Faithfully Waiting for God’s Timing
A new national missionary pastor is an answer to prayers for the faithful families of El Calvario Lutheran Church in Brownsville, Texas.
Once again, it’s Gospel-planting season in Brownsville, Texas.
This past April, church members sat in the fellowship hall and fretted. There was a weariness in their voices as they talked about efforts to keep the church running without a shepherd.
“We’ve been praying for years for a pastor, because we cannot afford a pastor,” said Danny Hopinks. “I always thought that the church was going to die when the pastor left, but it hasn’t died. Thank God for that.
“We always kept worshiping God every week — we never stop, every week.”
You hardly notice El Calvario Lutheran Church as you drive by it in an aging part of town. But appearances often deceive. The small, white, century-old former store building, battered by time and weather and neglected by economic necessity, is home to the faithful flock who gather, in season and out, at this church in Brownsville.
A few blocks away, aging building line the downtown streets. Once-grand storefronts, built more than a century ago, offer food, clothing and other colorful merchandise. The plethora of items draws a steady stream of Mexican citizens over the Rio Grande River border bridge. Car trunks, backseats and pushcarts overflow with items carried back.
1848 - Brownsville founded
1854 - First Catholic church started
1937 - El Calvario Lutheran Church formed
2013 - Last pastor called to El Calvario leaves
2016 - Missionary pastor Rev. Dr. Antonio Lopez installed
Brownsville, long plagued by unemployment, is leveraging an economic upturn. A wide range of industries — including manufacturing, automotive, medical, retail, space and aviation, international logistics, and food processing — provides steady employment for those with specific skills and education.
The state of Texas is investing heavily in the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, a regional university and leading institution for Hispanic engineers and research in the aerospace industry. A new medical school and research center are set to open yet this year.
“We always kept worshiping God every week — we never stop, every week.”
Looking Back and Eyeing the Future
On a typical Sunday morning, the church fills with members from other parts of the city, where new homes and neighborhoods draw residents eager to make a good life with their families.
“There’s a lot of very poor families,” said Gloria Palacios, describing the old neighborhood around the church. “We [the congregation members] don’t really have people from here that attend church.”
Palacios and her fellow parish members talk about the opportunities to share Christ in the neighborhood. They reminisce about a time some years ago when they had both a pastor and a director of Christian education who led a vibrant outreach to the neighborhood.
Recently, a young construction worker passed members conversing on the sidewalk next to the church. He remembers coming to El Calvario’s after-school program as a young boy to do homework, play and learn Bible stories and songs.
“You should do that again,” he says as he gives them his address and phone number. “I would like to help.”
“The [LCMS] Texas District had subsidized El Calvario for well over 50 years and had made the difficult, but understandable, decision [three years ago] that limited mission funds needed to be invested in other areas of the state with growing Latino populations,” said the Rev. Dr. Carlos Hernandez, director of LCMS Church and Community Engagement, which includes the strategic development of Hispanic ministry.
With the encouragement of Texas District Mission Facilitator Rev. Michael Newman, Hernandez traveled to Brownsville to deliver the Sunday sermon, lead Bible class and visit the members.
“After church, former pastor Steve Morfitt (now a district mission trainer) and I sat around the table and brainstormed,” said Hernandez, who knew that the Synod does not subsidize individual congregations.
How do you call a pastor you desperately need but cannot afford?
Morfitt and Hernandez worked out a plan to revitalize the parish, plant a new church in the north Brownsville neighborhood, where many first- and second-generation Hispanics live, and begin ministry on the University of Texas campus just three blocks from the church.
With the new plan in sight, Hernandez brought the Rev. Steven Schave, director of the Synod’s new church-planting initiative, Mission Field: USA, to Brownsville.
“Brownsville is a modern-day Ephesus,” said Schave, determined to make it a new Mission Field: USA site. “It’s an international seaport and a corridor into Mexico, Central and South America.”
A Missionary for a Modern-Day Ephesus
On July 31, Hernandez joined area clergy and the saints at El Calvario for the installation of their new missionary pastor, the Rev. Dr. Antonio Lopez, one of the Synod’s new national missionaries placed through the Office of National Mission.
Lopez, who is fluent in Spanish, will not only serve the congregation, but his missionary call includes the expectation that he will help start a campus ministry at the University of Texas and a new church plant in north Brownsville.
Lopez said he feels led by God and is “excited to see what the Lord is going to do.”
Lopez has always considered himself a missionary, even before he was ordained, pointing to Jesus’ words in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” — a message for all Christians. There’s no distinction, he said, “between being a Christian and sharing your faith.” He believes that “evangelism begins in your home, in the family.”
In God’s Time
“[We are] just overjoyed, because we’ve prayed for this for years … we were just waiting to have our pastor,” beamed long-time member Sara Zambrano following the installation service. “God answered our prayers, and we knew that He would and He did, at the right time.”
Thanks to this new model of partnership with districts and a growing network of support that includes congregations and individuals from across the Synod, congregations in forgotten cities like Brownsville once again have pastors who will care for the faithful and reach out to the lost.
“I’m so proud of my church,” said one member of El Calvario. “I pass by here every day and tell everybody, ‘Look! That’s my church; it’s there! Look at my church!’”
Listen to Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen and photographer Erik M. Lunsford discuss the story:
Mission Field: USA
- Learn more about Mission Field: USA: lcms.org/churchplanting
- Get to know national missionary Rev. Dr. Antonio Lopez: lcms.org/lopez
- Read more about the work in Brownsville: blogs.lcms.org/2016/missionaries-to-ferguson-brownsville
Pray with Us
Heavenly Father, You sent Your Son to be the shepherd of our souls. Through His death and resurrection, He saves us and provides for all our needs. We thank You for Your provision of a pastor as the under-shepherd for Your flock gathered in Brownsville, Texas. Bless Pastor Antonio Lopez and his work in Your gracious Word and Sacraments. Provide servants to serve Your Church throughout the world, especially those congregations that do not currently have a pastor. May all hear the saving Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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