As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to belong! I always felt like I needed to be accepted into something, with someone(s), and not be left on the outside. When I was just a kid growing up in Cudahy, I remember me and some of my friends would take a short cut to Park Ave. Elementary that was along the LA River, and on this short cut we encountered what we thought was an abandoned house, and some of the older neighborhood cholos pressured us into “keeping point” (serve as a look out) while they broke in and hit the jackpot with tons of stolen goods, I knew it was wrong but I got a brand new pair of white Chuck Taylors out of it, so it was cool with me! But unfortunately, we went back again and they got arrested inside the house, and so did that fat kid on look out duty, I was only 8 years old when I got arrested for the first time!
I remember I’d only been going to Nimitz Junior High in Huntington Park for less than 2 months and was never able to connect with anyone, I actually got punked and I hated it. I didn’t wanna participate in PE because that meant I had to undress and then shower in front of a bunch of skinny kids, and I was terribly embarrassed. I was never able to fit into any group, like any group… not even the nerds! I was soon notified that I’d been accepted into Belvedere Jr. High School’s Magnet program in East LA and I just couldn’t shake Nimitz soon enough. I remember telling myself that I would never be left out again, I had to be a part of something… I couldn’t be left on the outside ever again. And soon, I was starting all over… in East LA I would reinvent myself, a better version of who I’d been, a much cooler version and tougher version.
This would turn into a pattern throughout my life, a pattern of seeking to be invited in, to be accepted, and to belong to someone or something bigger than myself. My parents were always working and didn’t pay me much mind, not even when I excelled in school, that didn’t get their attention much, but then in Jr. High School I started to get into trouble, and eventually got into the neighborhood gang. Now THAT got their attention! I soon picked up my criminal career where I’d left it 5 years before, and at 13 years old ended up going to Camp Miller, a County Probation Camp, for a year, then the California Youth Authority for almost 3 years, then the LA County Jail, then multiple prison sentences in the California Dept. of Corrections, and eventually a wanted fugitive on the run in Mexico for almost 6 years. All of this happened because I was trying to fill a deep void within me, an emptiness I was never able to put my finger on, I just knew that something was missing and I desperately wanted to find it, own it, and never let it go. It would be many years before I realized only Christ could fill that void.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I’ve since found what it was that I was missing, my last time in prison I finally realized what it was. When I came to faith on my knees in a prison cell, I realized that I didn’t need to be accepted by other people, and when I’d found that my true identity was in Christ, my whole life changed forever. That void I’d been trying to fill with violence, alcohol, drugs, women, power, money, jewelry, guns, none of it ever came close to satisfying me, as a matter of fact they actually made me feel emptier inside. But when Christ drew me unto Himself, everything changed. I started to see how He’d been working on me for so many years, allowing me make so many bonehead decisions, knowing those mistakes would not go to waste, He’d eventually redeem them all unto Himself as those things have helped shape me to be a much better and effective pastor.
All of us, every single human being longs for someone or something. We all long to be loved, to be accepted, to belong and be a part of something greater than ourselves.
Psalm 4:4 says,“How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” I believe, that at the very root of all our wrong, all of our decision-making is motivated by this desire of vain words, we seek flattery, we’re selfish and want it to be about us, our wants, our needs, our satisfaction and we desire to be complete by things outside of God. When I found Christ, I found myself. I knew my place was in Christ, I’d found what I’d desperately longed for all those years, the desire to be loved, to be accepted and wanted, to be included into something and not left out… through my faith I was grafted into the family of God, adopted by Him based on Christ’s merits and not my own.
Church planting has helped me accomplish multiple related goals, it’s given me a sense of belonging not just to God, but to His family too, belonging to other broken individuals that also seek to be loved and belong to Christ’s people. No longer a criminal street gang member, but now a member of a family, a family bound by the blood of Jesus, one that is committed to growing together in faith, drawing closer to each other, encouraging each other, spurring each other on towards love and good deeds, and evening holding each other accountable… at least to those that have stuck around and not ghosted us when things got tough. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, ministry is often hard, ugly, and in a time when more and more pastors are committing suicide, it can be downright scary too, if we’re gonna remain honest and transparent. I remember many years ago, in the early 90’s while in the LA County Jail looking at a life sentence, there was a band that was always on MTV, it wasn’t my style of music, but this particular song caught my attention because of the video, the message it sent, and then the music made sense too.
The group was Blind Melon and the song was, “No Rain” and in it there was a little white, chubby, freckle faced girl with red hair who was dressed as some type of bumble bee and kept roaming the city looking to fit in but people ignored and laughed at her. Then finally as she was walking by a field, she came up to the gate and looked in and saw a bunch of other people dressed as bumble bees, folks of different shapes, sizes, and colors all dressed the same as her, and they welcomed her in to their circle. As unmanly as it may sound, I was that little girl, that’s how I felt my whole life, never really fitting in as myself, but instead having to fake it ‘til I made it to be accepted, even becoming a hardened gang member, that was never the real me… but I couldn’t let anyone know that.
In church, I not only found the Lord, but His people too, a bunch of imperfect, sinning, broken wretches, that acknowledge their brokenness and dire need of Christ… not just as Savior, but as Lord too. That is where I belong, with the people of God… they are my fellow bumble bees, and I’ll be around for the long haul to do life with them. Church planting has been rough, but it’s been great too, I’ve found what my purpose is in life, to be with not just “a group” of people but “thee group” of people, God’s people, that we would journey together to help others know that there is purpose in their lives too, one of exponential worth compared to anything in this world.
John Calvin said that, “All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits, committed to our trust on this condition, that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors.” This makes me take a daily inventory: What are my blessings? How are they being counted as Divine deposits? How will I use them for the benefit of my neighbors? For my church family? For my friends and community? This is one of my greatest driving forces, one that pushes me to give God my all, not because I am trying to earn any favor with Him, but because I am so appreciative of His saving grace, I feel like I just can’t do enough to repay Him, to thank Him enough, or express my love for what He’s done for me. I now know who I am, who I belong to, and what Christ did for me. He lived a life I never could, He died a death meant for me, and He resurrected on the 3rdday proving He is the Son of God, and then He ascended to heaven in the presence of many witnesses giving us instruction on what to do. And that’s what I’m trying to do in helping plant a church, that would plant other churches that plant churches. I want anyone and everyone know that they are loved, that they can belong and can be accepted just as they are, and trust God knowing that as they study His Word, His Law, and appreciate His grace and mercy, that their lives would change, that they would be more like Christ, that they would seek righteousness and holiness, that their lives would reflect their appreciation of Christ’s finished work on the Cross.
There’s no need to join a gang, in order to feel like you belong, there’s no need to seek acceptance anywhere outside of Christ, His family has an easy initiation, you just trust Him, you just believe in Him, you acknowledge your sin and need of a Savior, and affirm that because He is our Savior He must also be our Lord. Our church family is not perfect, not by a long shot, but we try really hard to honor Jesus, we know we’re different, we know we’ve got issues, we know we don’t know it all, and we know that without Christ at the center nothing lasts. Our team has had a high turnover rate, but Christ is still at the center, He’s still our head and we are still His bride… we know we are His, and that we belong to Him.
If you’re in a church and are discouraged, be reminded that Christ reigns.
If you’re in a church and feel like you’re not connecting, try harder.
If you’re in a church and feel like you’re not serving, get involved and help.
If you’re in a church and feel like you’re not needed, believe me you are.
If you’re in a church and not officially a part of it, ask when the next membership class is.
If you’re in a church and not helping it with it’s mission, you need to get on it.
If you’re in a church and not giving, stop holding on to what God gave you to steward.
Pray for your pastors, pray for your elders, deacons, and ministry leaders. Pray for those that just visited your church for the first time.
Pray for those that will be coming to your church, that they’d feel at home.
Pray for those that have stopped going to church, are hiding, and avoiding you.
Pray for your community, neighbors, and the unsaved…
You belong! You are loved! You are needed! You are cared for!