncipe de Paz was initially the home of First Church of the Brethren, an Anglo congregation, started in 1924. In the 1980s, as the surrounding neighborhood evolved with more Hispanic residents, the church was forced to evolve to stay alive, and hired its first Hispanic ministers, Mario and Olga Serrano, in 1990.
Richard’s father, who came from a Baptist background, served the church from 2003 to 2005 before he passed away due to cancer. His wife, Mercedes, continued as a pastor until 2008. Richard and Becky took over the pastoral reins in 2009, and they serve as part-time ministers today, along with an impressive roster of lay leaders, deacons, and board members.
Richard’s messages at Tuesday evening Bible studies and Sunday morning services center on the grace of God, reminding members that God loves them unconditionally and that the ultimate price has been paid for their sins.
They didn’t always have this focus. Up until five years ago, messages focused more on obeying God’s law and following his rules. But when Richard’s daughters came of age and started to feel like church was a place of judgment and division rather than compassion and unity, something changed within him. He took a long, hard look at his messages and began to study the concept of grace, eventually working it into his sermons.
Some members accused his new sermons of being too soft. A few even stopped attending. But on the flip side, an influx of younger people joined the church, and today it’s not unusual for there to be 50 youth ranging from kindergarten through high school among the 200 or so attendees on a regular Sunday.
Richard sees himself as a planter as much as he considers himself a pastor. In light of recent church closures in Pacific Southwest District, Richard has been dreaming of ways to plant new Hispanic Brethren congregations in the same areas where churches have shuttered, many of which are in spots that have grown far more diverse in the past few years. One dream already has come to fruition: a new Príncipe de Paz congregation in the city of Los Banos, about four hours north of Santa Ana. While just a few months old, the congregation has around 30 regular attendees. In addition to providing financial and spiritual support to its new sister congregation, Príncipe de Paz in Santa Ana puts a significant emphasis on mission work, feeding more than 450 homeless each month, donating funds to missions in three Latin American countries, and housing a food pantry that provides thousands of pounds of free food to community members every year. And they do all of this with a total annual church budget of less than $80,000.
It's all thanks to the infectious spirit of volunteerism that this church has, especially in pastor Becky, who donates countless hours beyond her part-time status to prepping church meals and ministering to women and children (her other passion besides cooking). She’s a force of love to be reckoned with, and in tandem with her husband’s vision, there’s every reason to believe that Príncipe de Paz will only continue to grow.
Los muros caerán
When I spoke in front of the church for the first time (in Spanish with Richard’s help), I shared that my mantra for these next six months is to be a bridge instead of a wall. “We have too many walls in our world today,” I said, with an audible murmur of agreement from the congregation, “and I want to discover ways in which, together, we can take them down, ultimately making this world a more peaceful, loving place as God intended it to be.” When I spoke those words, I had no idea how this mantra would manifest itself. I’ve worked on a variety of projects so far, helping 21 of the church’s youth raise funds to attend National Youth Conference, starting a small youth choir and teaching them songs learned around the campfire at Camp Pine Lake in Iowa, leading Sunday school classes for elementary-age kids, and helping Richard with some communications work.
One thing I do know is that this experience has broken down personal walls for me. During one of the church’s spirited Sunday services, the eight-piece praise band composed of young adults performed a song called “Los muros caerán” by Miel San Marcos. I had heard the song at church before, but I didn’t realize how powerful the lyrics were—or how much they applied to my time here— until that morning.
It started when one member of the church began freely jumping and spinning around during the song, forcing the girls who do tambourine praise dancing to move out of the way. Another woman joined the dancing. and then another. Before I knew it, I was witnessing my first mini-mosh pit of church ladies. Daniel, the quiet church elder who first welcomed me when I arrived, slowly raised his hands during the song and his hands began to tremble. The ushers swiftly grabbed boxes of tissues and passed them to weeping worshipers.
Up to this time, I had seen some pretty powerful reactions to praise singing, but nothing like this. I Google translated the song lyrics as the music continued to play, and almost instantly, my tears joined the others flowing in the sanctuary that morning. These are the lyrics:
“When I sing, the earth
When I love you, the chains break.
The walls will fall.”
In any other circumstance, those words wouldn't have made me cry. But surrounded by 150-plus Hispanic worshipers, many who have encountered countless barriers to get where they are today, and many who continue to face obstacles in their paths to citizenship, and others who are young Dreamers praying that they won't be split from the only family they know— they hit me like a freight train.
Pastor Richard and I have had discussions about the fear that lies beneath the surface of this congregation. It’s an absolutely justified fear given the current conversations in our government. It’s a concern I now share more deeply than ever, because I am a part of this family now. Every day I’m here, I take a moment to thank Richard for the invitation to join this family, to thank God for the nudges to take the leap, and to thank this congregation for letting me in and allowing me to experience what’s on the other side of the wall.
Jess Hoffert is a travel writer and former travel magazine editor, and has served as communications staff for Northern Plains District. Find his blog at www.orangebridges.com.