So Jesus learned to ride a horse.
“I bought a horse and learned how to ride,” he says. “It’s very common for people here to come and go on horseback,” he says, which includes getting to worship on Sunday.
Jesus leads San Gabriel Lutheran Mission in Alvarado, a new congregation start in the ELCA Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod. Supported by ELCA churchwide minsitries grants, San Gabriel is one of 345 new ministries under development, more than half of which are in diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual communities and communities in poverty.
Most of the members there are ranchers. Men compete in Mexican rodeos called “Chareria,” and women compete in drill teams known as “Escaramusas.”
“And they are Lutheran,” Jesus proudly says. “Members here have a passion for the word.”
The ministry began in 2006 when a group of families wanted to gather for weekly Bible study in their area. Most of them travel 30 to 40 miles to attend Sunday worship at San Miguel Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Fort Worth.
“But they wanted more,” says Jesus. “They were hungry.” As was Jesus.
‘Finish my work’
Jesus was born in Mexico and moved to the United States when he was 3 years old. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, intending to become a priest. But he left the church when he turned 21.
“I saw some things that broke my heart,” he says. And for many years, Jesus did not attend worship.
“I was a plumber by trade. And one day, unexpectedly, I couldn’t finish a job. I couldn’t soder a pipe and fix the leak. My boss became frustrated with my work and reassigned me to a different job,” Jesus says.
On his way to the new job, Jesus took a wrong turn. When he entered a church parking lot to turn his truck around, he noticed the church sign, which said, “Finish my work.”
Jesus was immediately filled with inspiration.
“Then I did something that I hadn’t done in a long time. I prayed,” says Jesus.
“I wanted to find peace again, so I turned to God. I must have prayed at the church for a long time because I had 20 phone messages waiting for me, all from my boss who was very upset,” he recounts.
After visiting a variety of local churches, Jesus’ wife led him to San Miguel Lutheran Church. They became active members.
But Jesus wanted more, so he enrolled in the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod’s two-year Parish Lay Mission Academy held at Calvary Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Richland Hills, Texas.
After the academy, Jesus organized Bible study among the families from San Miguel. They met every Friday. And with permission from the synod, the group held worship and became a synodically authorized worshiping community with Jesus as leader. The mission is now an official ELCA new start.
It became clearer to Jesus that he needed to enter the ordained ministry. He enrolled at the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries of the Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest. He graduated from the seminary program in spring 2011.
“It’s been a long road, one which God wanted me to travel,” Jesus says. “God’s grace is the answer. We are saved by grace alone.”
San Gabriel Lutheran Mission is perhaps unlike many other ELCA ministries on their way to becoming an ELCA congregation. There’s a hitching post in front of the church building where worshipers tie up their horses, and it’s the members who are building the church from the ground up.
“We need a place to call home,” says Jesus. For years the families had been holding Bible study and worship in one another’s homes.
Several congregations of the synod are providing financial support. Calvary, for instance, contributed $5,000 toward a new floor.
“We’re not out here by ourselves,” says Jesus, “We belong together.”
And he will experience a deeper unity at the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, August 15-19 in Orlando, Fla. Jesus will be a voting member and an assisting minister at an assembly worship service.
Honored and grateful for this opportunity, Jesus is postponing his ordination to become an ELCA pastor to September.
“I’ve been entrusted to serve as a lay voting member, and I want to honor that,” he says, adding that he’s keeping an “open mind” about the business that will go before the church.
For Jesus, “living Lutheran” is about unity and grace. “It’s about the grace of Christ and Christ alone,” he says.