What is lost can be found. What is broken can be made whole. What is damaged can be restored. At a Church of the Brethren congregation in East Los Angeles, Calif., the gospel of Jesus is being proclaimed as the gospel of restoration.
Restoration Los Angeles (Restoration LA or RLA) Church aims to live out its name, seeking the restoration of its neighborhood, trying to transform a community marred by poverty, alcoholism, and broken families. In the past four years, Restoration LA has also found its own renewal, moving out of decline and finding new life and vision for ministry.
Hospitality in East Los Angeles
My brief journey alongside Restoration LA occurred for a few days at the end of March and early April. RLA folks showed me warm and friendly hospitality from the start of my trip to its finish. Sisters and brothers took care of all of my needs for lodging, food, and transportation. Two church members met me in Santa Ana to retrieve me from the Pacific Southwest District’s Intercultural Gathering. Jody and Vanessa Romero hosted me in their home, a joyful and bustling household with five children. I was fed tostadas and good southern California burgers, and was heartily welcomed to the church by all.
My visit included worshiping with RLA sisters and brothers and conducting several group interviews of church members. The group interviews could fondly be called “meeting and eating,” since all of them took place in the Romero home (at the church’s parsonage) with great food and conversation. “Meeting and eating” times were scheduled with the leadership team (elders and deacons), a group of women, and several youth. One-on-one interviews with pastor Jody Romero and deacon Brett Yee helped provide additional context to the vision and ministries of Restoration Los Angeles and the work of a new nonprofit organization, C3.
In visiting Restoration LA, several themes arose out of conversations and interviews: Jesus. Family. Restoration. Authenticity. Relationships. Service.
Restoration LA is a thriving congregation that has emerged out of decline, is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and has been imbued with a vision for community transformation. RLA is focused on Jesus and committed to sharing the gospel to transform peoples’ lives and relationships. Their goal is to see disciples made and leaders raised up in order “to see the kingdom of God advanced through the life of the church,” according to Romero.
Renewing the church
Jody and Vanessa Romero were living and serving in Ontario, Calif. (about 30 miles east of where they are now), when they began to feel called to return to the city. Jody and Vanessa grew up in East LA and, after their marriage, moved out to San Bernardino County. Their congregation at the time, Turning Point Church (affiliated with New Covenant Ministries International), encouraged Jody and Vanessa to follow their call to church planting and renewal in the city. They moved back to East Los Angeles to pray and gather people for Bible studies.
At the same time, Bella Vista Church of the Brethren, in East Los Angeles, was discerning its future. Pastor Gilbert Romero was hoping to retire, and the church had struggled with declining numbers. Conversations began between Bella Vista and the Romeros about Jody becoming the pastor. He became a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren and, with only a handful of members left, Jody and Vanessa began to serve as leaders of Bella Vista. Several people followed the Romeros from Turning Point Church to be a part of the renewal/church plant in East LA. Word spread about the congregation, and folks who were new or returning to the area found a church home in the small congregation. The beginning consisted of meeting, relationship building, and developing a vision for the congregation in the neighborhood. Numbers began to increase with new members from the community. Slowly, more leaders were called from within the group as deacons and elders. After about one year under new leadership, the congregation decided to change its name to signify both its fresh start and its vision for the community: Bella Vista became Restoration Los Angeles.
According to Jody, “Restoration Los Angeles illustrates the heart of God for the city, and the vision of what we have for both the church and the city.” Today, the church consists of around 100 people of various ethnic backgrounds including Hispanic origin, European origin, and a growing number of African-Americans and Asians. The congregation is actually more diverse than its immediate neighborhood, which is mostly Hispanic.
The life and ministry of Restoration Los Angeles
As I spoke with church leaders, a gathering of women, and a group of youth, the most common theme I heard about the church was its emphasis on following Jesus. “Jesus-focused,” “living Christ out in the community,” “love God and love your neighbor”: these were descriptions of RLA’s heartbeat. They try to follow Jesus’ example and work to “see the gospel spread tangibly,” Jody says.
Recognizing that their community struggles with education and that there are no longer funds for summer school in their school district, Restoration LA began a summer school program called Accelerate, which teaches language arts, math, and “biblical character.” The church also provides Thanksgiving meals and Easter baskets, runs a Dignity Closet set up like a boutique where people can “shop” for gently used clothing, and conducts a Good Friday outreach at Los Angeles Mission, where RLA members wash the feet of people who are homeless.
Restoration LA’s vision for outreach has also birthed a nonprofit organization called C3, or Community Culture Change. The organization focuses primarily on meeting community needs and serving as a launch pad for community projects. Its mission is “to empower community, engage culture, and inspire change.” The program got underway with an after-school tutoring program for kids from a nearby elementary school. This twice-weekly, three-hour program aims to help kids with homework and also provide extra guidance in math and reading. A community garden project is also in the works as a partnership between C3, Restoration LA, and a local middle school.
Authentic relationships and lives transformed
When asked to describe their church in a word or phrase, many people say Restoration LA is “family.” One girl said that her youth leaders clearly live out their love for the youth. “It’s nice to see. Our youth leaders—they actually care for us,” she said.
“One of the strengths I see in Restoration is that the people are genuine,” says deacon and youth leader Jessica Martel. “There are a lot of different people from [different] walks of life, but when you walk through the doors, there’s no expectation that they have to be something else—they can just be themselves, and we celebrate peoples’ differences. We don’t want everyone to be the same.”
Several people mentioned how the support at Restoration Los Angeles helped heal their marriages. Many talked about how the RLA community surrounds sisters and brothers in need, such as caring for a family when a child is born with Down syndrome, or when a family member dies.
RLA and the Church of the Brethren
While relationships within the congregation are important to Restoration LA, so are relationships with other churches. They partner across denominations locally and work internationally with different denominations and affiliations. And they want to extend their relationship-building to other Brethren congregations across the Pacific Southwest District and the denomination.
At the moment, RLA has few connections with other Brethren. Some of this comes from being a church composed mainly of people without Brethren backgrounds, and some stems from uncertainty about what it means to relate to a body of churches with theological diversity. Although most Brethren congregations do not have ongoing relationships with other Brethren churches (aside from district events or Annual Conference), Restoration LA wants relationships of mutuality, fellowship, encouragement, envisioning, and leadership training.
At its core, RLA emphasizes the centrality of Jesus for its life and ministry. Continuing the work of Jesus is something that draws Brethren together and is a great starting point for relationships with other Brethren churches.
Restoration LA wants people to know that there is an open invitation to any Brethren—or others—who would like to get to know them. As Vanessa stated emphatically: “You’re welcome to come see us. Our door is open. Any Brethren who want to come and relate with us are welcome. We have a room ready for you. Come and visit!”
Photos by Jennifer Hosler.
Jennifer Hosler is bi-vocational minister at Washington City Church of the Brethren in Washington, DC. Jenn has a background in both biblical/theological studies and community psychology. Her ministry interests include growing urban churches and in building peace by bringing together people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. She served for over two years in northern Nigeria as a peace and reconciliation worker with the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service, and for almost two years as an interim coordinator of the Brethren Nutrition Program, Washington City Church of the Brethren’s lunch program for people in need. Jenn lives in northeast Washington, DC, with her husband Nathan, and enjoys gardening, bike riding through the city, and running.