An open invitation
When the members of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, an ELCA congregation in Irving, Texas, gather for worship, they praise the Lord not only with their voices but with their very hearts and souls.
"Our service is dynamic," says Pedro Portillo, pastor of Santa Maria.
It's one of the many reasons why this congregation of the ELCA Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod has close to 7,000 members and is still growing.
"Their focus on the word of God in preaching and teaching is central," says Kevin Kanouse, bishop of the synod, who walked with the congregation through their early years. "Their music in worship is so well done and meaningful to the people from their everyday culture, that one can't help but be brought into the worship service."
Santa Maria had its roots in a joint ministry with another ELCA congregation in the late 1990s. But when Santa Maria outgrew its host congregation, it was time for members of Santa Maria to look for their own property.
The transition caused a loss in members but 10 remaining families, with a few hundred dollars to their name, continued to meet in one another's homes.
"I asked them, 'What do you want to do?'" says Pedro. "And they told me, 'Pastor, we are only 10 members, but we can do this. Let's go get our own church.'"
When property became available, three of the families combined their money, along with Pedro’s life savings, and made a down payment. They then shared space first with another ELCA congregation and then a Baptist congregation while rebuilding their membership, their finances and their own structure. Thanks to financial support from the Mission Investment Fund, a financial ministry of the ELCA, the new sanctuary was finished and dedicated in 2010. The congregation is also supported by an ELCA churchwide ministries grant. In its 25-year history, the ELCA has started 345 new congregations, and it's committed to starting 70 new ministries in 2012.
As the congregation began growing, even former members returned. The congregation now has five worship services, starting with a healing and prayer service on Friday. Saturdays are full of with Quinceaneras, baptisms, weddings and an evening service. The three Sunday morning services have anywhere from 350 to 850 in attendance. Five hundred children attend Sunday school and 100 were confirmed in 2011. Seven lay leaders, authorized by the synod, assist Pedro.
A community church
"You have to be a community church," Pedro says on why his congregation is growing. "I work with the Chamber of Commerce, the school district, the YMCA, the Police Department and city officials. People see me everywhere and they know about our church."
Santa Maria's members come from Mexico, Puerto Rico and other islands from the Caribbean, Central and South America, Texas and other areas of the United States. Many are also from El Salvador, where Pedro is originally from. And although the services are in Spanish, it's not unusual to see people from Africa, India or other cultures among the faces gathered for worship.
Even Bishop Kanouse experienced this cultural exchange last December, when he was invited to preach for the commemoration service for the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
"Here I was preaching about someone they have known and loved their entire lives, and here I am just learning about her myself," he says. "And while her story is not traditionally Lutheran it has brought Christian faith alive, and her presence has brought hope to many people for generations."
A bond that unites
It's this connection to their former countries that also draws people to Santa Maria, says Irma Banales, who is the Hispanic-Latino ministry coordinator for the synod. Irma also has been a member of Santa Maria since 1998 and assists with worship.
"When they listen to their own music from their home country, they feel connected," she says. "When they hear about a natural disaster in their country, they pray and do fundraising and have special dinners. At the healing service, we pray for people in their country who are ill, or in detention or trying to find a job."
A large part of the membership is undocumented, Irma says, but Santa Maria welcomes them no matter their legal status or academic status.
"Once they arrive at the church, they feel welcome and safe," says Irma. "The church is their comfort zone and their faith is strong."
The relationship between immigrants and the Irving Police Department has changed for the better from a few years ago, according to Irma.
"They were stopping and arresting anyone," she says. "Then Pastor Portillo got involved with the police and then seven to 10 members of Santa Maria joined the Police Academy, and they built a relationship with the police and the community."
Pedro also shares some advice with members on how to respond if they are ever stopped by law enforcement and asked for documentation.
The police chief even comes to services, Pedro says.
All are welcome
Another draw for people is that Santa Maria welcomes everyone to communion, despite their circumstances.
"They are a unique congregation, meeting the needs of many people who have been disenfranchised by their traditional church roots," says Bishop Kanouse. "Some of them have been told they can't participate in the sacraments because of brokenness they've experienced previously. Here they find acceptance and love, grace and hope."
Santa Maria also reaches out to the community and beyond. Working with other congregations, it donated 1,800 turkeys to those in need at Thanksgiving. The congregation helped raise $17,000 to support projects, such as building homes in El Salvador. They have also sent used computers from the local school district to schools in Central America.
Irma gives her pastor a huge amount of credit for Santa Maria's growth through his leadership, encouragement, involvement with the community and his being available 24/7 to members and even non-members alike. He recently drove four hours to perform an anointing service for someone who was a friend of a member.
Pedro in turn feels blessed to be part of Santa Maria.
"It's the best congregation," he says. "We all speak the same language, but we have different histories. It's like a melting pot and I'm so glad to be part of it all."
He also doesn't consider himself to be a special pastor.
"I just have a universal call to go everywhere," he says.
What's next on his list of things to do?
"Build a fellowship hall," he says.
Jane Jeschke is a writer and member of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Miles, Texas.
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