July 08, 2021 | by JB Brayfindley
Pastor Vicky Flores at Grace UMC in Fresno, CA where she is growing ministry with the hispanic / latino community.
Editor's Note: ON THE ROAD is an exploration of local church ministry in the 21st century happening across California-Nevada. Journalist JB Brayfindley is partnering with our district superintendents and communications team to spotlight local churches.
Each ON THE ROAD package will feature an article, and two videos: a behind the scenes with JB video and a mini-documentary video that lifts up the people and ministries happening in one of our local churches. We'll begin by spotlighting new church plants generated out of the Church Planting Academy headed by Dr. Craig Brown, our conference Executive Director of Congregational Development.
Click here to access ON THE ROAD to Grace UMC Fresno
Click here to access behind the scenes with JB: JB interviews DS Debra Brady about the origins of Grace UMC new church plant.
The wooden banister looping down the stairway into the hall next to the social hall looks steeper than it did more than forty years ago when I used it as just one more way to get out of walking and behaving normally. When I was a teenager, my dad, Rev. Robert Findley, was pastor at Grace United Methodist church in Fresno, California. As a “preacher’s kid,” I was familiar with most every nook and cranny of the building, especially this banister.
Albeit dusty, the social hall still echoes against the wooden walls with an old basketball hoop pushed to the side. I can imagine me and members of the J.O.Y. (Jesus Oriented Youth) group sliding around in our socks on the giant, once dark walnut colored, wood floor back in 1974.
But now, in 2021, the old two-story education wing seems to be brimming with anticipation of something new—something different, something more …
This is exactly what pastor Vicky Flores has been sent to bring. After graduating from the Church Planting Academy in 2020, Flores was moved from her appointments in Riverdale and Caruthers UMC to Grace UMC to plant a new Hispanic church.
“One of the things that was on [the conference and district] radar is, we have no churches for Hispanic Latino ministry in Fresno County where the population is 45% Hispanic Latino,” stated then Central District Superintendent Debra Brady during a recent Zoom interview. “And one of the things about Grace is that it’s in a Hispanic neighborhood … [and] the people [in the church] there had been talking about doing Hispanic Ministry … they were very instrumental in casting that vision and saying, “How do we become helpers and supporters when we’re not going to be on the center stage as the leaders of the church?”
After driving several hours south on highway 99, I arrive in Fresno and turn onto a boulevard with a grassy median strip. On this avenue, I used to walk to Roosevelt High school walking past the different homes that I still view as mansions. One street over is Balch Avenue, a wide street, where I pass by the parsonage on one end of the block and park in front of the church at the other end. There is a slight breeze that is echoed in the trees lining the neighborhood.
I meet Flores leaning on a beige pew attached to the cool cement floor of the sanctuary. Blue taped arrows show a pathway to the eligible seating areas for in-person worshippers. Clean masks and hand sanitizer sit on a nearby table at the rear. Small turquoise tiles gleam from the wall behind the tall, thin wooden cross. The circular altar rests beside the podium. To one side, a red cylinder shaped “eternal light” glows. To the other side is the choir seating and organ. To me, this room seems to have been untouched over the years. (I can even imagine the moments I was caught giggling from my spot in the choir.)
“If you would have asked back then at the beginning [of my training] if I was a church planter, I would have said “definitely not,” because number one, I had absolutely no clue what a church planter was or was intended to do,” stated Flores reflecting on the impact the Church Planting Academy. “But towards the end, “Do I have passion for the people I want to reach? Definitely! Do I want to see a difference in that community? I absolutely do. Do I feel that the United Methodist Church is a wonderful place for Hispanic people? I do think so. It has been a great place for me, and I hope that more families in this community get to experience that just like my family has.”
“…planting a new ministry, a new church takes tremendous amount of courage, a tremendous amount of perseverance and energy; there’s always a need to be tolerant of chaos … and you have to be very adaptable and flexible,” explained Brady. “[the conference] has [provided] very solid processes and support so church planters aren’t out there by themselves any more. We have quarterly check-in meetings, a coach that meets monthly, a tremendous amount of conversation and support and oversight …”
“A church planter doesn’t just show up, park their car and open up a church the next Sunday,” explained Flores. “I had to come up with a mission strategy, present it to the cabinet and different committees that I wanted support financially from and I needed to come with a plan for the next two years.”
Although the pandemic extended her time line for in-person gatherings, Flores has been able to network online with her UMC circuit, other area church leaders and community organizations.
“I have been able to do some community networking,” stated Flores who spends a lot of time online researching community organizations that serve the Hispanic and Latino community in Fresno. She plans on volunteering, after COVID-19, in order to build partnerships with these like-minded organizations and build a team of leaders who share her passion. “I wanted to match myself up with organizations that have a similar mission statement and vision … and some organizations, we have been able to meet on zoom to get to know one another better.”
Other than online networking, Flores dreamed of the future.
“There was a lot of inside time for me,” stated Flores recalling poor air quality due to area fires and the pandemic shut down during the summer of 2020 when she arrived. “Just staying indoors and thinking about how this ministry is going to look, what does it feel like; and I‘ve had enough time to walk this whole building and envision what I want to do with it … to renovate and make into this church what I am dreaming up in my heart for the Hispanic Latino community.”
We go next door. Up a few stairs to the right, she notes where a conference room will be—an empty side room used for storage now. Adjoining it, two future offices, one for Flores and a second for the part-time pastor serving the remaining “legacy” congregation.
On the left side of the same hall, we push open two swinging doors into the old “gym” or “social hall” which will become a community center and gathering place for celebrations, music, dancing and worship. It will be full of comings and goings all week long.
“The culture we are trying to reach is so different,” stated Flores. “For instance, the Hispanic community worships in a very different way—we love noise and gathering people together!”
On the far side is a door leading to an empty room and the kitchen. This room is big enough to serve as a dining area that Flores plans to fill with tables of ethnic food and small enough to hold community classes on cooking, health and parenting.
Although I remember the smell of simmering chili and those potluck casseroles heating up, the old black ovens have seen better days. Flores plans to replace the equipment to make the kitchen functional for community meals. The new plan includes lots of cooking from scratch—a place to learn new customs and traditions, sharing lives in a tangible and delicious way.
Outside, Flores walks onto the brick patio in front of the sanctuary and smiles. This nowhere spot will become a center of educational activities, art exhibits, music and dancing exhibitions.
Flores’ plan includes doing things differently, too.
“She is an excellent truth teller,” stated Brady. “…and really talked truthfully about the ways we’ve been trying to plant churches in and for the Hispanic Latino community [that] hasn’t worked. She wanted to try a different approach.”
“I think we need to engage the community in a slightly different way,” states Flores. “Instead of seeing them as a community that we just need to give something to, let’s make them a part of the work—let’s ask them to come in and volunteer … to help us do all of those things. And once people have ownership of something then they will feel like they are a part of that community.”
“I felt we were treating the people we were trying to reach as just outsiders and never as insiders,” adds Flores. “So, that is another thing that I believe we really need to change, the culture of how we are reaching people, how we are extending the gospel to those around us.”
I see a part of me here. And like the current legacy church at Grace, I, too, understand that this is a sacred, a holy space—a space to share and to support the creation of new ministry.