From walnut tree to lighthouse: 50 Years of ministry at El Faro Church
By Kathy Heinrichs Wiest
El Faro, which is Spanish for “The Lighthouse,” may be an unlikely name for a church far from any rocky seashore in California’s Central Valley, but it is an apt metaphor for the impact of this bilingual congregation that is celebrating 50 years of ministry in 2012.
Located in the small town of Reedley, El Faro Community Church ministers in a low-income and transient neighborhood of the city, surrounded by apartment complexes. The church of about 80 members beacons local children, youth and their parents to a community of faith and service and directs them away from the rocky shores of gang activity and crime.
El Faro is part of a cluster of five Hispanic churches planted by Mennonite Brethren in the area around Reedley from 1956 to 1965. The first, Parlier MB Church (now called Iglesia Fuente de Vida), celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006. El Faro was the second church plant in the cluster and is celebrating 50 years of ministry with a weekend of reunion and celebration April 28-29.
Reaching children and youth has been at the core of El Faro’s mission since 1962 when Anna Schlichting began gathering neighborhood children for Sunday school under her family’s back yard walnut tree. Along with her husband and medical doctor, Arnold Schlichting, she laid the groundwork for this ministry to Reedley’s Hispanic families.
“We’ve established a strong presence in our community, a presence of trust,” says former pastor and current El Faro moderator Horacio Renteria, noting that about two-thirds of the children who attend El Faro come without their parents. “Our neighbors tell the newcomers, ‘You can trust them with your kids.’”
The neighborhood around El Faro houses many Spanish-speaking migrant farm workers who often are in the area for only one or two harvest seasons. Renteria points out that families in transit are also under stress. Parents find comfort in seeing their children involved with the healthy activities like kids club and the church-sponsored soccer team. (See “Here Comes El Faro” in the Christian Leader, Aug/Sept 2011.)
The church has worked bilingually in Spanish and English from the start. Anglo leaders from its mother congregation, Reedley MB Church (RMBC), worked together with Hispanic translators from the sister congregation in Parlier. In addition to the Schlichtings, Don and Marge Schmidt and Don and Martha Enns from RMBC teamed with Frank Rodriguez and Noe and Lily Rodriguez, from Parlier MB Church, to plant the church. As newer believers, the Hispanic leaders were discipled in their faith as they helped the Anglo leaders who could not speak Spanish.
A high point in El Faro’s more recent history was its formal incorporation in 2000. “That was a proud moment because we weren’t under our ‘mama’ anymore,” recalls Renteria. After 40 years as an extension ministry of RMBC, the congregation created its own constitution and established itself as an autonomous church.
That move freed the congregation to engage in new ministries. With assistance from MB Foundation, they stepped out to expand their church campus, buying an adjacent small apartment building in 2006. With volunteer labor they refurbished the four apartments and are looking forward to paying off the loan early so the rental income can help fund church ministries.
The El Faro anniversary planning group turned to former pastor, Don Schmidt, and his wife, Marge, to tell the story of the church’s 50-year history. The Schmidts have led El Faro for 28 of the church’s 50 years. After serving the church from 1962 to 1980, the congregation invited them back in 1986 for another 10 years.
“We were there from the beginning when we met under the tree,” says Schmidt, who recalls Dr. Schlichting tapping him to help with transportation. “That was my first job, to pick up people for church. Marge played the piano and taught children’s Sunday school.”
The Schmidts tell the church’s story in a 45-minute video presentation that weaves their reminiscing with historic photos. The video will be the centerpiece of the church’s anniversary program at a banquet for current and former church workers on Saturday evening. It will also run continuously in the sanctuary during the Sunday afternoon open house for all friends of the church.
According to Renteria, the anniversary is an occasion for the congregation to look to the future as well as the past. “We look at what we have been doing and think about how we can put words to it, to think what are our goals and how are we going to do it?”
“God has placed us in a migrant community and we may only have people for a couple of years, so our perspective needs to be more time-limited. If the standard family is here for one summer harvest, what goals do we want to achieve with them in that time?”
This reflection comes at an opportune time for the congregation that is in a leadership transition. After a year and a half of functioning under the leadership of a team of church members who shared preaching and administration, the congregation has called a new pastor, Joe Villalobos, of nearby Sanger, Calif.
Villalobos anticipates great things from the El Faro church. “It’s amazing how they love others and how they work together,” he says. “And now a lot of people who have been part of the history are coming together to celebrate. I’m very impressed.”
Kathy Heinrichs Wiest, Kingsburg, Calif., writes the CL "Fast Chat" column and is a regular freelance news writer for the magazine.
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