“2019” 100% Transparent

As 2019 comes to an end and we enter 2020 I reflect upon some of the high lights of this past year, some brought joy and others pain, but despite how I felt… God was working in me and through me for my good and the good of His church and kingdom (Romans 8:28). So many things happened this year that are worthy of mentioning and I’ll be completely honest and try to keep it balanced with both the good and the bad:

IMG_5893

January

  • Mission trip to Brazil, met amazing people sold out for Christ and committed to sharing the Gospel and planting churches along the Amazon.

IMG_7ECCEFD47184-1

February

  • Connected/ Served with our friends at Imago Dei for their “Become Conference”
  • We found a potential home for RCLA Wilmington
  • Received new people into membership and had more baptisms
  • A season and super rough time of feeling overwhelmed with church plant began to increase

IMG_8615 2.jpg

March

  • Got away to Lake Arrowhead w/ church fam for deeper connection
  • Hosted our 2nd Lynwood Commitment at Abbott Elementary School
  • Celebrated my good friend Antonio and his restaurant The Nest’s 5th Year Anniversary in Bellflower
  • Church plant responsibilities began to weigh heavier and heavier on me
  • RCLA’s Official 1 year Anniversary

F804B43D-EB0D-4280-8806-AC74D778A869

April

  • Went into the California Youth Authority to preach and minster to incarcerated youth (I too served time in CYA)
  • In the wake of Nipsey Hussle’s death, coordinated a prayer walk on Crenshaw/ Slauson with approximately 30 pastors/ church leaders from across LA
  • After 7 murders in the neighboring city of Watts, coordinated another prayer walk in the Nickerson Gardens projects with approximately 50 pastors and church leaders from across LA.
  • Received more persons into church membership
  • Was beginning to feel close to burning out

IMG_0068.JPG

May

  • Purchased a church van
  • Graduated from Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan w/ an MDIV (Master of Divinity)
  • Took my youngest daughter to see Les Miserables, she almost died of excitement.
  • My daughter graduated from Junior High School.
  • My granddaughter Isabella and son in law Pablo were baptized; more persons received into church membership
  • A beloved church family left, for extremely superficial reasons
  • Suffered our absolute hardest and roughest trial in church leadership as a team

June

  • RCA General Synod at Hope College in Holland, Michigan; started serious questioning the future of RCA
  • Invited to speak/ pray by Congresswoman Nanette Diaz-Barragán at her annual “Prayer Breakfast”
  • Started Sabbatical June 15th

498F18FC-71D2-4F05-8691-4EF9F29EBFBA

July

  • I saw my dad for the first time in almost 12 years since he was deported to Mexico
  • Family vacation in Ensenda, Baja, Mexico; best time in years!!! Seriously needed that!!!
  • Back from Sabbatical July 15th
  • Homeboys/ Homegirls from past start to visit church and get involved
  • Compton Leaders Internship Program
  • Granddaughter Isabella’s 1st birthday party

IMG_1157.JPG

August

  • RCLA Summer Camp
  • Attended friends’ Weddings (Rari/ Megan) and (Delia/ Jehadi), so awesome!
  • Ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in Reformed Church in America
  • Significant growth in Men’s Group
  • Minor problems begin to bubble in church leadership again w/ one individual
74428A57-48E0-4622-BF98-B34E2A97C000 2
RCLA’s Worship team partnered with Greater Emmanuel Temple for the Lynwood Unity Service

September

  • I received a recognition from Lynwood’s City Council, truly honored!
  • 3rd Lynwood Commitment at Washington Elementary School
  • Connected with some of my Reformed Latino homies in Chicago
  • Honored to marry two of my good friends (Ricky/ Kristina)
  • RCLA Wilmington Bible study commenced
  • 2nd Annual Lynwood Unity Service (approx. 300 persons)
  • Commenced “Tacos & Theology” (study of Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics)
  • Church loses multiple families for different reasons, none for fault of church
  • I was diagnosed w/ a serious degenerative spinal condition which resulted in a form of depression that last a few months
  • Leadership problems are not able to be resolved and continue w/ one individual, things couldn’t continue much longer this way

IMG_3309.jpg

October

  • Spanish River Church Planters Conference in Boca Raton, Florida! Awesome time!
  • Connected w/ more Reformed Latino brothers in South Florida
  • Mens’ Group continues to grow
  • 3rd Annual Trunk or Treat with City of Lynwood (quadrupled in size)
  • I married another great young couple (Braulio/ Desiree) who are a part of our church
  • Lost a beloved aunt in Mexico who was a mom to me in one of my greatest times of despair
  • Acquired additional office space at church
  • Relaunch of Women’s Ministry
  • My brother in law Carlos is released from prison after almost 20 years
  • We lost another key family at church
  • Key leaders step down, and one leaves church
  • We excommunicated a church member
  • Leadership issues appear to be resolved

AB527A70-2917-46B0-A20F-FF1F35C9B227.JPG

November

  • Ordained/ Installed Catrina Moreno as Deacon
  • Acts 29 US West Regional Conference in Reno, NV.
  • Received more new members into church.
  • Reorganize/ restructure Children/ Youth Ministries
  • Problems w/ previous members/ leaders continue; affects present leadership
  • Present leadership team is strengthened, expanded, and much more cohesive

IMG_5043.jpg

December

  • Concluded Cohort Training through Manna Grant at Southlands Church, great time!
  • RCLA Youth March in Lynwood Christmas Parade 2nd year in a row.
  • Worship Team Christmas Party
  • Ventura Youth Correctional Facility Christmas Dinner/ Ministry
  • Natalia’s Christmas/ Jazz Concerts at LACHSA
  • Shepherd LA gathering with other brothers/ pastors
  • My son Diego gets his first college acceptance letter (Humboldt State)
  • Christmas Dinner w/ RCLA Consistory
  • For the first time in what seemed an eternity our leadership team is tight, on the same page, and in harmony!

Life is not perfect, but God is with us every step of the way! I’m grateful for the hand dealt me, that I get to serve the risen Savior, Christ Jesus for His glory here in Lynwood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We will reap, if we do not give up…”

Over the last 2 years, our young church plant has undergone so many changes, changes that we’d been warned about, and actually told would happen, but we resisted believing because after all, it was “our” team… and we were different. We soon found out though, that in reality, we weren’t much different at all, status quo, like all the rest of them, in a sense that our team almost turned over completely. What does that mean? Well, during some basic church planting training, we were told that our launch team would be much different a year into it, and we were like, “Nah…not our team!”. But the truth is that more than ½ of our team has since left, for various reasons, some good, some bad, and some had none, they just… disappeared. But we’ve come to learn that church planting isn’t for everybody… you’ve gotta be a special kinda crazy.

IMG_4618

This blog post is not to address those that have left, Lord bless them, but instead to honor and acknowledge those who’ve stepped up and stepped in. You see, the turnover started just 3 weeks into it, when the first family informed us that they’ll be leaving and going back to the church we’d just left. We also had primary leaders such as Worship Directors, Elder & multiple Deacon candidates stepped down or left the church altogether leaving huge vacancies and gaps to fill. The hard part in church planting is that we don’t want any open slots, no vacant jobs, everything must be filled. The thought is that because we’re small, or because we’re new that nothing can be left vacant, but that’s a huge mistake. We put people in spots they shouldn’t have been placed. But when you can’t afford to pay anyone, is it really feasible to think that folks will be in it for the long haul? Is it logical to think that folks would go through with commitments?

I’ll let you answer those questions some other time, but for now, I just wanted to give you some background so you can understand the context of us wanting to plant a highly theologically inclined church in the hood where there are no such churches. Theology can often seem a curse word in the church where it’s more charismatic and emotion driven and that’s what we have here in our area. Lots and lots and lots of churches… but, they’re the classic and stereotypical black and Hispanic churches. They love Jesus, but they just don’t know who He truly is… folks are more passionate about expressing their love of Him but not so much about getting to know Who He is through deep theological study.

So let me begin to tell you our story and start off with our Elder candidates:

Steve Price, I can remember there was a time when he was a bit sad that he was not considered as a Deacon in our previous church. I remember having a conversation with him to cheer him up and saying something to the effect of how he didn’t know whether God had a different calling on his life in the future, (this isn’t said to in any way downplay the role of a Deacon in the Lord’s Church). We had no clue at the time that we’d be planting a couple years later, much less that those very words would be lived out with Steve stepping into the role of an Elder candidate, to be ordained on Palm Sunday of 2020 when he preaches his first sermon. Steve’s natural abilities to lead and his love of God’s Word have allowed him in a much smaller church to be developed and has grown leaps and bounds.

We originally had 2 Elder candidates, but with one stepping down unexpectedly, it left Steve to cover the role of both and take on the respective responsibilities on his own, until Randy Fao was called in.

Randy Fao, is a huge Samoan teddy bear, who loves Jesus passionately, can hold a tune better than most R&B singers and gratefully accepted a call to prayerfully consider stepping into the role of an Elder candidate. Randy originally served on our worship team along with his wife Rachel (please see our story on Worship Director below) and definitely meets all the biblical qualifications for an Elder. To have witnessed the continued growth in Randy has been amazing. To watch his love and hunger for solid biblical doctrine (Reformed) and lead his family is so encouraging.

Rachel Fao has been with us since day one but served with and alongside two previous Worship Directors, both who also left unexpectedly, and she rose to the occasion, has led us, and actually raised the bar in how we worship. She has a deep love of God’s Word so she takes extremely seriously the task of only including biblically sound lyrics in what we sing in corporate worship, knowing that folks will most likely forget our sermons, but the songs will stay with them long past Sunday. This is such a big deal for us knowing that many Worship Directors don’t do this, they play most popular Christian songs without taking the time to examine the theology in them. To see her lead/ direct our worship team, develop a youth choir, and serve on multiple levels in the church makes me one proud pastor/ brother. She is humble and has also taken on the task of developing the next generation of worship leaders which include my daughter Natalia, as well as her daughter JoJo, there’s a small clip above.

As for our Deacons, we’re blessed with Eddie Moreno, now ordained and installed, his wife Catrina “Cat” Moreno, also ordained and installed, as well as Maribel Abarca, who is presently a candidate, all three are serving and leading our church with administration, and mercy ministry efforts.

Eddie is a brother who does whatever is needed, nothing is ever beneath him, and his energy to just get things done is awesome. He brings much wisdom to the team, and of our original Deacon candidates, he is the only one left. We’ve had 4 others step down at different stages of our planting journey. Watching Eddie lead his family and grandkids, take younger men under his wing and train them up from everything to set up, taking up offerings, just demonstrates a servant’s heart all around. We’re so thankful for his leadership!

Cat Moreno, Eddie’s wife, stepped up and into the role of a Deacon/ Administrator when our previous Admin also left unexpectedly. She has a history in finance and taxes, but a love for serving Christ surpasses the others. She is humble, adamant about being good stewards, and has helped serve on and support multiple other ministries too, it is always encouraging to see her interact with out church family. I’ve seen her growth from having watched her invite homeless folks into our services when we were in the park to her advising on financial issues now and bringing guidance shows just how the Lord always provides for our needs (Ph. 4:19).

Maribel Abarca, actually heard about RCLA being planted in Lynwood, and since she’s a Lynwood resident, she stopped by shortly after we started. We had just moved from the park into the Lutheran building (present location) and her family was quickly brought into fellowship, discipleship, and her entire family was baptized (Dad, Mom, and 3 kids). Maribel’s husband Tony serves on our A/ V team, and Maribel was invited to contemplate Consistory as a Deacon candidate, which she’s been preparing for and serving as for the last year, or so. She stepped in when there was a need and serves with joy. She also has experience in finance/ banking and brings wisdom and guidance to our Consistory and church. She’s always demonstrated a character of humility and love of Jesus and His people.

Liz Price, Steve’s wife, is a life-long teacher in the LBC, has supported our church planting efforts since day 1. She’s helped serve in other areas and actually established a Women’s Ministry soon after we planted, she’s the most amazing servant, and when it comes to organizing, leading, and decorating for special events, watch out… she’s on it. Our Children’s Ministry leader also left unexpectedly (horrible pattern, right?) and Liz didn’t take long to agree to step in, lead, re-organize, and gather up a team twice the previous size, to help her succeed in re-launching our kids’ ministry. The fact that she’s an experienced teacher is a huge plus for us.

We’ll be having one more Deacon step into candidacy next year, brother Bill Hilton, who’s been a Lynwood resident for 30+ years, we are confident he too will bring his giftings to our Consistory and help strengthen our existing team.

Then there are people like Kristina Camacho, Yvette Alvarez, and Diego & Sara Vallejo who are stepping up as a team to lead our Youth Ministry (yep, you guessed it, because our previous Youth Leader left unexpectedly too). They’ve recently recruited the likes of Paul Solórzano and Jerett Soto to joining their team. I’m excited about where they’ll be taking out Youth ministries too.

There are women like Ruby Morales, Kristina Camacho (again), and Edna Rubio (yes, my wife) to help lead the Women’s Ministries. We’ve got our set-up teams with Rudy Ruiz, Edwin Martinez, and a handful of teens. Speaking of teens, Diego Mercado, my 17 yr. old son, stepped in at the age of 15 to lead our A/ V team when (yep… right again) our previous sound guy unexpectedly left the church. Diego single handedly took on that role for over a year and now has Tony Abarca on the team, doing a great job.

As you’ve seen, many folks have stepped in to serve in roles that needed to be filled, but we’ve learned that we made many mistakes in planting this church. Because we needed roles to be filled, we handed out titles too quickly, we didn’t take our time to see how people would work under pressure, how they’d resolve conflict, work as a team, be cohesive, etc. So, after certain roles were vacant, we weren’t in hurry to fill them, but God has sovereignly brought these humble servants to step in, be developed, and lead alongside our team. Friends, God provides! Not just money, but the people, the right people to help do what we’ve been called to do… plant a Reformed, Confessional, liturgical, multicultural church in the hood that will plant other churches in the hood.

Please pray for our team, God has sovereignly brought this group of folks to lead His church here in Lynwood. We had to go through many things, situations, and circumstances to get to this point, which is exactly where we need to be. I’m so grateful for these folks and what they bring of themselves to our team.

As we read in Galatians 6:9, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” be reminded that in ministry, it’s ok to never get tired of doing “more” for God; feel free to stay in the fight, feel free to not throw in the towel, feel free to stick it out and see how God will use you… why? Because Jesus’ conditions weren’t perfect either, and He stuck it out for us, He voluntarily went to the Cross for us, He didn’t give up. Support your pastors, support your leaders, give all you can for Christ… for He is worthy. There is no such thing as the Spiritual gift of “comfort” and “selfishness” is not a biblical qualification for anything. In a world where everyone wants something new, I lift up and honor those who are willing to step up to the plate, and go the long haul to get it done… this isn’t for us, it’s for King Jesus!

 

It’s that time of year again…

Money can be such a problem, right? Holiday shopping, end of year budget crunching and end of year “asks” for donations, etc. As believers we are not to let money become an idol, but at the same time it is needed for life and ministry. We cannot serve “God and money” and we do not preach a prosperity gospel promising folks health and wealth if only they’d invest in us… that’s not only a false teaching but plain heresy, treating Jesus as a 401K plan with a promised “high return for your investment”. So what do we do? Why is it such a big deal? Follow me here, ok?

IMG_4396

Imagine you were starting a business and you don’t have the start-up money. In this new business you won’t be selling any goods or merchandise and you won’t be offering any specific services in exchange for money, yet you have to continue to make money in order to stay in business. Does that sound crazy? But you’ve got a group of investors or partners who have agreed and pledged to help you start this business, but not all of them are committed at the same level.

Here are some of the business partner-types I’m talking about:

  • Sugar Rush – Super excited about starting the business, really pumped up, but excitement doesn’t last long; too much work, too much self-sacrifice, and not enough return on time or monies invested.
  • The Innovaters – love being on the cusp of new ideas, doing things different, they get a rush for being on the edge but when the idea is no longer new, it’s time to go.
  • Wax-On/ Wax-Off – people who are awesome, loving, and 100% on board… sometimes; what I mean is, they want to help you with this new business, but are super afraid of cutting ties to previous, long established, deep-rooted business and express doubt every other day.
  • My way or Highway – partners who are sold out for the start-up one day and willing to give everything up for the sake of its success, but leave when they don’t get their way.
  • The Left Behind Ones – partners who commit because of friendship and don’t want to be left behind but never follow through with investment of time, money, or support.
  • Ulterior Motives – partners who join the team for all the wrong reasons in hopes of fulfilling some personal agenda and when that doesn’t happen, they too abandon team.
  • Everything But My Money – these are the partners who are committed and business savvy entrepreneurs, who are studied, and claim to have much knowledge about this type of business, but they never truly invest in it.
  • The Post Men – these are the partners who are in it for the long haul, the folks that whether it’s raining, sleeting, or snowing they are committed to following through with their responsibilities to the team and start up. #GOLD

So why the heck would I start out a church planting blogpost talking about new businesses?

Because that is exactly what it’s like to plant a church! In order to plant, we needed to raise money, keep money coming in yet we don’t sell a product, don’t offer services in exchange for money, we want to reach out to our community and share our message, explaining to them that this is the greatest news ever, however, most of our community has long lost interest in the message we bring. The previous messengers have tainted the message itself or shared it in ways that instead of drawing people in, have actually pushed them away. Or the most common is that the message challenges present lifestyles, would cause too much change, and they’re not ready for that because the concept of God seems to distant, too far off, and in reality, just not real anymore.

What did I mean when I started off saying “It’s that time of year again…”?

It’s that time of year again in that we look at our budgets and see how much money was spent? Did we come under our budget or go over? What is it going to look like for next year? How much more money are we going to need? Where in the world are we going  get it? We’re not selling nothing nor offering services and many of our original partners have left, we’ve got new ones who say they are on board but they haven’t quite started investing yet? There are others who think what we’re doing is great, and come often but haven’t quite made a commitment to invest. What do we do?

We trust God and work our behinds off to raise the necessary funds we need to pay the bills so the church can keep its doors open, preach the Gospel, love on the neighborhood in the name of Jesus, and disciple/ teach/ and train those committed partners (church members) that they too would take others under their wing and do the same (discipleship). I’ve heard folks say all we need to do is preach the Gospel! That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. I mean, yes, let’s preach the Gospel HARD! Explicity, with clarity, and boldness… but who are we going to preach to if no one is in the pews. I’ve also read that church planters need shepherds and not entrepreneurs, that too is silly. Yes, the church needs shepherds to love the members, walk with them, encourage them, and have them follow us as we follow Christ.

But like I said, church planting is like starting a business, so we need to do more than just “preach”, more than “shepherd”, and although preaching is imperative and our main goal, it is not the only goal. We have to be resourceful, we have to network, we have to open our hands and ask for help… why? Because we need it! And if we truly believe in our message and our calling then we must not be ashamed or embarrassed of asking for help.

IMG_4397.jpg

The Apostle Paul asked for money to support the ministry, but he also made tents, he was bi-vocational. We can’t say we trust Jesus to “supply all our needs” (Ph. 4:19) and just sit around waiting for things to happen. Yes, we must have faith but we must also work hard at our calling. We can’t say we really, really need a job and say we trust Christ will get us that job yet never fill out applications, submit resumes, or follow up with potential employers and just wait for the job to fall from the sky, it doesn’t work that way.

I never knew how good I was at raising money until I had to depend on it in order to provide for my family. Seriously! As Christians, especially church planters, we can’t just sit around and wait for a check to fall out of the sky because someone heard our sermon online. We must reach into our communities, build relationships, get to know people, build trust, know their stories, pray for their needs, follow up with them, and share Jesus with them. We need to tell them God’s law, show them how they’ve broken it, explain to them the consequences, and then inform them of the glorious Good News of Jesus Christ, that their sins would be forgiven, that if they believe in the Jesus of the Bible, they’d be saved. And unfortunately, it takes money to be able to do these things, at least at the level of planting a church.

So why plant a church? Why go through all the hardship? Why subject yourself and family to all the struggles and heartaches? Because Christ is worth it! Because everyone needs to hear about Him, because… well, the Apostle Paul summarizes it pretty well, listen to his words:

Philippians 3:8-10

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,

With that being said, today is #GivingTuesday and I’ll end this blog as I started by saying, “It’s that time of year again…” Would you please consider giving to Reformed Church LA? Would you consider us as one of the charities to give to, knowing that lives will be changed, not just for now, but forever as we proclaim the Gospel of Christ boldly, confidently, and accurately? Please know we’re grateful and our team of “Post Men” are grateful you’d trust in us and what God is doing through our lil church.

IMG_4395

If you feel led to give, please do so by clicking on this link here we’re registered with PayPal’s Giving Fund:

Give Here To Reformed Church LA

If you’re a visual person like me, here are some pictures of who we are, where we minister, and some of the beautiful people God has brought us together with.

IMG_0910

 

 

“You Ain’t Runnin’ Nothin’ But Your Mouth!”

In my younger days, this phrase was one we used quite often, when challenging someone’s authority, inviting them to step up or get outta the way and things usually did not end on a good note. This was almost always said in order to provoke the other into a fight, not just words, but the words were to instigate a violent encounter… you with me so far? So why would I start out this blog post with a phrase that is used to instigate or provoke something? Simple, I’d like to provoke your thoughts and challenge certain beliefs.

Dear Pastor/ Elder/ Deacon/ Director/ Ministry Leader/ Usher/ Volunteer/ Church Member/ Church Attender:

The church is not yours!!!

Although we should treat it as it is, work hard for it as if it were, give our all to serving and growing it as if it were our own and be generous with our finances too… but the truth of the matter is that it’s not our church, and when things don’t go our way, we can’t take it personal, when things seem like they’re falling apart, we must remember it’s not our church… It’s the Lord’s and He’s sovereign, He’s got it and He knows what He’s doing… maybe we have made mistakes, maybe we could’ve done things better… but in the end, I’ve seen how God honors the efforts of His children who glorify His name, He honors those who set aside their lives to live for Him.

This famous hood quote reminded me that no matter what I’m doing, how much I think I’ve done, or how hard I’m working… the church ain’t mine! I ain’t runnin’ nothin’ but my mouth… He’s in charge, Christ is calling the shots, and He’s the boss… not me! So when it seems like we have one thing happening after another, although things may seem bad, things might seem overwhelming… it’s Christ’s church, and He said the gates of hell would not prevail against it, right? (Matthew 16:18)

I find comfort in Proverbs 19:21 that reminds me that, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.

We can’t see what lies ahead, but we should trust in Christ’s finished work on the Cross because ultimately that’s all that matters, right? That our faith would be placed in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension… and that His shed bled on Calvary atone for the sins of His people. So when people leave the church, others come… when the church loses donors, Christ provides through other means… when bills pop up that you weren’t expecting, they get covered… when you run out of space, God provides new ones… when you think you’re running the show, be reminded that you’re not, you ain’t runnin’ nothin’ but your mouth.

Today we finished up a series of classes for New Members and Baptism, next week we should be receiving 7 new members and one person being baptized. When things seem to be going wrong with a 391 year-old denomination, it’s not my denomination, it’s the Lord’s… He’s sustained it for almost 400 years, He’ll continue to do His work no matter who remains or who goes. Whether that’s us or not, we don’t know the future, but we know Who does, and so long as we’re reminded and comforted knowing that we are secure in the palm of His hand, nothing else matters! (Enter Metallica here)

Friends, be encouraged… be reminded that… Christ doesn’t change.

Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

A really good friend of mine, also a Pastor/ Church Planter reached out to check in, as is our usual custom, and he asked about our Lord’s Day and I kinda bragged on what God was doing, right? And He tells me that their worship leader had a melt down and left seconds before service was to start… I was like, “YO?!?!?!!? Are you serious?!?!?” And it reminded me of something that we’d experienced too. But his next comment was so beautiful, he said their team came together and what came forward was glorious! In other words, God was honored, no matter what happened, even if they got caught slippin’ seconds before church worship service started… their team came together… “and it was glorious”. I can’t even imagine what that must’ve felt like… but it reminds me that when things catch us off guard, when we feel like someone dumped something in our lap at the last minute, there’s a team of godly people that can come together and push forward under pressure… and glorify God as they do so. I love it when God shows up and shows out like that.

Today we ordained and installed to the office of Deacon, our sister Catrina “Cat” Moreno, and it was a joy to see our church, her close friends, and family be there to offer support. So as folks have come and gone, each having helped us build up the church in their own way, others have stayed, still others have come and are being baptized/ becoming members, and others still have taken huge commitments as our sister and now Deacon Cat Moreno, to serve the Lord’s church here in Lynwood. Thanks be to God!

IMG_3741

 

You Ain’t Got To Lie Craig! From Mexican Mafia Soldier To Soldier for Christ

Any of ya’ll remember that movie “Friday” with Ice Cube and Chris Tucker? You know you do! Remember that scene where Craig’s girlfriend accused him of being with another girl? She said, “You ain’t got to lie Craig!!!” and honestly, that phrase has been coming up more and more as I see some of the stuff people are posting, stories people are telling, and exaggerated brag-a-monies about their previous lives.

Why am I even talking about this? I know it may sound petty and even childish, but would you be able to sit by and listen to someone lie, or lead you to believe something that really isn’t true, in order to make it seem like they were something they really weren’t, and in a fake way give glory to God? If you can play possum, you’re a stronger willed person than me… now, I won’t make a scene, but they know who they are… they know we know some of the same people… they know that I know that all they say ain’t true… normally, I wouldn’t give 2 cents of a dang… but when they wanna include my Jesus… that’s another story, one they’ll have to take up with Him one day, Matthew 12:36 tells us that one day we’ll give an account for every careless word we say.

I know some pretty crazy individuals that have come to faith in Christ, dudes that have done hard time, life sentences, SHU terms, I know because I was right there with them in prison, and people that have walked in our shoes, well, we just don’t go throwin’ that stuff out there like that. I mean, sure we talk about the past at the right time and in the right context, but truth be told, we actually try to tone it down, and not let that be the thing we’re known for, but instead let it be known for who we are now in Christ, and that it was only by His saving grace, and transformative power of Christ through the Holy Spirit that we are alive and serving Him and His people.

So why is this important to me? Because God does NOT need us to lie about our testimony in order to make him look bigger or stronger. It’s important because people aren’t stupid, we’ve all got a built in BS reader, and when folks know you’re not legit, they then begin to question you, your God, and is He really as great as you make Him out to be… feel me? We need to be real, keep it 100, God doesn’t need our help in making Him out to be more than what He is, and to keep it even more real, His Word tells us to not lie, to be honest, and stop doing the stuff we used to do like lying, Ephesians 4:25, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”

IMG_0428
My “Wanted” poster from 1997

I’m gonna share something here I’ve not mentioned to many people, because there’s not been a need for it, but in order that Christ might be exalted to show that He is still in the business of healing, raising the dead, and doing miracles… peep game and continue to read so you’ll know just what I’m talking about. I, and many of you too, was sick… I was spiritually dead… and Christ healed me within, He gave me a heart transplant, He took my heart of stone and gave me a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), Jesus literally raised me from being spiritually dead and raised me to life in Himself… those are miracles, maybe not like what you were imagining, but I know what my life was like before Christ entered it and I know where I am now.

I was released from the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi on October 20, 2010 and on June 6th, 2012 a confiscated letter was published in the Los Angeles Times from a Mexican Mafia member in Federal Prison that was giving instructions to another Mexican Mafia member to contact me so that I could help them out with some issues they were having, the letter listed my gang name, my real name, address and phone number blacked out, and when I heard about this I was like, “What the….???” I’m a Christian now, I’m not involved with that stuff anymore, the only one I serve now is Christ, to Him alone is my allegiance, to Him alone am I committed… He is the only One that calls the shots in my life… oh, and my wife too! (But please don’t tell her I said that). But I was still being recruited into their affairs and didn’t even know it until one of my homies called me to tell me about the article they read in the L.A. Times.

I was petrified, I immediately thought I’d be going back to prison, and having to prove that I had nothing to do with this letter, what it was ordering, the killing of a lawyer, collecting street taxes, and a host of other things. My life was changed, I was serving Christ faithfully, but you see, the world still didn’t believe it, folks still thought it wasn’t real, that it was a phase, that I’d eventually get past it all. But no, I’m still here, in the palm of Christ’s hand (John 10:29). Just a few weeks ago, I was honored to lead my good friend’s mom’s memorial service, God had blessed me with the privilege of sharing the Gospel with her the very day before she passed on.

At this funeral, I was extremely nervous, because I knew that many of my homeboys from my old neighborhood would be there, they all knew that I was a Christian, a Pastor, but how would I be received? Deep down, I questioned whether or not it still mattered to me what they thought. I know many of them were upset with me, they felt let down by me for having walked away from the gang. Some of these guys are people I’d known since I was 13, fought with, fought over, got shot with, shot at others, drank with, got high with, cried with, committed crimes with, celebrated victories with, mourned deaths and losses with… and even done time with. Yet here we were, again together, and I was standing before them, sharing the Gospel of Christ, encouraging them to believe in this Jesus! After some awkward looks, and handshakes, it seemed as if we’d been teleported back in time, like nothing had changed, based on some of our conversations, it was 10-15 years ago once again, but our gray hairs, wrinkled faces, and different lives reminded us how time in fact had passed by. They are all very aware of my previous EME connections, affiliated with them as a soldier, but now… now I was a soldier for Christ, boldly heralding His Gospel of salvation to any and all.

IMG_2942

This is a lot to say, I know it, but in the same way I had enemies back when I was involved with the gang, so now I have enemies, one in particular who is waiting outside my door every day (Gen. 4:7) in hopes of tripping me up, disqualifying me, and causing folks to not trust or believe what I say. Back then, I knew exactly who my enemies were, I knew what they looked like, where they were from, what cars they drove, etc… but now, it’s hard to discern, hard to identify who Satan tries to use against us. Some times it’s the obvious, other times not so much, it comes from within our church, amongst our leaders, other pastors and church planters… yes, other Christians. Hard to believe? It shouldn’t, we’re all sinners, we’re all broken, to some level or degree more than others. But when these situations come about, they are still hard and hurtful! I can honestly say to you that gang banging has nothing on church planting. I’ve probably experienced more let downs, hurt, betrayals, and abandonment in 2 years than I did in 25 years on the streets. What does that tell you? The enemy is mad, so we must be doing something right! The Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 2:10 said, “This is why I endure all things for the elect: so that they also may obtain salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” and I’ll try and do the same.

“I’ve probably experienced more let downs, hurt, betrayals, and abandonment in 2 years than I did in 25 years on the streets.”

As a church planter, I need to do much more than a pastor of an established church, you see, we’re not established, still trying to get there, so we have to work 10 times as much, twice as hard, for much less money, and with only a fraction of the resources… and people still complain about that. People are still offended when they are encouraged to get up and get to church on Sunday morning via social media video posts, people will bring accusations of showboating, being prideful, money hungry, or anything… you name it, everything under the sun. So let me back track to where I started… “You ain’t got to lie Craig!!!” Let us always keep it real, with God and ourselves… if we can do that then we’ll be real with others, and if folks know we’re being real with them, they just might believe what we say, and our story should be the Gospel of Christ and His truth, not ours.

Ministry is rough and church planting is not for the faint hearted!

Church planter, CORE Team/ launch team, financial supporters of church plants, church planting families, prayer partners of planters, please never stop grinding for the Lord, He deserves nothing less than our absolute best. He deserves we take the extra step, that we go the extra mile… we shouldn’t try to cut corners on Him because He didn’t cut corners for us, He endured it all… to the very end, right? Be real with who you are, don’t feel the need to impress folks, but instead be more concerned with impressing Christ, after all, what He thinks about us is all that really matters. Thanks for reading this blog, and thanks for the shout outs, I keep hearing about the Bumble Bee family video from my last post. Be reminded that your pastors need you, please never stop praying for them, and when everything is alright, reach out to bless them, don’t wait for life to be falling apart.



 

I just wanted to belong! 2 Cor. 5:17

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!

IMG_1697
My cousin Chino RIP (who was killed in Lynwood), myself, and my homeboy Kali (circa 1987)

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. IMG_2088

Top Row: Chava, Chiquis, Lil Silent, Jughead, Black John
Bottom Row: Me and Lil Roy

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.

My homegirl Rachel, Diapers RIP, Racoon from F13, me, and my homegirl Chola (Huntington Park, 1986-87)

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.

9556C5CE-CA01-47C8-8467-BF745E40BC1B
Left: Me finishing up the last of my 3 years in the California Youth Authority as YA#55780, summer of 1990.                                          

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.

IMG_7680
At Las Pulgas in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico with legendary Boxer Julio Cesar Chavez, and El Halcon de la Sierra RIP

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.

PLEASE WATCH THIS – Blind Melon Video “No Rain”

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!

Don’t Take It Personal

Even though I went through some training prior to church planting, nothing prepared us for some of the difficulties we’d encounter. My good friend and LCMS Pastor Kyle Blake gave me some great practical prophetic insights as to what I should expect, and what he said would happen, did. He said that those people we thought would surely be the first to have our backs, wouldn’t. And that the people we least expected, would be the ones to actually hold us down. And that’s just the way it went down. No need to mention names, but that’s exactly what happened and some of it was really hurtful, I thought I’d gotten over it, but as I’m writing now, I realize that I have in fact forgiven, but haven’t really gotten over it. For some of the folks that left us, it really, really hurt us and for others that left, it didn’t bother us one bit. Folks always throw the phrase “Don’t take it personal” around very casually, but it’s not that easy to live out, it is so much easier said than done.

IMG_1734.jpg

I haven’t unfriended folks, but I have hit the “Unfollow” button quite often, only because it’s just healthier to not see some stuff or people, you know what I’m talking about, right? You don’t want to “unfriend” because there is still some form of connection, but it’s best (emotionally wise) if you have less contact. As strong as I am, or as thugged out as I used to be on the streets, there is no more tough guy here, let me tell you! I’ve realized just how soft I am, just how tender God has made my heart and it brings to memory the Prophet Ezekiel’s words when he says, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ez. 36:26). Not too long ago I read the following social media post and it stirred up lots of feelings:

  • “Reflecting on pastoring for 20 yrs: With a therapist, I catalogued all the folks that have ghosted me (almost 100 over the years). Spend time in their homes, baptize their kids, cry with them in pain, counsel them through crisis. Then vamoosh they’re gone. It’s a weird job.” Dan White Jr. – @danwhitejr

One of my church planting homies shared it and it made me think of just how many people have “ghosted” us, not just me and the church, but my family too. In the event that you’re not familiar with the term “ghosted” it refers to people vanishing on us and disappearing as ghosts. Now, this post is not meant to speak ill of those that have “ghosted” us and the fact this stuff happens is very real, but instead let this serve as an encouragement to those that have been hurt by someone else’s departure and tell you, “Don’t take it personal”.

IMG_1736.jpg

There is a common term or phrase that is used in our world and that is, “church hurt”. It is often used to describe how a church has hurt someone and affected them so bad that they’ve left the church altogether and have no desire to return. These bad experiences they’ve had have been directly by church leaders, ministry directors, or sometimes even the pastor is listed as the offending culprit.

Upon reflecting more and more on the “ghosted” article, it made me rethink the whole “church hurt” thing and see it from a different perspective. The phrase usually applies to those who’ve left the church because they’d been hurt by it, but how about those in the church being hurt by those that have left? If you think about it, you might have experienced this situation yourself, it is so much more common than we’d like to say, especially because we don’t really talk about it, or at least not in a healthy way. But very often, especially in a consumer driven world, people leave churches because things don’t go their way, the church lacks a specific ministry program, folks don’t wanna be pushed out of comfort zones, they want titles, they don’t want titles, they want to lead, they don’t want to lead, there are just far too many reasons that folks leave.

I don’t think their intent was to hurt you… I don’t think that they really meant to hurt your kids… they might have not realized that by taking their kids away after you’ve loved on them for so long, took care of them, let them spend the night at your home with your own kids that other families would suffer. I don’t think they meant to hurt you by breaking a sacred trust that you’d placed in them, they might have not realized they were your “go to” couple, people you’d trust for marital issues, that they were needed for your own accountability, or just a “safe” place to be open and transparent… so don’t take it personal! I wish it would really be that easy… I wish we could really not take it personal, but it’s impossible, it’s difficult, and it hurts. But if our Savior Himself was “ghosted” by His disciples the very night He was betrayed by Judas and arrested why would we expect anything less. Our very Savior was hurt by His church when they denied Him, even Peter as the rooster crowed, was he reminded of his own “ghosting” of Jesus.

Psalm 55:12-14 brings to light an all too common feeling of being ghosted or hurt by someone close to us.

12 Now it is not an enemy who insults me—otherwise I could bear it; it is not a foe who rises up against me—otherwise I could hide from him.
13 But it is you, a man who is my peer, my companion and good friend!
14 We used to have close fellowship; we walked with the crowd into the house of God.

And Psalm 41:9 also addresses the same issue when it said:

Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.

This is the same story that has happened over and over again in the whole biblical narrative, why? Because people, sinners that we are, will always end up hurting those we love, to some degree or another… but there is One that will never hurt us, there is One that will never forsake us, there is One that will never abandon us… there is One that will never “ghost” us. As the song says, Christ will hold us fast;

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold through life’s fearful path;
For my love is often cold; He must hold me fast.

“He will hold me fast” Keith & Kristyn Getty

Although there is no blame pointed in any direction, it does not dispel that there are folks in almost every church that are hurt when good friends leave their church, there are good folks in almost every church who have kids that are hurt when their friends no longer go to the same church because their parents decided to go elsewhere. If you’ve been one that has been hurt, please forgive your brothers and sisters who’ve ghosted you… don’t take it personal. And if you feel like placing blame on someone or something that caused them to leave, be reminded of Romans 5:8 clear description of just how God shows His love for us, in that while we were STILL sinners, Christ died for us.

We’ve ghosted others too… we ghosted the One Who least deserved it, our Savior Himself… and He didn’t take it personal, He still went to the Cross willingly for us, He suffered a horrific death we deserved knowing we’d ghost Him, He resurrected and ascended as He said He would, He granted us a path back to fellowship with God because of His love for us, and He paid our debt knowing we’d ghost Him… that is the Good News, and THAT you have to definitely take personal.

I’ve noticed many folks that come to church, are a part of a church, or serve at a church when it’s convenient, when they’re lonely, when they’re sick, when a loved one is in need, or void needs to be filled… and those are great reasons, I truly believe God uses those means to draw His people in, but what about when those needs are met? When we finally get a job, find a significant other that takes away the loneliness, when there is a medical healing, or when we just feel we no longer need God… our mouths may not actually say those words, but our actions shout loudly, that we’re no longer desperate for Christ as when we were in church.

I know there are folks who might read this and think it’s about them… it’s not, this wasn’t written for one person, group of persons, but the things that I’ve experienced in my 10 years of ministry, but especially what I’ve lived first hand these last two years in church planting. I end with this… If you’ve been hurt by the church, by either the church directly hurting you, or you’ve been hurt by someone leaving, I give you this quote from Jackie Hill Perry:

“Do you know who God used to heal me of my church hurt? The church”

Don’t take it personal, and don’t let a bad experience rob you of the beauty we live and experience not by “going to church” but by being the church, and that includes belonging to a local church, giving, discipling, and serving joyfully, generously, and sacrificially. I’m sure someone will get their undies in a bunch over this final statement, but I don’t believe one can be a true Christian and not belong to a local church. Only at the local church can we belong, give generously, serve joyfully, disciple and be discipled sacrificially, encouraged, and be held accountable… so even if things aren’t working perfectly at your church, stay there… it needs you.

Even though you don’t get your way all the time… it’s not Burger King… stay there…it needs you.

Even if you think you can do a better job than the pastor… you’re not the Pastor, so stay there… he needs your support.

Even if you had a sharp disagreement with someone… stay there… it shows we follow Christ’s command to forgive.

Even if you think the worship music is lame… if you could do better, you’d be up there leading… stay there… they need your support.

By leaving a church whenever things don’t go your way, when things aren’t done the way you’d probably do them… you confuse your kids, you confuse your church family, and you confuse the community your church is desperately trying to connect with and show them you care. Do you really care if you bounce for small or dumb stuff? Leave because there is moral failure in leadership and there is no discipline. Leave because the pastors are preaching heresy. Leave because leaders are stealing money and no one has gotten locked up yet. Be wise… be mature… and above all be Christ-like.