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Shaped by the borderlands

The beginnings of LGCS are intricately linked to the personal history of Pastor Adolfo Solis, a leader shaped in the US-Mexico borderlands. Referred to by church members as “el apostol,” or the apostle, Solis has rarely been contained by borders. A Mexican immigrant currently in his late 70s and raised in the Northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, Pastor Solis gained his ministerial experience in the US-Mexico borderlands, primarily within Free Methodist churches. Solis’ ministerial history is rife with instances of border crossing, wherein he would work back and forth across the US-Mexico Border to fulfill pastoral duties. His ministry sites included Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, El Paso, Texas, Nogales, Sonora, and National City, California. In the early 1980s, Solis, his wife Beatriz, and their three sons, settled in the Los Angeles basin. Solis took on various pastoral roles in the region, eventually assuming an extended pastoral appointment in Santa Ana, where he helped to unify a congregation comprising bilingual Chicanos and newly arrived Mexican and Central American immigrants. Solis’ arrival in Los Angeles provided new opportunities for him to participate in church conferences and ministerial work throughout the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Mexico. His draw to Pentecostalism was itself a transnational journey. He stated that after experiencing the “manifestations of the Spirit” in the places he traveled to, he was convinced that he needed to be more open to the “move of the Spirit” in his own church.

After retiring from a decades-long senior pastor appointment, Pastor Solis decided to start a new church less constrained by its geographical location. Less than a year after retirement, Solis launched LGCS as an independent congregation renting space within a United Methodist Church in downtown Santa Ana. LGCS, or the Great Supernatural Harvest, is a church whose name alludes to Solis’ expansive vision of founding many compact churches around the world. In only eight years since founding LGCS, Solis and his team of leaders had founded 15 affiliate churches, crossing state and national borders from Southern California to Utah, Mexico, and Nicaragua.

The prototype for Solis’ leadership model was found in-house in Pastors Mirvella and Gabriel Hernandez, two leaders adept at crossing national, ethnic, and linguistic borders. Now in their early 40s, Pastors Mirvella and Gabriel migrated as minors from Mexico to California with their respective families and received most of their education stateside. Pastor Solis guided Pastors Gabriel and Mirvella toward an Evangelical understanding of the Christian faith as young adult converts; they were taught leadership skills by Solis, eventually married, and became leaders within Solis’ ministry. As a result, Pastors Gabriel and Mirvella referred to Pastor Solis as their “padre espiritual,” or spiritual father, and expressed a deep trust in his ministry. The trust was mutual. Pastor Solis traveled and visited LGCS-affiliate congregations while Pastors Gabriel and Mirvella tended to the Santa Ana congregation. Occasionally, roles were switched and Pastor Solis oversaw LGCS’s services while Pastors Gabriel and Mirvella visited churches. These visits frequently involved crossing borders.

La Gran Cosecha Sobrenatural

When first visiting LGCS, I assumed that the church was a locally focused congregation with few external organizational ties. As I learned through conversations with members, many of LGCS’s 80 or so members had found the 8-year-old congregation by word of mouth. Consequently, the congregation’s composition reflected local community demographics. The congregation inconspicuously rented space in an aging United Methodist Church building embedded in a dense urban corridor in Central Santa Ana. The facility, with meeting halls of varying sizes, housed Filipino, Tongan, and multiple Latinx congregations. Congregations affiliated with the host church’s denomination advertised on the church’s street corner marquee, but LGCS was not an affiliate. Instead, a temporary sign with LGCS’s name hung on a chain link fence beside the church parking lot. The church’s minimal material exposure was further attenuated by five additional church facilities that surround LGCS’s site, some housing multiple Latinx congregations; in terms of Santa Ana’s religious ecology, LGCS was located in a “religious district” (McRoberts 2005), and little appeared to set it apart from its neighbors. I would come to understand, however, that my initial judgment of this church as an isolated institution was far from the truth. As an independent, non-denominational church, church leaders had much freedom to build ties broadly.

Upon my first visit to LGCS, I was struck by the pageantry displayed during the Sunday worship services. A church of about 80 parishioners, at times nearly a fourth of the congregation would be on the stage participating in some performative display of worship. Flag twirling young women ranging in age from two to eighteen danced about during the worship music. Some of these young women clapped onto tambourines rhythmically. The dances they choreographed were reminiscent of Jewish festive dances. At other points, dramatized scenes would unfold as a group of young men in military fatigues marched into the church sanctuary and acted out battle formations, again, choreographed to music. References to the tabernacle in the Hebrew scriptures and the blowing of the shofar horn were among the various symbols that pointed to a particular penchant for a perceived Jewish aesthetic alongside tropes of spiritual battle.

Having visited dozens of Latinx churches throughout the Los Angeles basin, I immediately situated LGCS within a particular brand of church based on their worship aesthetics. I found them to most closely resemble neo-Pentecostal churches especially popular in Central America and among Central American immigrants in the United States. One example of this type of church is Llamada Final, founded by Pastor Otto Rene Azurdia, a Guatemalan immigrant (Solorzano 2009). It was of little surprise when after several visits to LGCS, the director of the young women’s dance team, Hermana Neli, announced to the congregation that she had taken the team of young women to a worship conference at Llamada Final. The team had learned new dance choreographies there and had also heard lessons on the importance of worship. On several occasions, in fact, I heard church leaders reference Llamada Final. Members of the dance team drove from Orange Count}' to Los Angeles County to participate in these events. On one occasion, Hermana Neli testified that their group had been given the privilege of leading worship at an event where the guest of honor was a dignitary from El Salvador. Hermana Neli projected images of the event before the congregation on the Sunday after her team’s participation. Congregants affirmed the story with shouts of “Amen!” and “Aleluia!”

The more I got to know the congregation at LGCS, the more I observed the church’s connection to neo-Pentecostal churches, fueled in the Los Angeles basin especially by Central American leaders. The congregants at LGCS that I met during my time there were all Mexican, though some referenced previous members that were of other Latin American origins. Yet, this majority Mexican immigrant congregation was performatively invested in identifying and learning from the worship practices of several predominantly Central American movements. In fact, leaders of LGCS had traveled to several Central American countries. Additionally, by the end of the study, LGCS had established a congregation in Nicaragua.

There was an ethos of transnationalism that LGCS maintained at its worship services. The church’s transnational orientation was vividly illustrated when the church hosted its annual anniversary services. LGCS anniversary services welcomed members from LGCS’s 15 affiliate congregations. Performers from different churches presented musical renditions of popular praise songs, skits, and dance numbers. Some of the songs that LGCS’s worship teams played were from MIEL San Marcos, a church and worship ministry based in Guatemala. The church performed their forms of Jewish-inflected dance modeled after that of movements in Central America. LGCS affiliated churches all reflected this style of worship. Dance teams from LGCS affiliates joined the host team at the anniversary services to perform extensive worship numbers. Most participants were from stateside churches, but representatives also traveled from Mexico and Nicaragua.

Public recognition in the church service often expressed an affective transnationalism during both anniversary services and Sunday services. At anniversary services, and at least once every other month, international affiliates visited LGCS. Visitors were recognized by name and honored by the congregation through applause. Reporting of LGCS missionary projects abroad was another form of transnational recognition. Often, this took place because an LGCS leader had recently travelled abroad, typically Pastors Solis or Pastors Hernandez. Most months, one or the other couple was traveling abroad to visit with church affiliates. Some trips involved providing pastoral care for locals abroad. Pastors from LGCS Santa Ana had taken part in officiating weddings or in infant dedications, for example. When they returned, they provided a report to the congregation with images from the trip projected via projector in the church sanctuary. Thus, even though some members of the church could not travel beyond the US-Mexico border because of their legal statuses, church membership connected them to a transnational network of evangelism, missionary work, and pastoral care.

Some ties to Central America also manifested in more personal ways. On one particular Sunday, Pastor Mirvella called onto the stage a woman from the congregation. The Pastor entreated the audience, “I want us to pray for this sister right now. Her husband, Brother Rômulo, has been detained and will be deported to Guatemala. We know that the Lord is going to be with her during this time. We also know that God has a plan for her husband. I believe that God may call him to start a church there in Guatemala. Amen? God can do so much through this situation. Let’s believe that something great is going to come of it.” The woman that Pastor Mirvella was speaking about, Sister Evelin, was in her early 40s and was originally from Mexico, though her husband was from Guatemala. Standing silently, her steadfast eyes revealed a sense of resolution as Pastor Mirvella spoke about her. She nodded along with Pastor Mirvella as the pastor pronounced, “We declare blessings on her husband and believe that God is going to do something through his life.” The congregation prayed for the couple, some extending their hands forward toward Evelin as they cried out to God in unison. Still, the reality of a church member being deported militates against romanticized notions of transnationalism. Transnational ties are sometimes predicated on involuntary deportations and on the tenuous experiences of undocumented members in the community.

Pastor Mirvella’s words illustrate the manner in which transnational connections, whether forced or chosen, were understood as divine opportunity (Martinez 2013). Patterns of migration among LGCS members influenced their missionary and evangelistic outlook. Members that moved away were entrusted to pass on the teaching they received at LGCS. Members had moved to locations as disparate as Salt Lake City, Utah, and Acapulco, Mexico. The parent church in Santa Ana remained a hub for these members, connecting Santa Ana to transnational destinations, and connecting newer domestic destinations with points of contact in Latin America. Migration within the United States had transnational implications because it broadened the geographies of LGCS’s transnational network.

 
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