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a visit to a rural, Latino church

February 24th, 2004 by Jason · No Comments

Tabernaculo de Nueva Vida was certainly a different church experience from the predominantly white, middle class, community church that I normally attend. My first contact with the church was over the phone in a conversation with Pastor Joe Medina. One of the first things I noticed was that he is much more direct and personal than I expected. Though I only called to find out what time they met, by the time I got off the phone he knew that I was married, visiting in Lodi because my mother-in-law was sick, and that I was a Christian. The phone conversation set the tone for what was a different and stretching, but also enjoyable and informative, Sunday church service.

Santa Barbara Community Church, which I attend, is rather large (around 350 people in the service I attend), well-educated on the whole (a large number are Westmont graduates like myself), urban, and around 95% white. Tabernaculo de Nueva Vida is none of these things. It is a small, rural church located in Acampo, a 1 street town twenty minutes north of Stockton, California. The church was founded in 1995 when Pastor Joe, a Latino man who grew up in nearby Modesto, felt called to start a rural church within the United Pentecostal experience. The congregation is Latino, with a mix of English and Spanish speakers, and the migrant farm community that live in the surrounding area are the primary population that the church seeks to reach. Because it is winter, this is their low season. This became evident when I realized I was one of five attendees, including the pastor and his wife.

As I drove up, I first noticed that the church building is a quaint steepled building, with a simple sign on the door with their name and slogan: Home of the pentecostal experience. I was intimidated by the closed door, and upon peeking in I could only see an empty sanctuary. However, Pastor Joe quickly came out and invited me in. The sanctuary is a small, simple room with about 40 plastic chairs facing a raised stage with a pulpit, a drum kit, and a keyboard. The only religious imagery in the building was a poster taped to the pulpit depicting a young man praying beneath the cross and the words Only the Cross. After talking with Pastor Joe for a bit and meeting his wife and kids I took a seat towards the back. The only other people who had braved the cold weather were two elderly Latina women who sat behind me.

The service began with a short prayer, after which Pastor Joe asked if anyone had any praises to share that morning. Everybody, including myself, stood and shared something. One of the elderly ladies shared in rapid-fire Spanish for a good five minutes, all the time looking out the window with her hands raised. Though I only understood bits and pieces, Pastor Joe explained she was thanking God for keeping her safe during a car accident. We were then asked to share any prayer requests. The other elderly woman shared that she wanted a special prayer for a friend that she hoped would become a Christian soon, and also a prayer for a friend of hers who had lost custody of her children recently. The prayer for the children especially struck me, since I have never heard anyone in my church pray about their children being taken by the Social Service.

An offering basket was then passed around as well as a sermon outline which listed a number of scripture passages printed in both English and Spanish. Pastor Joe began his sermon on being fully persuaded in the faith and in God’s ability to answer our prayers and fulfill his promises. He worked his way through six scripture passages, quoting each one in Spanish and English and then expounding on their meaning with personal narratives. I noticed he quoted the verses in English from the King James Version, which seemed odd to me since I have always equated the Pentecostal denomination with cutting edge. Pastor Joe frequently asked for amens from the congregation and I found that I enjoyed this call and response form of preaching. I found the stories he interwove throughout the sermon to be interesting, but the part of me which is used to a more linear, exegetical, personally-applicable sermon was left wanting. There was a definite emphasis throughout the sermon on coming into relationship with Jesus, as opposed to participating in a religion. This was in accord with what Pastor Joe had mentioned earlier: that he had grown up Catholic, but had rejected it when God found him and drew him into a relationship, and that now he saw most religious rituals as only muddying the clear waters of faith in Jesus.

After the sermon, which was a good forty-five minutes, the service ended with a simple admonition to keep doing what you’re doing; press on in the faith. I enjoyed the service as a whole; the people were warm and it was refreshing to worship with people different than myself. However, I did not feel fulfilled afterwards, in the spiritual sense. I think this is because I’m used to singing, which I would guess we didn’t do because there were so few of us, and sermons which leave me with something to take home. I also realized that it is difficult to concentrate on listening to God when I am out of my normal culture and focused more on the different types of people and activities going on around me. The experience did, however, remind me once again of the vast diversity in the body of Christ. And I found a new church to attend when I’m in Lodi!

Tags: theology