June 10, 2021 | by JB Brayfindley
Editor's Note: We are excited to announce a new multi-media series featuring local churches in the California-Nevada conference entitled "On the Road". After a long year and then some of being locked down 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.
We'll learn about the challenges, the adaptable leadership required to move ministry forward, the plans, hopes and dreams for the future. We are all hoping, dreaming and working for the future of The United Methodist Church. Let's learn with one another as we continue on the road, together.
Click here to access On the Road to The Peace UMC video.
Click here to access behind the scenes with JB: JB interviews DS Samuel Hong about the origins of The Peace new church plant.
I was halfway there when I came alongside the towering wind turbines along Interstate 580. Coming from Sacramento, I continued to make my way west over the barren rolling foothills taking California 84 southward, a shortcut to I-680, and finally crossing over the bald, beige peaks of the Diablo Range.
So, it was Saturday and traffic only stopped twice on the way. I could see the smoky blue color of the coastal range in the distance as I looked across the northeastern corner of the Santa Clara Valley to see Milpitas, a suburb of San Jose in the South Bay. It is a city of about 67,000 people stuffed into 13.6 square miles with an altitude ranging from 19 feet high at the bay to 1,289 feet high in the mountains alongside the city. According to the 2010 Census, Milpitas’ population is made up of 62% Asian, 20% White and 16% Hispanic. But by 2019, according to the World Population Review, figures rose to 67% for Asian (including 7% Indians, 13% Chinese, 15% Filipino and 13% Vietnamese) and Caucasian lowered to 16%.
A cool sunny morning, there were women and men walking here and there along the residential streets. I parked in the church gravel parking lot across the street from a huge school playground. A shorn weedy field stretches between the road and the series of small church building on the lot. A white, wooden cross stands alone. A crosswalk warning blinked yellow next to me as I walked back to the sidewalk to take a picture of the new vinyl banner stretched out over the old wood sign saying, “THE PEACE A Multicultural Ministry.”
The Peace UMC is the only non-English-speaking multi-site church in the Western Jurisdiction. The church runs the Milpitas site and shares a second site with a congregation at Alum Rock UMC in San Jose. It is one of four church plants currently underway in our conference.
“I’m a fan of multi-sites,” states Rev. Craig Brown, Rev. Craig Brown, CNUMC Executive Director of Congregational Development during a recent zoom meeting with me. “They reduce redundancy … so now, If I have one church at two campuses how many Boards of Trustees do I have? One. How many finance committees? One. How many nominating committees? One. All the redundancies of operating two different locations for different churches are now gone. I am basically operating one, just as two campuses.”
Unlike homogeneous models where a mother church spawns look-alike programs across different locations, Peace UMC is using a model that allows for each campus to be different and to respond to the unique community they are a part of.
“The ministry can become more nuanced [in this multi-campus model],” states Brown. “It can become contextual and specific to where it’s at.”
This Milpitas site, original buildings completed in 1967, had been the home to Sunny Hills UMC that closed in 2019.
“Now the time has come for the church to transition to a different life, so to speak,” stated El Camino Real Superintendent Rev. Samuel Hong during a recent online interview. Hong discussed how the site is ideally located to reach out to a Pan Asian population. “This is a new life that focuses on reaching out to different people as the demography changes in the US and the surrounding areas.”
Although the site in San Jose is the home of the Vietnamese speaking congregation, the Milpitas site currently has an English speaking worship although with people who speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Tongan, Vietnamese as well as English. There are those who are black and those who are white. There are new immigrants, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
“Multicultural doesn't even describe it quite right,” explained Rev. Brown. “It kind of transcends that.”
Rev. Charles Tran has set the vision for the new church plant in Milpitas along with the Vietnamese church in San Jose as sharing God’s love with as many people as possible.
“This year (2020) marked one of launching and connecting in many areas of the mission field of Peace United Methodist Church (PUMC) in Milpitas,” according to in the Ministry Action Plan 2021-2025 booklet that Tran prepared and handed to me as I arrived and sat down in his office. “It was a time of connecting with a new population of Milpitas and a time of strengthening our congregational life together … investing more energy, talents, and time to reach the Pan Asian community in Milpitas with the love of God and also deepen the commitment for this diverse community.”
A UM trained pastor serving in the Virginia conference for over ten years, a missionary in Southeast Asia with the General Board of Global Ministry for six years and fluent in Vietnamese, Tran transferred to the California-Nevada conference in 2013 to pastor the Vietnamese fellowship in San Jose. Within three years, the fellowship chartered becoming the first Vietnamese church established within the conference and the entire Northwest area.
“I work my whole life for Evangelism--until I cannot do it,” stated Tran and spoke warmly of his previous District Superintendent Rev. Shinya Goto. “Shinya gave me the nickname, “Evangelism machine”. In 2020, Tran received the Harry Denman Evangelism Award.
Leaning back in his office chair, Tran explained that he volunteered to be part of the first cohort to receive training with the Church Planting Academy developed by Brown in conjunction with Rev. Matt Smith, Co-Pastor at The Table UMC in Sacramento. The group met in a retreat format and then monthly. As part of that training, Tran traveled to Florida to take some courses--one of which inspired him to want to be part of a multi-site effort.
“I still remember one training in Orlando—that conference talked about the multi-site model,” stated Tran, who went on to study the subject in detail because “I wanted to learn how to make the US churches grow.”
He submitted a five year Action Plan proposal to the cabinet and conference with a caveat:
“I don’t have a vision for only five years for Peace United Church and community,” Tran explained moving his hands in a linear direction forward. “I have a twenty year proposal! The reason is, if I only do five years, I am selfish and only care about my present time; but if I have a proposal for twenty years, then I have one for the next generation.”
“I always say to my church members,” added Tran as we stand in front of a white board filled with this year’s plan for his Outreach Task Force Team. “If we don’t dream big, we cannot get big results!”
His in-depth strategic action plan was summarized in front of me with blue dry erase ink. It was the remains of a discussion with his team the week before. It listed the three basic areas of ministry: 1) Educational, 2) Social Services and 3) Affinity Groups. Not listed was the fact that the overriding plan includes annual themes to ignite fresh enthusiasm for each ministry area every year.
Last year, during the pandemic, Peace UMC used the theme “New Hope” to assist the church members in envisioning and launching various outreach efforts including an after-school program, a drive by food distribution program and online fellowship groups and worship.
This year’s post pandemic theme will be “Rise UP!” (Raising Intercommunity Serving Effort) and, like the first year, contains three action plan emphases: Learning, Service and Fellowship or Affinity Groups.
“After one year of service launching, we are ready to rise up to new opportunities and challenges,” stated Tran looking at the white board notations. Under the Learning focus the church plans on developing a Second Language class, citizen classes, and expanding the current after school program by adding two more teaching assistants.
Earlier in the morning, I rounded a corner of one of the rectangle buildings and greeted the Rev. Thomas Ha, Ministerial Assistant at Peace UMC. Ha recently retired from teaching at Joseph Weller Elementary, the school directly across the street, and now serves as the after-school program director at Peace. He also preaches for the (currently online) Sunday morning English worship services.
“As soon as I got involved in helping the church here, we decided to do our own program—the after school program,” stated Ha as he led me from the brick patio to his office and tutoring area. Ha’s desk greeted us at the door followed by a row of shelves lined with books and bins that serves as a wall splitting the office area in two—one for the church program and the other side as an office for a private Catholic academy renting the space on Tuesday-Thursday mornings.
Ha works cooperatively with the academy, not only sharing his space but sharing his wealth of teaching supplies. The student area is located deeper into the room and is twice as wide as the office area with tables and chairs positioned into learning stations. Ha hopes to more than double the size of the current program by years end.
“In the summer we hope to work together [with the academy] to have some of their students come with our students for summer school,” added Ha with a broad, warm smile and gentle voice. “and then continue all the way to the end of the school year—so it’s going to be a year round thing.”
I read further into the action plan and found that after the pandemic, plans also include launching an interactive setting for a Parent’s Gatherings to consider anxiety and depression in adolescents and how to support children. Topics will include how to share disappointment, fight well, and grow in connection, communication, forgiveness, hospitality and how to grow in relationship with God and the multi-cultural community.
Affinity Groups are expected to add an in-person component to current online Bible Studies and Women’s groups. Plans are to promote special interest groups in sports and social activities between church and community members. The weekly Tai-Chi group will continue and add new classes. Plans are in place for new linguistic groups starting up including one in Chinese. Tran is already encouraging the city of Milpitas to use the church site for the upcoming Vietnamese New Year celebration activities.
“The more interaction opportunities with the community via existing programs and new programs,” writes Tran in his vision statement, “are the key to expanding the fellowship affinity groups.”
Establishing a Peace Community Center on site is one of primary service objective. This year the church had a strong partnership with Hunger at Home, a Silicon Valley food bank as well as with the Boy Scouts of America which helped the church coordinate Food Drives. After the pandemic, the church will interface with more local agencies and non-profits to continue to improve the quality of life for others.
“Besides giving food as a way to connect with the community, this program is also intended to involve the volunteers and their families in church events and activities as potential church members,” says John Ly, Facility Liason, quoting the church’s goal as he watches his son along with other members of a local Boy Scouts troupe and members of the Evangelism Task Force load boxes of food onto the sidewalk for distribution today at noon. I watch as cars and trucks lineup down the street and around the corner. Ly opens a box and pulls out a gallon of milk, slab of cheese, a head of celery, packet of hot dogs, sack of potatoes, bag of oranges and a big vacuum pack of chicken. I am impressed at how much can fit into the cardboard box.
“I am so happy,” said Ly his forehead glistening in the sun as he smiled under his mask. Other volunteers finish setting up the tables, stacking paperwork, boxes and putting out the bright orange cones to mark parking spaces on both sides of the street. “The frozen food is not here yet—we pick up soon--we don’t want to pick up the frozen food too early.”
Peace UMC has been slowly improving the property’s general appearance including adding decorative gravel to cover dirt and weeds and adding a slab of concrete for a social gathering area. Inside, new cupboards were added to the small kitchenette at the rear of the hall, a room that the Fire District posted can hold up to 187 people. It’s difficult to picture that many people seated there or eating at tables. Hopes are to build a sanctuary and an education wing on the front part of the church lot where the public can see it. Tran is looking for ways to secure special funding for the new construction.
“I’m not the ‘behind-the-desk pastor’,” stated Tran outside watching the traffic drive by and seeing the young boy scouts eagerly pick up the heavy food boxes and stuff them into car trunks. “I am outside--in coffee shop or market or someplace else- or hospital, or somewhere. Office hours tie my hands behind my back--I use the office for meetings.”
Meeting with others outside of the church has been instrumental for Tran to understand the context of the church and make community connections, but church meetings have served to drive the Peace UMC vision forward, even in the face of a pandemic.
“It is not about his own ambition; it is about what God desperately wants through him,” stated Superintendent Hong. “Rev. Tran has a great sensitivity or receptivity to feel that enthusiasm for God and whenever you see him and talk with him, you feel this enthusiasm. I truly believe that there is a good synergy between the personality, and the place, and the vision.”