Age 64 is often a time for cutting back, retiring from a life’s work, looking to coast into retirement. But for a 64-year-old Mennonite Brethren Church in La Grulla, Texas, new life is springing up and this congregation is working harder than ever.
By Kathy Heinrichs Wiest
Come get to know us again. Sixty-four-year-old Grulla (Texas) MB Church is inviting its community to take a second look. Local school teacher David Zarate took them up on the offer and liked what he saw.
Zarate remembers looking at the church as an outsider: “I thought, hey, they’re the good people, the chosen people.” But while he respected them, he was also intimidated. As a new Christian he didn’t feel he could live up to that perfection. This was a church to admire from the outside, not a place where he would fit in.
Grulla MB, established in 1946 as a Spanish-speaking congregation, has been a pillar of the small La Grulla community for many years. The church is well known for its quality teachers and school administrators. Many who grew up in the town have been a student under at least one teacher from the church.
It is also a mission-minded church, sending its members with gifts of food and clothes across the border to serve the needy and plant churches in Mexico and partnering with MBMS International to host short term mission groups through the SOAR program.
The La Grulla community knew about and respected the members of Grulla M.B., but the church’s stagnant attendance numbers, hovering around 80 to 100, showed that local people didn’t envision it as a place where they could belong.
Meanwhile, changes were in the works among the church leadership. Young Pastor Aaron Hernandez arrived in 2006 with a vision. He saw strength in the congregation, but he also saw that their focus needed to turn outward into their community. They needed to open the doors—pouring their resources into the community and putting out the welcome mat to neighbors in need of a family of faith.
A perfect opportunity to show they cared came last summer when a major community event found itself in a crisis. The annual fundraising event for the Muscular Dystrophy Association was having trouble mustering enough volunteers. The labor-intensive event raised nearly $20,000 each year with a carnival, horse-trail ride along the Rio Grande and a popular barbecue cook-off. But without the volunteer workers, they couldn’t do it.
Grulla MB took the opportunity to show their community spirit. They stepped in to take charge of the carnival and help cook the dinner for the trail riders. The church’s energy and enthusiasm re-invigorated the fundraiser.
The big event gave the church community visibility and built new relationships. The same thing happens in smaller ways every month with the church’s Second Saturday Service Team. The 30-member team will take on anything from roadside landscape maintenance to home repair. They dream of someday building a whole house for a needy family just like the TV show, Extreme Makeover. “Someday we want to say ‘Move that bus!’” says Hernandez.
The dirt-under-the fingernails ministry was something David Zarate could relate to. Even though he is a school teacher by profession, he’s a tradesman at heart, he says, and loves the chance to do some carpentry or lawn mowing for someone in need.
That spirit of service is what he wanted for his family, too, especially as his children entered their teen years. Two years ago the Zarate family became active members of Grulla MB. “The church has provided so many opportunities for everyone to serve,” Zarate says.
The transition to this outward focus has been challenging at times, says Hernandez,“The first time I presented this was about three years ago and I didn’t get no high-fives for it,” he recalls. He credits the encouragement and support of Mission USA’s Don Morris for helping him persevere till his vision caught on with the congregation. Mission USA is the church planting and church renewal ministry of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.
Morris’s experienced counsel helped Hernandez see that he was on the right track and remain committed to the vision God had given him, even when he faced discouraging times. “It’s been a two-sided process,” says Hernandez, “convincing the church and convincing the community. These things are part of the church. We have to go through these things to get to what God has for us.”
Along with regular encouragement from Mission USA—Morris visits La Grulla two or three times a year—the conference agency also provided funding for Grulla MB to hire a part-time worship minister, Adiel Lauar. A gifted musician himself, Hernandez had been leading bilingual worship every Sunday which was a “heavy load” along with his other pastoral responsibilities. (For a video clip of Hernandez leading a bilingual worship time, go to usmb.org/ grulla-mb-church.) Now Lauar is taking the lead in worship and has helped the church transition to two worship services, one in Spanish and one in English.
Church leader Rolando Mireles, Jr., says that having two pastors who are fully bilingual and bicultural has been key in opening the church’s doors to the community. For many years the church functioned exclusively in Spanish under pastors who were recent immigrants from Latin America. Hernandez and Lauar come out of the South Texas community themselves. They can relate to the congregation’s Mexican roots as well as the younger generation and local professionals and business leaders who function bilingually and reflect a culture than blends Latin and North American values.
Don Morris agrees thatHernandez is uniquely gifted to bridge across the cultures that La Grulla represents: “He has a real ability to connect with the Hispanics that are wanting to move past some of the traditional ways of doing things, but still being able to connect with some of the more traditional.”
Grulla MB held a special service Feb. 7 to celebrate what God is doing and to renew their commitment to reaching the community. Four men stood in front of the congregation that morning – a testimonial to how God is using the church to touch and transform lives:
- One was a prominent businessman who had fallen on hard times. Church members reached out to him at a low point and he recognized that he needed to give his life to Christ. Now they are walking with him through the legal and financial issues and he is committed to working through those issues with Christian integrity.
- A second man had been hired to do some welding on a church staircase. For his labors he received much more than a paycheck—he found people who cared about him as a person. Soon he too became part of the church and embarked on a process of healing and reconciliation with his family.
- The third man, a school teacher, responded to an invitation from some fellow teachers to come to Grulla MB. It has been a process for him as he has drifted in and out of the church, but he stood in front of the congregation committed to working on his marriage and to following Christ with the support of his small group.
- Another school employee, a maintenance worker who is on dialysis, has experienced the care and support of church members. Their hands-on love opened the door to talk to him about bigger issues. “This is about much more than your kidneys,” one member had told him, “it’s about your life.” He stood in testimony of God’s work in his life.
Hernandez is committed to seeing the church serve its community in practical ways, but he is also clear that these changed lives are really what the church is all about. “Our final goal is for them to know Jesus Christ, but first we have to let them know that our doors are open.”
More than 150 now attend Grulla MB on a typical Sunday and their circle is widening as others come for special events and begin to make connections with the church.
The church’s small group ministry called Life Groups offers a place for new believers to be mentored in their faith and creates a welcoming place for new people to enter the church. Zarate, who is the coordinator for the Life Groups, was introduced to Christ through a home Bible study five years ago.
“When I was a non-believer I wouldn’tdare walk into the building because it was a church,” he recalls, but a Bible study group allowed him to pursue his interest in Christ in an environment that felt safe. Life Groups, he said, “serve our community in the places where normal church wouldn’t be—in the houses.”
Grulla MB is inviting LaGrulla to give the church a second look. Extending that invitation is a passion for the congregation. Members put feet to their passion, working hard in the homes and neighborhoods to show that they care and creating a place where new people are welcomed and supported in a walk of faith.
Hernandez sums up their commitment: “We’ll do whatever it takes, as long as it’s not sin, to reach our community for Christ.”