Tito Madrazo: ‘God in the crucible of migration’

Tito Madrazo spent four years visiting Hispanic/Latinx churches for his research on preaching in North Carolina immigrant churches.

He visited various congregations, using semi-structured interviews, focus groups and participant observation to understand the lives and practices of immigrants in Hispanic/Latinx Protestant churches.

The approach, called collaborative ethnography, allowed him to gather information and understand the culture of the churches while being transparent and working with the people he was studying — his collaborators — to ensure accuracy and to decenter himself.

In particular, he developed an ongoing relationship with “Iglesia Agua Viva,” a Pentecostal congregation in the Raleigh-Durham area. (Madrazo uses pseudonyms for the individuals and churches to protect his collaborators.)

His findings have been published in a new book, “Predicadores: Hispanic Preaching and Immigrant Identity.” In it, he argues that although there is great variation within and among Latino congregations, the experience of migration itself shapes the pastors’ preaching.

“The God they came to know in that time was the God they proclaimed. The aspects of the divine that they found most compelling in their own migration journey became the focus of their preaching,” Madrazo said.

He noted that their “ministries are shaped less by perceptions we might have of Hispanic/Latinx evangelicalism and are much more deeply shaped by their own experiences with God in the crucible of migration.”

Madrazo, himself an immigrant from Venezuela, a fluent Spanish speaker and an ordained Baptist pastor, conducted this research as part of his doctorate of theology work at Duke Divinity School.

He also earned a master’s degree in English from Baylor University and an M.Div. from Gardner-Webb University. Madrazo serves as a program director in the religion division of Lilly Endowment Inc.

Madrazo spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about his research and its implications for the broader church. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What is your takeaway from your experience of visiting these congregations and hearing the preaching?

Tito Madrazo: Ultimately, it is really the formative experiences of migration and, for many of these individuals, coming to faith through their migration journeys or during their migration journeys.

Tito Madrazo portrait

Many of the ministers here experienced conversion. Sometimes that conversion was from a secular background. Sometimes they described it as a conversion from Catholic upbringing to Protestant or Pentecostal identity. But it was almost always connected to their migration journeys as well.

It was the way that they experienced God’s deliverance or redemption or help in the midst of that process, or the way that they experienced new community within a church family when they arrived in what for them was an alien landscape.

In that sense as well, their preaching always resonated with the lived experiences of their first-generation congregations. Because of the recency of migration in North Carolina, these were first-generation pastors preaching to first-generation adults and their children — some of whom were native, born in the United States, some of whom were in the situation of DACA recipients.

All of them were still closely connected to this migration experience. For instance, some of them had dramatic stories of God delivering them — sometimes from ICE, sometimes miraculously allowing them to come into the United States against all odds.

When they preached about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, there was also this echo of the alienation that they had experienced as a result of migration — the importance of knowing and being known by Christ in a situation in which they felt themselves entirely unknown, in which some of them were denying themselves, using different names.

Church was a place where they could use their real names and they could be known for who they were. There was significant preaching about the role of the community of the church, God regathering God’s people in this new place, and that was a strong factor in their preaching.

But along with that, there was also a lot of moralistic preaching, in terms of behavior and sexual ethics, all of these kinds of things.

The way in which I understood that connecting with this experience of migration is when you’re forming a new community in a new place — and we see this in Scripture as well, throughout the Hebrew Bible — one of the first things God does is to provide new laws and moral codes to hold together these people that have just come together.

We think monolithically, sometimes, of a Hispanic church. [But] for instance, Iglesia Agua Viva, in which I did most of my participant observation, had members of seven different nationalities. And even from the seven different countries of origin, some were from urban centers and some were from the countryside, and they had had different experiences and different levels of education.

You have just this wild diversity within a church that from the outside just looks like, “Oh, they’re all speaking Spanish.” Right, but aside from that, so much diversity.

Gerardo Marti writes about the danger of “ethnoracial essentialization” — that sometimes we paint with too broad a brushstroke and we lose sight of the variety that exists within these communities.

F&L: One of the phrases I noticed is that you describe both the preachers and the congregation as “recovering from wounds.” What do you mean by recovering from wounds?

TM: I owe gratitude to Mary McClintock Fulkerson, who identifies this in “Places of Redemption.”

I focus on the wounds of migration. Again, they’re going to connect with some of these preaching themes, because the wound is alienation. The wound is loss of family. In some cases, the wound is a physical one.

There are several preachers in here — one is a paraplegic who was injured because he was thrust into this adult migrant worker world at far too young an age. One young man came to the United States because a family member was wounded in an agricultural operation and they were just looking for someone else to fill his spot.

There’s this woundedness, and there are stories of dramatic healing that both inform faith and sometimes authorize ministry.

But the key here is not just the woundedness; Fulkerson talks about these wounds being the site of theological discernment and thinking. So these wounds became places where they were not just damaged by the wound but ultimately they experienced the healing of God in some way.

Sometimes this was physical healing. Sometimes it addressed the social needs in their lives. It always incorporated some spiritual dimension. But it was because their wounds had been healed that they were then able to go into ministry and speak to these particular wounds that they understood.

Again, it was this close connection between the lived experiences of the preachers and the lived experiences of the hearers that made such a powerful dynamic in this preaching.

F&L: You sort of touched on this, but in what ways is the vocational discernment of these preachers particular to their experience in community?

TM: Some of the literature that talks about vocational discernment really centers a predominantly white, graduate school experience.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that or that people don’t experience calls in those ways. But there’s almost this sense of ennui, this, “I’m not doing what I should be doing with my life; I’m looking for meaning; perhaps God is calling me to ministry” that becomes the spark in that direction.

Whereas for some of these ministers, it was much more tangible and much more rooted in lived experience and even exigency. For one minister: “I’ve experienced dramatic healing, and now they’re inviting me to share my testimony. And as I share my testimony about this dramatic healing, I begin to take on the role of a preacher; I can seriously imagine this vocation for myself.”

For another: “I’ve been dramatically delivered from deportation, and this becomes my platform to begin sharing a story.”

For others — and this was really interesting — in many of these churches, because pastors are very rarely full time in first-generation immigrant congregations, they are transient to a much greater degree.

I mean, they really are, many of them, itinerant ministers. If their secular job requires a move or if it falls through and they have to find another job, that congregation is looking for a new pastor.

Many ministers from the very beginning start to train their laypeople in pastoral functions. One minister talked about being thrown in the fire. His minister, as soon as he converted him, began teaching him how to preach, along with a few others in the congregation.

They took preaching classes the way that others might take Sunday school classes or Bible studies. Then suddenly when the preacher was gone, moved out of state, the congregation kind of looked at him, and they said, “Well, it’s got to be you. You’ve got the most experience preaching.”

Which was terrifying for him, and I imagine it would be terrifying for most of us. But there’s nowhere else to turn. There’s no pipeline of well-educated ministers who have already discerned this to be their vocation.

Now, I would say that this is becoming more and more the case, not just for first-gen immigrant Hispanic and Latinx churches, but this is happening more and more in lots of churches. So the need for churches to really think about being spaces of vocational discernment for future members — both their own and for wider networks — is important.

F&L: Are the ministers worried about the future of the Hispanic/Latinx church as the second and third generations mature?

TM: It depends. I think that many of them see their own ministry largely as being to the first generation and their families — because in the United States, there has been continuous migration. It’s not just one wave. It is an ongoing wave.

But the other thing is, when you look at the growth of the Hispanic population of the United States from 2000 to 2015, only 25% of that is due to continued migration.

Seventy-five percent of that growth reflects a native-born population. So all of [the pastors] were aware, and all of them dealt with the tension of trying to make sure that they were a place where first-generation people could put down roots and grow in faith, but also where they were continuing to be relevant and meet the needs of Generation 1.5 and Generation 2. This was a challenge for them.

Iglesia Agua Viva had its main services in Spanish, but it conducted all of its youth and children’s Sunday school and ministry activities in English. Because as children went to school, they became more familiar with English and more comfortable communicating in English, although then those same youth would get up and lead worship in Spanish.

All of them also understood that the church was going to change moving forward. So part of investing in youth was investing in people who, because of their bicultural and bilingual formation, would have that similarly close connection to congregants that they as preachers had to Generation 1 congregants.

You might consider it as new wineskins and new wine as they were moving forward, but with the same spirit of ministry.

They were less concerned that future generations carried the same culture that they did from their countries of origin and more concerned that they carried this culture of Christian faith in which they’d been formed in a congregation.

From the very beginning, churches aren’t trying to specifically make a community of faith Hispanic in a particular way or Latinx in a particular way. They’re trying to form Christian faith in a particular way while still honoring and giving space for these expressions that more closely reflect Hispanic and Latinx origins.

F&L: As we close, I usually ask people, is there anything I didn’t ask about that you would want to add?

TM: There is a feeling that Latin American liberation theology and the tenets of Latin American liberation theology are — or should be — present in this preaching.

I went in, having read much Latin American liberation theology, expecting to find some of it. I did not find it in large part, except among those preachers who had had the benefit of study in Anglo theological schools.

But I think that one of the distinctions here is even though the preaching might be traditional in many ways, it is also still really liberative within these contexts — spiritually liberative, but also liberative in terms of giving Hispanic and Latinx congregants a place to appear and to be valued in the sight of one another and in the sight of God.

That in and of itself is an act of resistance for a population that is experiencing vulnerability and marginalization in many ways. There’s a chapter here specifically about female preachers in this context.

There is much liberative work being done by these preachers, even when they’re preaching in somewhat traditional ways. I mean, just standing in the pulpit in some of these places is liberative, and naming the worth of women both within the congregation and in the role of preacher and minster.

I think that there’s this balance that preaching and ministry can be liberative, even if it is not always liberative according to certain ideals, that there are many ways in which it can be liberative and life giving.

Jonathan Brooks is convinced that if churches work together with the people in their neighborhoods, “that will give us the greatest witness in the world.”

He’s part of a “parish movement” across the country to help congregations connect and act locally, wherever they are, to become the “neighborhood-based incarnation of the gospel.”

“It’s not just about how we worship together. It’s not just about what songs we sing together. It’s about how we live together,” he said.

But how can a pastor or congregation get started? Or what if you’ve gotten started but don’t know where to go from there? Perhaps your congregation or neighborhood has changed and you don’t know how to connect anymore.

The Parish Collective, an organization that connects people who are committed to the idea that neighborhood plus church equals parish, has created a free online tool to help.

Five Signs of the Parish Movement is an online quiz that helps congregations discern where they are in the journey of becoming a parish-minded church. In addition, it offers next steps and videos that explain the parish movement and help leaders guide others along the path.

Jonathan Brooks

Brooks, who is the board chair and a fellowship member of the Parish Collective, has helped revamp the quiz to focus more on equity and justice as part of being a parish.

He currently serves as co-lead pastor at Lawndale Christian Community Church in the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago. He previously served as senior pastor at Canaan Community Church in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood — where he grew up — for 15 years.

Brooks spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the Five Signs quiz and the parish movement.

Faith & Leadership: What’s the vision of the parish movement?

Jonathan Brooks: The way we define parish is neighborhood plus church. Your parish becomes your parish when your church is concerned about that neighborhood, so it becomes a church parish.

We believe — and I’ve always held this central to my theology — that geographic location is the one marker that can really hold the container for the diversity of the Christian world.

We try to gather ourselves around values sometimes, or we try to gather ourselves around shared beliefs, or we try to gather ourselves around doctrinal stances. All of those things — at some point, they get frayed.

But when I live down the street, the same issues and concerns that I have are the same issues and concerns [that my neighbors have], even if our values are different, if our theology is different.

It brings us into questions about equity — around race, around gender, around orientation, all these ways that we chop and divide ourselves up.

When you look at the way Jesus gathered his 12 disciples, they were all over the spectrum in their belief systems, but they all had a geographically shared idea in this little area the size of New Jersey.

They all lived there. They all understood the culture of what was happening there. They were marginalized folks living in a Roman-occupied space, and everything they did was about this space — and it grew.

What we’re inviting people into is a new way of understanding the importance of this idea of church/neighborhood/parish combined.

What we’re trying to get folks to recognize is we’re not creating something new. We’re rekindling what has been the most powerful part of the church: that the church is the tangible representative of God in a local place so that the people in that place know that God is concerned about their specific needs, gifts, concerns and well-being.

We invite people back into that to stop church shopping, to stop church hopping, to stop trying to look for the greatest place to go visit, where you feel most comfortable.

F&L: Were you inspired by the Catholic idea of the parish?

JB: 100%. The language of “parish” was intentional, because we believe that the Catholic Church and the way they’ve organized their parishes had it right — that idea that you don’t go to the “best” Catholic church in the city; you go to your local parish. And if you move neighborhoods, that now becomes your local parish over there.

We use the word “parish” on purpose. It helps people that have Catholic backgrounds to connect to it, but it also helps people to understand when we talk about [church as neighborhood-based].

F&L: What do you mean by signs? How do they help congregations or individuals interested in the parish?

JB: First of all, we chose the language of “sign” because these are the ways we would describe what we see, what’s visible, what’s tangibly happening when you see people pressed into being the church in their specific contexts.

These are five expressions, or markers, in a very general sense, because there can be more than that. What I don’t want people to believe is that it’s exhaustive.

We’re rekindling what has been the most powerful part of the church: that the church is the tangible representative of God in a local place so that the people in that place know that God is concerned about their specific needs, gifts, concerns and well-being.

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The first one is, of course, a centering on Christ. We want to make sure our lives are centered on Christ as a collective expression of the love of God in our place. It’s this idea that when we focus on who Jesus is and who Christ is in this specific place, there’s a certain kind of expression of Jesus’ love that will come.

This is how churches end up having different emphases or different ways of being the church in a specific place.

Those shouldn’t come from boardrooms, where we sit down and have strategic planning sessions to say, “This is the kind of church expression we want to be.”

They should come out of a real love for the place and a real experiential kind of knowledge of the place that allows us to say, “Who do the people of God, who do Jesus’ followers need to be in this specific place?”

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The second one is inhabiting our parish. We want to actively inhabit our neighborhoods, not just live in them, not just have houses in them.

In that place, who has been marginalized or pressed that needs to be liberated in that space? What is our response? What things do we need to do for our place and its inhabitants to live out the liberative story of God?

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The third sign is gathering together. But not just gathering together, because churches are good at doing gatherings. It’s gathering to remember. When we gather, we weave our parish — where we’re living — into the larger story of our faith. This means that now our parish has an integral part in the massive story of God from the beginning of time to the end of time. Our parish has a part, and it’s woven into that story.

Remember the past; remember the present; think about the future. What has the history of this place been? How do we factor into the history of the place? Do we really understand it?

Worship is not limited to being in a church building. You worship in the aisles of grocery stores and in cafes and on the corners. We gather as much as possible: gather at block parties, gather at people’s homes, gather around the table, gather in church services — gather, but remember that all of that is a part of God’s story.

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The fourth sign is collaboration. We say it this way: “collaborating for renewal with God.” It’s not just about doing things together; it’s about how do we step into God’s story and reconciliation and renewal.

We trust that God will always invite us into new relationships and weave us into new relationships but also invite us into relational and collaborative projects that should be for the common good.

A lot of why the church grew in its infancy was because when people looked at the church, they were like, “Man, they’re helping the society. People’s lives are changing.” When a church abandons that common good and really turns internally on itself, that’s when we lose our impact in society.

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The last one is what we call linking. Now, I added the word “across” to the sign: linking across. I wanted to make sure people understood that it’s not the linking of people in your neighborhood together if you link only with people that you’re most comfortable with or that you have a lot in common with.

We had to add “across” because we wanted people to be compelled to this unity in difference; we don’t all have to be the same. We don’t all have to have the same beliefs. We don’t have to have the same political beliefs. We don’t have to have the same theological beliefs or any of that.

We need all of that difference, because that’s the only way we’ll be unified. If we’re all the same, it’s not unified; it’s uniform.

How do we actively connect across our parishes, across our congregations, across our cities, across our countries? How do we engage each other by linking and growing together using our unique but local expressions mixed with other expressions outside of our own?

Those are the five signs. And as you can see, we’ve tried to make sure that there’s also a real deep equity and reconciliatory lens to this idea of being a church in a neighborhood as well.

F&L: What will people learn from taking the quiz?

JB: The goal is to let you self-diagnose where you think you are and then give you some action steps that can get you to where you would like to be. So it’s very practical. That’s why I like it. It’s extremely practical.

The goal is to try to get people engaging with the signs to ask themselves, “Where are we now? What would we like our future engagement to look like in our parish?”

The goal is to get people activated, where they’re starting, not to say, “Well, just work on getting here, and then we can help you.”

No. It’s, “Where are you now? Where’s your congregation now? Where’s the expression of the church now?”

Then we say, “Here’s the first step.” Maybe it’s just researching some spiritual practices that will get you connected more to your parish. Or maybe it’s a time to literally get with some friends and do a walk in your parish and get to know it better.

F&L: Do you have a recommended process?

JB: There’s no pattern. There’s no formula. This is an opportunity for you to engage and then create. We believe that creation will come from your place. All we’re trying to do is activate your ability to create what you need in your space.

Really, we see this thing as a flywheel. What American churches have a tendency to do is to set things up in more of a step-by-step process. This is more of a flywheel, with parish at the center.

F&L: If a congregation is already engaged in this work, is this quiz still useful?

JB: I believe it’s still beneficial, mostly because no one has “arrived” at doing parish ministry. You know what I mean? There’s no point where you’ve just got this down pat. Communities change. Things become different.

I’m in Lawndale, where we’ve been doing this for 45 years now, and we’ve [still] got to be listening, because North Lawndale is changing. There are new things happening, new ideas, new ways of being.

As Lawndale was growing, quantitative measures was the way to go: How many people come to Bible study? How many people come to church? How many people are we calling on a weekly basis and checking in with? All those things were great.

The younger generation is coming up now. It’s not about numbers. I mean, COVID has shown us that if you’re trying to count numbers of people coming to church, that might be obsolete at this point.

Now we look at qualitative measures: How are people’s lives improving?

My youth pastor has to give me a report every week on qualitative measures around the young people he’s working with. What decisions are they making? What is their life looking like?

He sends me stuff like, “Oh, this young man is dating this young lady, and he’s been sexually active, but he’s decided he’s not going to be sexually active with this young lady. He wants to do it God’s way.”

That’s a qualitative measure. And it means a lot more to these young folks — that we’re praying for their life changes — versus, “Lord, would you send 40 kids to our Bible study?”

Tim Keller and I agree: denominations do something important. While Keller and I might express that importance differently, I will take what I can get. Saying anything positive about denominations has not been popular for decades.

Keller was interviewed this spring on Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, which chronicles Mark Driscoll’s ministry at the Seattle megachurch and the church-related networks he helped establish and influence. It is a troubling account of fame and abuse.

In a bonus episode, the host gave the bestselling author and now-retired founding pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church a chance to explain his connections to Driscoll and to interpret what happened.

Keller took a moment to explain how his and Redeemer’s participation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) created an accountability that was not present for Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, because Mars Hill did not have a denominational affiliation. Keller was a part of networks with Driscoll, and those networks functioned very differently from denominations, Keller said.

Networks connect people to each other to make a difference, particularly in a community, while denominations provide oversight and doctrine, he said. Although Keller focused much more of his efforts in connection with Driscoll on establishing and nurturing networks, he also accepted the discipline and rules created in the PCA, and he believes that congregations are better off being part of denominations, he said.

Given the context of the Mars Hill story and the convictions of the PCA, it is not surprising that Keller would emphasize the regulatory work of his denomination. But when I pull back and consider why we need denominations, something broader comes to mind: discipleship, the formation of Christians.

Think about who shaped you. Who inspired, supported and encouraged your development? Was it parents, grandparents, pastors, schoolteachers or community volunteers? I am conditioned by American culture to recognize all the individuals that support me. I hope that you can name a cloud of witnesses in your life from childhood to now.

But I am also thinking about where that cloud of people comes from. Where do they learn, get support and resources? How are the lessons of the past brought to future generations?

This is the work of institutions — schools, churches, child care agencies, camps and more. It takes time and money across decades to build such institutions. I am specifically thinking about organizations that have served their missions across three or more generations. These organizations have traditions that get passed down, and that is one of the ways formation works.

For generations, denominations have been the institutions that support congregations and organize ministries of all kinds. They set rules for life. They articulate convictions on matters of faith and life. They train and ordain clergy. They discipline violations of their rules. Some denominations, like the PCA, have books of order that include many regulations. Other denominations have short covenants that describe expectations but very few regulatory functions.

Denominational work has not been popular for at least 40 years. Most of the time, people in congregations see accountability as a hindrance rather than a lifesaving barrier. The work of passing on the faith and providing structures that support discipleship doesn’t receive much attention. Yet this work is vital.

Keller mentions the significance of networks, and I agree that these loose associations of people formed around a common interest or concern are significant sources of innovation and encouragement. Networks form within geographies, within and across denominations, and around critical work like disaster relief or church planting. Generally, networks don’t have any rules and may not have any legal structure. As a result, networks can rise and fall quickly.

If a network continues beyond a generation, it often develops a structure, including a paid staff and other financial obligations. This process of institutionalization leads to forming something that for groups of congregations looks like a denomination.

Can a congregation be healthy without a denomination or similar institutional support? Sure. I have seen congregations be healthy for a whole generation or longer. But eventually, there is some difficulty. Maybe it is conflict or legal problems or misconduct. At that moment, the congregation needs friends from outside their membership. They need someone from whom to seek advice or get direction. If they are not a part of a denomination, they create a structure. Essentially, they create a temporary denomination.

I am not arguing that the 20th-century denominations and their agencies can rest easy. Most denominations are in trouble. They need to focus on the work that they are best suited to do. This requires discernment and painful trimming.

In the 21st century, denominations need to identify their core work. What do they offer that both meets needs of congregations and communities in the moment and offers the discipline necessary for future generations? I believe denominations need to focus on those activities that are most effective in forming the disciplines of discipleship and the identity of “Christian.”

When I got started in ministry in the 1970s as a teenager, I witnessed the last moments of an age when denominations were the “main thing” and congregations served to support the work and life of the denomination.

Soon after I went to school, that script flipped, and denominations have been figuring out that flip throughout my career. The process is slow, because denominations are complex political systems. Authority is diffused, and decision making is multilayered. Yes, such work requires much patience.

The starting point is a conversation about why denominations are important. The stake I drive in the ground is that denominations provide the support that helps congregations form Christians to live as faithful disciples. What stake would you drive in the ground? What is required for congregations to continue their vital work in your communities?

Eight culinary students dressed in black uniforms with chefs’ caps are working carefully at their stations in a spacious commercial kitchen. They’ve already reviewed the proper techniques for cleaning and removing tails from shrimp and cutting fish into filets, best practices for purchasing, and more. Now they’ve prepared and cooked the recipe of the day: cioppino, a classic stew featuring the shrimp and filets along with leeks, in a rich tomato broth similar in color to the students’ red aprons.

As they talk quietly in Spanish, the time comes to present their creations. Culinary instructor and veteran chef Ed McIntosh is not disappointed.

“Beautiful,” he says to one student, studying the stew in a silver-toned pan.

McIntosh offers feedback as he tastes, pulling down his mask to take quick bites.

“Good,” he says to another student, adding a tip to “just watch your shrimp.”

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chef talks with students
The nonprofit has served more than 200 students in English and Spanish.

This is a typical day at La Cocina VA, a nonprofit in Arlington, Virginia, that seeks to “use the power of food to create social and economic change in low-income communities.” Founded by Patricia Funegra, the organization works with immigrants, refugees and victims of domestic abuse and other trauma to provide support via job training and placement along with culinary certification.

Though La Cocina VA is not a faith-based organization, it has worked closely with two local churches since its founding. Their collaboration shows how churches can join forces with community organizations to bring about change — offering vital support and partnership to existing innovation rather than independently beginning new church-based ministries. It also provides a model for moving beyond direct service to skill building and community empowerment.

Now housed on land that previously belonged to Arlington Presbyterian Church, La Cocina VA has served more than 200 students in English and Spanish and created relationships with more than 40 food and hospitality partners, including restaurants, markets and hotels. Like many in the food industry over the last two years, the organization also has battled COVID-related challenges, but La Cocina VA has still managed to open an expanded location with a cafe that serves the community.

“We know that we are definitely making an impact in the lives of the people that give us the chance to work with them,” said Daniela Hurtado, the nonprofit’s director of programs and a former chef herself. “There is a huge connection.”

What skills, rather than services, are needed in your community? What can your congregation do to go beyond providing a service?

Daniela Hurtado
Daniela Hurtado is La Cocina VA’s director of programs.

In the beginning

La Cocina VA has raised more than $2.5 million since 2018 to build out its expanded D.C.-area location — complete with a commercial kitchen with stainless steel appliances, a walk-in refrigerator and a variety of supplies. But as is usually the case, things started smaller.

When she first had the idea to create a nonprofit, Funegra — who was born in Peru and moved to the United States in 2007 — had been working in the nation’s capital. She was employed at the Inter-American Development Bank, helping contacts in South America, Central America and the Caribbean with projects in workforce development, women’s rights and other issues.

But Funegra thought there was more she could do. She began volunteering at DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit offering culinary programs and job training to formerly incarcerated people.

She started by chopping carrots and onions, and then an idea materialized. She saw so clearly that “this is something that we could offer Latinos, especially knowing the large population of Latino immigrants that work in food establishments,” she said. Funegra worked after-hours to network, research and validate her idea even as she held down her day job.

La Cocina students in the kitchen
The program seeks to “use the power of food to create social and economic change in low-income communities.”

She eventually registered the new organization and went back to connect with DC Central Kitchen. And she built a relationship with a local community college that could offer certificates to graduates. Along the way, Funegra, now La Cocina VA’s chief executive officer, realized that a church could be a great partner.

“I learned that churches in the United States, especially the older buildings, have beautiful kitchens that are underutilized,” she said. And with that, Funegra was off, knocking on the doors of Catholic churches, Presbyterian churches, “all the different denominations,” she said.

When she connected with Arlington’s Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, things really started to move.

What resources are underutilized in your church?

An initial ‘match made in heaven’

While Funegra was making her rounds, Mount Olivet had already been offering community support, including a ministry to reach out to vulnerable immigrants by providing food.

“But then it became clear that we needed to do more than just provide food,” said Marilyn Traynham, the church’s administrator. “We needed to provide a skill.”

The church had a commercial kitchen, so when Funegra shared her dream, “it seemed like a match made in heaven for Mount Olivet,” Traynham said.

To start, the church managed logistics to ensure that there was adequate refrigerated space and insurance coverage for the project and that related needs were met.

“Mount Olivet has three values, and they’re very important: inclusiveness, making disciples, and reaching out into the community and world,” said the Rev. Dr. Ed Walker, the church’s senior pastor. “While there are a lot of good faith-based nonprofits, there are also equally good nonprofits that are not religiously affiliated.

“When there’s a need, you want to help find a way to meet that need.”

And so they did. La Cocina VA’s first cohort started in 2014, operating in the church’s basement. For several years, Mount Olivet provided not only space for classes but also lunches for students, gifts at Christmas for students and their families, volunteers to help transfer meals to low-income housing communities, and other support.

“[Mount Olivet staff] were so kind. We never paid a dime, not even for toilet paper,” said Hurtado, expressing gratitude to the church.

classroom
Beyond the kitchen, classes extend to skills like how to format a resume.

Students also received additional benefits. As Funegra explained, the program offers full scholarships, so students don’t have to pay for instruction, uniforms or other needs. The program has offered stipends for students without cars or jobs.

Funegra said this kind of help can be “hard to believe at the beginning” for some members of the immigrant population. Building this sense of care is immensely powerful, she said, explaining that in addition to finding jobs, some women have been able to heal or step out on their own.

But as the program expanded, it began to outgrow its church home. In addition to helping participants with their finances and business development, La Cocina VA staff became interested in growth for themselves.

When the opportunity came to move to another space in Arlington, made available when Arlington Presbyterian Church sold its building to benefit the local community, La Cocina VA staff took it. (The church is a recipient of the Traditioned Innovation Award.)

The nonprofit relocated to its new, built-out Gilliam Place facility during the pandemic, pushing through periods of capacity restriction and at times complete closure due to quarantining. Today, if you stroll through their modern, 4,000-square-foot space, you’d never know what they have endured.

Hurtado called the move to the new training and entrepreneurship center “a big accomplishment.” Its new programs include the cafe, which showcases products from the shared-kitchen members as well as La Cocina’s own menu, she said.

interior of La Cocina
Despite challenges created by the pandemic, La Cocina VA has expanded, including opening a cafe.

Now, the nonprofit has an operating budget of $1,662,000, according to staff members, an active and diverse board of directors, and a new partner in Arlington Presbyterian, which seeks to welcome all and “serve with compassion.”

Mt. Olivet’s relationship with the nonprofit continues, too. Funegra “is a very strong leader,” Walker said, noting that their partnership has worked well because of how Funegra has managed the program.

For churches considering similar arrangements, he said, “my advice would be, make sure the nonprofit has strong leadership.”

When working with this kind of organization, Traynham said, churches should think of the collaborator not as “a building user” but as “part of the ministry.”

A present-day partnership

The new partnership that La Cocina VA has forged with Arlington Presbyterian tracks along an innovative arc for both the nonprofit and the church.

Chartered in 1908, Arlington Pres sold its building and land in 2016 to allow for the creation of affordable housing after the congregation repeatedly heard that many people who worked in the city could not afford to live there, said the Rev. Ashley Goff, the church’s pastor, who now also sits on La Cocina’s board.

The cost of living in Arlington, Virginia, is 44% higher than the national average, and 134% higher when it comes to housing, as PayScale confirms. And in this diverse community, disparities are real, with 6.4% of the population living below the poverty level, according to the 2020 American Community Survey.

The result of the church’s rather sacramental gesture is Gilliam Place, the development where La Cocina is now located. The space’s 173 affordable housing units serve people with low-income, seniors and those with disabilities — and it includes leased space for Arlington Presbyterian, Goff said.

exterior of La Cocina
The new location features 4,000 square feet of space.

“The call from God to do something about affordable housing was bigger than the building itself, so the building had to go,” she said, harking back to a quote from a church member and explaining that the church is there to be a neighbor.

Arlington Presbyterian buys food from La Cocina VA and contributes financially — including a recent gift of $100,000, Goff said. “We actually discover who we are and who God calls us to be the more that we give away.”

The donated funds continue to benefit students from a range of backgrounds. For instance, a student named Elizabeth, who chose not to share her last name, said she is a trained veterinarian in her home country, but in the United States, she works as a medication aide.

“I would like to also have other options,” she said in Spanish, noting a desire to work independently.

Student Sandra Luz Roman said she enrolled to improve her technical cooking skills, with dreams of opening a little restaurant serving Mexican food.

What might God be calling your church to that is bigger than the building?

cooking student cuts lime slices
La Cocina VA’s culinary classes take place in an expansive commercial kitchen.

Meanwhile, student Wilmer Mejia said he studied chemistry in Peru but now works as a cook in the United States. He said in Spanish that the program lets him learn and is “offering opportunities.”

And those opportunities extend beyond what is taught in the kitchen. For instance, when the morning cooking session of the program concludes on a Friday in May, students straighten up their stations and move to an adjoining classroom to learn about formatting resumes.

When they shift rooms, they leave the kitchen spick-and-span. Bowls are nestled within each other. Large onions are piled in a clear container. Measuring spoons and cups are housed in storage spaces. It’s almost as if the students were never there.

How does your congregation discover who God is calling it to be? How do you discover who God is calling you to be?

And yet the impact of La Cocina VA’s work, and the churches with which they’ve partnered, is clear. The program is teaching Spanish- and English-speaking adults. Matching them with jobs. And creating hope.

As this work continues, Hurtado said, their faithful partners have been huge supporters.

“We definitely feel the love,” she said. “We have definitely been blessed by these two different churches.”

What does a faithful partnership look like for your congregation?

Questions to consider

  • What skills, rather than services, are needed in your community? What can your congregation do to go beyond providing a service?
  • What resources are underutilized in your church?
  • What might God be calling your church to that is bigger than the building?
  • How does your congregation discover who God is calling it to be? How do you discover who God is calling you to be?
  • What does a faithful partnership look like for your congregation?