Starting something new is never easy. Starting outreach to a community that’s been neglected or ignored is even harder. I’m learning these lessons in my new call as associate pastor and Spanish ministry outreach minister at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lodi, Calif.

Located in California’s central valley, Lodi is 60 percent Caucasian and 38 percent Latino, with a growing population from Pakistan and members of the Sikh community. With an abundance of fresh produce, good wine, good weather and its close proximity to San Francisco and Sacramento, Lodi is a wonderful place to live. Nevertheless, the city has many challenges.

Six years ago, members of St. Paul and its senior pastor, Mark Price, began preparing their congregation to call a Spanish-speaking pastor to guide their outreach to the growing number of Latinos in Lodi. The process was long, but finally on Dec. 17, 2017, the congregation voted to call me as their associate pastor and guide for Spanish ministries.

This community of faith has worked hard to become a congregation that is welcoming to Lodi’s LGBTQIA community, and now it is opening its doors to the Latino community and other minority voices. Even though Lodi has had a turbulent history regarding race relations, members of St. Paul are striving to make Lodi a welcoming and inclusive city for all.

Once, in the mid-1990s, there was a cross-burning incident at a high school after the city’s first Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. Members of St. Paul and other community leaders organized a group called The Breakthrough Project to counter the hateful rhetoric of the local KKK chapter. Today, nearly half of the current membership of this civil rights and anti-racism organization is from St. Paul. As you can imagine, I’m now part of The Breakthrough Project as well.

Even though Lodi has had a turbulent history regarding race relations, members of St. Paul are striving to make Lodi a welcoming and inclusive city for all.

Let me share some of the new things God is doing in our midst: After five months of ministry, we have close to 40 Latinos connected with our congregation. Forty percent of St. Paul’s youth group attending the ELCA Gathering in Houston were people of color. In just a few months, our diversity has grown, and we are working to keep this momentum going.

We are also connected to American Indian culture groups and Mexican American folkloric dance groups that use our facilities. Thanks to Latino leaders in our community, we are connecting with groups of all kinds—crime victim support groups, multicultural awareness groups, Mexican and Latino culture groups, immigration advocates and migrant workers support groups and many others. As part of this new beginning, we have had baptisms, tutorial help for kids, provided food and water for kids walking home from school, Sunday bilingual worship services and outreach events.

Looking ahead to the start of the church year, I am excited we will offer Spanish first communion classes and Small Catechism for all ages. These opportunities are helping our congregation become an oasis for those who’ve been neglected.

I thank God for what we have done in the name of Jesus and for what we will continue to do in the future. May God bless our hands as we do the divine work to which we have been called at our baptism—God’s work of loving and serving our neighbors.

Nelson H. Rabell-González
Rabell-González is pastor of Latino Lutheran Mission, Stockton, Calif. He was born and raised in Puerto Rico and is a graduate of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (2002). Rabell-González is married to Dr. Fabiola Ramos. They have two children: Hiram Rabell-Ramos (18) and Sofía Rabell-Ramos (16). Their dog's name is Lucas.

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