Churches changing with their communities
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 15, 2004

Demographic shifts stir older congregations

Marissa Belles

Ten years ago Messiah Lutheran Church in Phoenix saw upward of 300 worshipers at Sunday services.

By 2001, the central Phoenix congregation had dwindled to about 20, and it didn't take long to figure out the problem: The largely White church was planted in the middle of a burgeoning Latino neighborhood at 27th Avenue and Camelback Road.

"One by one, families would move out of the area and the neighborhood shifted from predominately Anglo to Latino with the language barrier to go with it," said Kathryn Thompson, the former president of the church's council.

Messiah, which marked its 50th anniversary this year, isn't alone. Neighborhoods across the Valley are going through similar demographics changes, and churches are left deciding whether to put out the welcome mat, close down or turn over the keys to those with the skills to minister to the areas.

"This challenge is not isolated to one faith or neighborhood because it affects all religions which have churches in a changing area," said Jorge Montiel of the Valley Interfaith Project, a network of congregations and non-profit organizations.

Calvary United Methodist Church at 79th Avenue and Indian School Road hired a part-time Hispanic minister to face the challenge while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints added Spanish ministries to its ward at 38th Avenue and Camelback Road.

Some denominations have met resistance while trying to develop ministries for changing communities.

"A lot of people are somewhat hesitant to initiate outreach programs because they have a sense that they are being taken over," Montiel said.

Wally Athey, secretary of the United Methodist Association,calls it a difficult transition.

"On the one hand, it's our duty to accommodate the entire community," he said. "But at the same time, long-standing members don't always welcome change." Some of the churches within the Valley Interfaith Coalition are in heavily Latino areas, where the parishioners strongly resist outreach.

Father Chris Carpenter of Christ the King Catholic Church said he understands the hesitation many in his central Mesa congregation are feeling.

"Change is a difficult passage for congregations to deal with especially if they have attended a church for a long time," Carpenter said of the church, located in a heavily Hispanic area. "However, we have an obligation to welcome our neighbors and serve the community as it changes."

Reaching out

Messiah had initial dissent as well, but the handful of members eventually decided outreach was the key to bringing up numbers.

In 2001, with help from the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Urban Coalition of Phoenix, the church hired its first bilingual pastor, the Rev. Maria Valenzuela.

Valenzuela began an after-school tutoring program for neighborhood children and morning English classes for adults. Messiah was reaching out.

Then, in spring 2003, the church hit a roadblock. A child-care center renting space at the church abruptly closed, taking with it one-third of the church's income.

"At this time, the council looked around at the new life created by the outreach and we realized God was showing us what needed to be done," Thompson said.

The council contacted Jose Valenzuela,director of the synod's Latino outreach program and the son of the Rev. Valenzuela.

"Historically my phone rings when a predominantly Anglo church is having retention problems due to a neighborhood's changing demographics," said Jose Valenzuela, who leads ethnic church-planting efforts. "Messiah was a perfect candidate because it sits in an area in which 68 percent of the population is Latino."

Now it was decision time. To become a church plant, Messiah's council would have to donate the church in full to the synod. It would include renaming and restructuring the church and eventually replacing Messiah's small congregation.

"It was a difficult choice to make, but I didn't see it as us giving the church away," Thompson said. "We were giving to God in order to better serve the community, which needed it."

In May 2003, the church voted to give the synod control.

Changes made

The church was renamed La Vida Nueva, to symbolize the new life brought to a changing community. In November 2003, the Rev. Gissela Varinia Blanco, the first ordained Peruvian pastor in the United States, was hired. She replaced the Rev. Valenzuela, who couldn't continue because she didn't live in the church's neighborhood, a mission requirement.

"The neighborhood was very receptive during the door-to-door outreach," said Blanco, who graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in 1999. "Small things like replacing the traditional organ music with guitars and pianos make such a difference in the church's atmosphere."

On Easter this year, La Vida Nueva held its first worship service as a reconfigured church, though officially the church wasn't signed over until July.

Jose Valenzuela was awed by the receptiveness and enthusiasm of the newly formed community.

"On a home visit to the Ramirez family, they told me they had never been in a church where they felt such a sense of community," Jose Valenzuela said. "Their children were baptized on the first day La Vida Nueva officially took over."

As for the handful of congregants at Messiah, they've moved on.

"It was sad, but now the church is opened up to the community that surrounds it," Thompson, the former council leader, said. "And as for us, there is a new row at St. John's Church in Glendale made up of the old Messiah crowd."