Sharing Jesus’ love in Selma

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Organizers hope children’s Christmas programs will draw parents to church

by Myra Holmes

Last Christmas, a tamale dinner and Christmas program drew record crowds into the Selma (Calif.) MB Church and helped workers there build relationships.

Selma, Calif., is a “barrio.” Here, Hispanic surnames are dominant and poverty is rampant. A drive-by shooting in September claimed the life of a 14-year-old, while ordinary police rounds include things like towing away a car with slashed tires. Migrant workers seek temporary housing in garages and backyards. Intact families are the exception rather than the rule.

In this difficult setting, Selma MB Church seeks to share the love of Christ. Although the church is a project of the Pacific District Conference’s Board of Home Missions, the term “church plant” doesn’t quite fit. Volunteer Don Enns says the Selma work is more similar to a cross-cultural mission station than a typical church plant. Even in its sixth year, the Selma church “continues to be more of an immigrant ministry or preaching station,” he says.

Spanish-language Sunday morning services are led by pastoral couple Alfredo and Elva Cardona. Selma residents Urbano and Esther Gonzales help with teaching, music, pastoral care and facility maintenance. Part-time youth directors Brad and Delilah Isaak run an English-language children’s program on Sunday evenings; Brad also meets with local teens after school on Tuesdays.

Other core leaders come from Reedley (Calif.) MB Church. “We’re grateful for [Reedley MB’s] blessing and prayers,” Enns says. He and his wife, Martha, lead a Bible study during the Sunday morning sermon time for those who prefer English. “My wife and I are always blessed because we’re getting to know and minister into the lives of people,” Enns says.

Another Reedley couple, Bill and Paula Olinger, use their motor home to pick children up and bring them to church, which is key to getting them there. “The kids love to ride in the motor home,” Enns says.

Measurable progress for the Selma church is slow, as is often the case in a mission setting. The church might minister to a total of 40 or 50 people over the course of a weekend; the youth ministry would include about 60 youth, if they all came at once. Vacation Bible school this past summer had an average attendance of 67.

Selma MB has yet to have communion, a membership list or a baptism. Each brings unique questions, Enns points out. For example, how should a church handle communion for a number of women living with men to whom they are not married? So leaders patiently “wait for the Word of God to penetrate” and the Holy Spirit to work until they feel ready to do the kinds of things churches do.

For several years, the Isaaks have put together a modest children’s program at Christmas; last year, the church added a tamale dinner in an attempt to draw parents. It worked. The evening program drew the largest crowd ever to the tiny Selma MB church. Enns says he gave up counting at 100—a packed house in a building that holds about 80. 

The church purchased tamales from a local businesswoman who is also the parent of one of the children, so the dinner served to support her as well. Volunteers supplemented the menu with a potluck.  

The children presented the Christmas story through Scripture readings, costumes and carols. A video of the past year’s children’s activities helped to familiarize parents with the work of the church and, hopefully, communicate that their kids are in good hands. Spanish-speaking leaders issued an invitation to Sunday mornings.

Although most of the parents haven’t darkened the door of the church since, Enns is not discouraged. “I believe we’re growing as we’re building more friendship and relationship in the neighborhood,” he says.

He notes that these hard-working parents don’t have a church habit, and speculates that aggressive door-to-door visits—in Spanish—would help. So would offers of rides to church.

It’s a slow process, Enns says, and workers know they’re in it for the long haul. With support from the PDC’s Board of Trustees, Selma MB has purchased a small, 100-year-old house across the street from the church and hopes to renovate it as a home for the Isaaks, who will live there as neighborhood missionaries.

As for this Christmas, Enns says the church will undoubtedly do some kind of children’s program again–with or without tamales–to try once more to connect with the parents.

Photo provided by Selma MB Church: Brad and Delilah Isaak, seated, and the children that participate in the English-language program on Sunday evenings at Selma MB Church prepared a program last Christmas that told the story of Christ's birth through Scripture and song.

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