"God, that's a Bad Idea"
Pastor Angelo Austria has seen God work in undeniably miraculous ways many times in and through his life and in his church, New Life Christian Center, in Reno, Nevada. But when God told him to “go homeless” last July, he had to let God know — that was a bad idea . . . really bad.
Born in the Philippines and growing up in Reno, Austria, now 45, developed a passion to serve Christ and share the gospel. He began ministry in Reno in 2000, focusing on the middle class.
In addition to being a minister, Austria also worked in the real estate business — it was doing great and his church was doing great. “I found myself being prideful of what I had accomplished — look at what I have done!” he shares.
God solved Austria’s pride issues. In 2008, his business failed and within a matter of months the church lost all of its department directors, its entire music team, half of its leaders, and about 70 percent of its income. Austria says he had to repent for his sinful pride.
In 2011, still in a season of darkness and depression, Austria was struggling to pay off investors in his company and to minister at his church that was now languishing. Then God spoke.
“I was just trying to survive this storm when God told me, ‘Get up. I didn’t call you to stay down there,’” Austria says. He was ready to listen. So, when God told him to move the church to the inner city, he obeyed. God then opened the doors for the church to buy a $795,000 piece of property for only $175,000.
Inner-city Reno is not an easy place to live or minister. Gambling, drugs, legalized prostitution, violent crimes, sex trafficking, highly dysfunctional families and individuals, and multiple more challenges stemming from these and other issues, challenge the church daily.
However, the church began to revive, recover, and grow. Austria says he knew the Lord had placed it in his heart from the very first to build a playground for the inner-city children. So, in 2017, when two lots came open next to the church, he signed a contract for them, knowing God had directed him to do so, even though the church had nothing in the bank and now $250,000 to raise in three months.
After 30 days and only $5,000 raised, Austria thought he had made a huge mistake. But a pastor friend walked Austria through how God had done so many miracles already — the purchase of the church, a new vehicle given to him, a new parking lot donated to the church, and more. God wasn’t about to abandon him now.
He didn’t. At the end of 90 days, more than $265,000 had been raised, including $125,000 from two non-AG churches and a miraculous $40,000 from the district’s Women’s Ministries.
Austria understood that engaging with the community was key to the effectiveness and success of building the playground, so he went into the neighborhood, asking them what would be the best use for the land. Building a playground was the parents’ priority as well.
Involving local businesses, Austria raised $110,000 more to buy playground equipment that 140 people from the church, neighborhood, and businesses came together to build in just one day this past April. He says the playground hasn’t experienced any damage because the neighborhood invested in it, takes prides in it, and protects it.
Although God has repeatedly taught Austria and New Life Christian Center that He can take care of any financial challenges, He then dropped a bombshell into Austria’s life. Having come to the realization that homelessness was out of control in Reno, he prayed about what he could do.
“Why don’t you be one?” was God’s response. It wasn’t what Austria wanted to hear — it was definitely a bad idea . . . , a bad, bad, bad idea.
On Sunday, July 29, Angelo’s wife of 21 years, Analiza, dropped him off in downtown Reno with a backpack to live on the streets for a week. How hard could it really be?
By Tuesday, Austria had his answer. He was already overwhelmed by the violence, anger, hopelessness, drugs, mental illness, summer heat, and smoke from the relatively nearby forest fires — he was done. He couldn’t take it anymore. He called home for his wife to come pick him up.
Analiza’s response, in a nutshell, was Angelo didn’t have a home until Sunday. He had made a commitment; he needed to keep it.
“If you heard from God and you know that you know this is something God wants you to do,” Analiza says, “then you need to fulfill that calling.” She explains that even though she knew Reno was not a safe place at night, God had given her a peace that this was something Angelo needed to do, it would fulfill something in his heart, and enable him to better minister to the community.
“As much as I wanted him to come home, because I worried, especially at night,” Analiza says, something inside of me said No, let God do His work. And who I am to try to stop God?”
Analiza’s firm stance proved to be providential. With a new resolve to complete the week, Angelo began to look for ways to experience what homeless people experience. So, he entered a casino waiting to be kicked out. That’s when he met a homeless man named Pauly and learned his story.
Pauly was 22. His mom was a meth addict who couldn’t deal with a baby and his father was forever gone, so she dumped him in garbage bin. A passerby heard his cries, pulled him from the trash, and decided to adopt him. As Pauly got older, the woman, who proclaimed to be a Christian, chained him up in the basement for days, and then went to church on Sundays as if nothing happened.
Although Angelo experienced many other moments of shaming, realization, and being treated as if invisible in the following days, Pauly’s story stuck with him. He realized how easy it was to pass a negative judgment on someone when you didn’t know his or her story and take the attitude of “Get a haircut . . . get a job!”
That Sunday, Angelo, who is also the president of the Filipino-American Fellowship, made his way to his church and did two services in the clothes he had been wearing all week.
When he saw Analiza and his three children at church, Angelo begged them not to hug him until after he showered — he had been in the same clothes and hadn’t bathed for over a week. According to Analiza, Angelo preached a powerful message that morning as the experience of being homeless had a great impact upon him.
But the change wasn’t just in Angelo, Analiza says his efforts have had a great impact on her, their children, and the church.
“You have to understand what kind of person Angelo is,” she says. “He doesn’t like camping, doesn’t like tents, doesn’t like sleeping on the floor or ground, doesn’t like anywhere you can’t wash up, so what he did inspired me, encouraged me, and ministered to me and my children . . . that someone like him would go beyond and be faithful and obedient to the Lord like that.”
Through the homeless experience — aka “God’s bad idea” — Angelo has led his church in launching a new ministry called Up Reach Resource Center, designed to assist those who are homeless with a hand up.
Angelo says that over the years and through his weeklong journey into homelessness, he has come to classify the homeless into three categories: those with mental illnesses (severe and functional), the content (those who choose to live the homeless lifestyle), and the situational (those who are homeless due a situation, such as a lost job, death, medical bills, etc.). For now, the situational homeless are the center’s main target.
“Our goal is three-fold — to provide relief for a time, followed by rehabilitation, and then redevelopment,” Angelo says.
The relief part is easy, because money and supplies can help meet people’s immediate needs. However, simply throwing money at someone’s problems without investing in that’s person’s personal growth and development has created mountains of additional challenges in society.
“Those who are just given things without personal investment of time or effort, over time, become entitled and dependent,” Angelo says. “It’s very uncomfortable [difficult] to work with someone like that. People have found it’s a lot easier just to give money — and continue growing entitlement and dependency — and not worry about truly helping people rehabilitate and mentoring them, because that’s not easy or comfortable.”
Currently Angelo says the center is helping the homeless as it can as the church works to develop full teams of counselors, trainers, and other volunteers who can assist larger numbers of those struggling with homelessness and poverty. The focus is on working to move people from the relief stage to the rehabilitation stage and beyond.
Analiza says that although the church has always had an “unconditional acceptance” approach to whoever comes through the door, through Angelo’s commitment to the homeless, the church has come to better understand and embrace what ministry is really all about, including doing the “uncomfortable” things.
“So many people have a heart to help the poor and needy, but instead of helping, we’re actually hurting them,” Angelo explains. “When we stay in the relief stage, we create a monster that’s hard to stop.”
Although Angelo has been told that what he’s attempting to change [the feeling of entitlement and life of dependency of the poor and homeless] is almost impossible, especially with his small church of about 150, he relishes what God has called them to do.
“We are considered by many as a small church," he says, "but when you step out in faith, trust God — even with a few — and God begins to do amazing miracles, then only God gets the glory.”