A few years ago Cora Aguilar, who is an ELCA pastor, and her husband decided to buy a house in Maricopa, Ariz., and retire.
But, Cora soon discovered, God had other plans.
In April 2010, Cora was named as the mission developer for an ELCA new-start congregation in her new community. Maricopa Lutheran Chapel hopes to be a recognized ELCA congregation by 2013.
“I knew it was a divine call,” says Cora. “I knew I was called here to Arizona because of this church.”
ELCA members in Maricopa had previously driven long distances — sometimes over 100 miles roundtrip — to attend church on Sundays. Out of their desire to worship closer to home, and under Cora’s guidance, Maricopa Lutheran Chapel was born.
‘A passion for people’
Ruben Duran directs the ELCA churchwide organization’s program for new congregations. He says, “Cora has a deep passion for people and an expertise in mission. … Nothing will detract her from doing her best and giving her all to help grow (Maricopa).”
Sue Fletcher, who has been with the congregation since the beginning, says Cora plays a big role in making people feel welcome. “Cora doesn’t miss a beat. She knows everyone who’s there, and if you’re new, she always welcomes you before the service. It’s a warm and loving congregation.”
They’ve seen a lot of growth in the past couple years, and they now have a steady Sunday worship attendance of 50-60 people. Although initially most of the people joining were retired, the congregation now has people of all ages, and they’re even holding Sunday school and confirmation classes.
Maricopa Lutheran doesn’t have a permanent worship space and has held services at many locations in the community, some more unusual than others.
When Carol VanBatavia first went to worship at Maricopa Lutheran after moving to Arizona in 2010, she was surprised to find herself driving up a dirt road toward an old ranch house. This certainly wasn’t the type of worship space she had been used to back in South Dakota.
But the moment she stepped inside the house, “it was just an awesome feeling. Everyone was welcoming. You could feel the Holy Spirit. It’s been a great joy for us to come here and have that feeling of connection with Maricopa, like it’s our home and we’ve been here for a long time.”
An energy for all
People in the congregation also talk about Cora’s contagious and inexhaustible energy on Sunday mornings. Cora says when she’s doing worship her prayer is, “God, fill me with your spirit, your passion, your energy, and let that come out and touch all of the people you have sent on this day to worship with us.”
That energy flows from everyone in the congregation. Carol says that because most people are transplants from all over the country, “We’re not just set in our ways. We’re flexible. We listen to (each other) and that’s important.”
And although they’re still working to increase their numbers and get organized, that hasn’t stopped Maricopa from looking beyond its own four walls.
“We’re definitely not going to become complacent when we get settled,” says Cora. “No, no, no!” Recently there’s talk of trying to do some ecumenical outreach with other churches in Maricopa, “especially the Methodist and Presbyterian churches because we have full communion with them.”
What’s wonderful about Maricopa Lutheran, Sue Fletcher says, is that it is “one that grew from within. The people wanted a church and we were determined that we wanted to do it and so we did. And we know the Holy Spirit was working here with us the whole time.”