Sometimes big change begins in a small, simple way.
Melody Cisneros Milstead of Urban Strategies points to a children’s food distribution program that Maricela H. Hernandez launched under a park tree in Peñitas, Texas, an unincorporated town of 5,000 people in the Rio Grande Valley that lacked paved streets, water, or electricity.
That outreach became an Assemblies of God church, Centro Cristiano Familiar Paraiso de Palmas (Palm Paradise Christian Family Center), planted by Hernandez and her husband, Rafael Hernández Jr. Today the church serves as the hands and feet of Christ, reaching those in need with the gospel and programs that minister to the body, mind, and soul.
“She's a prime example of Christian community development,” Milstead says of Hernandez.
Milstead, Urban Strategies’ Rio Grande Valley regional director and an AG credentialed minister with the Texas Gulf Hispanic District, notes that Centro Cristiano is an agent of change in an underserved community.
The church not only has provided meals to hungry families in this immigrant community, but has also led countless children and their families to Christ. Centro Cristiano founded educational programs, including Flames of Fire Bible School, creating an opportunity for young community members to continue their education. Some students have become the first in their families to finish high school and attend college.
“Those are the people we are looking for — people who are doing the work necessary to transform their communities,” Milstead says. “Conditions we see on the border are horrific. As Christians, we must be those who feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty.”
While Urban Strategies responds to immediate needs and equips churches in the valley to serve as crisis relief distribution centers, the organization always works toward long-term development with the goal of seeing thriving families and transformed communities.
Founded in 2003 by Lisa Treviño Cummins, herself from a Texas Latino family with deep roots in Hispanic AG churches, Urban Strategies’ long-term approach is helping those in need through local congregations in under-resourced communities, including those comprised largely of immigrants. The ministry comes alongside churches to help them bring community transformation through leading comprehensive, holistic programs that address mental and physical wellness, early childhood education, and youth development.
The ministry model demonstrated by Jesus provoked Cummins to establish Urban Strategies.
“He was willing to work with the poor, the prostitute, those who were in marginalized situations,” she says. “He saw them as worthy and gave them dignity.”
Cummins says Scripture lists a “trifecta that God seems to give preference to: the orphan, widow, and stranger.” That’s why Urban Strategies partners with around 500 AG churches and other congregations that are a catalyst to serve those in need, especially in California, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Central America.
The ministry focuses on activating people through the power of Christ. Milstead explains that if a church partners with Urban Strategies to provide early childhood education, families in the program are connected with “all the wonderful things churches have to offer the community.” Parents can become involved in women's and men’s ministries. Children can take part in Royal Rangers and Girls Ministries programs.
That strengthens families, which leads to community transformation. Urban Strategies partners with churches, equipping them with curricula and training for additional programs that strengthen the community by addressing its deepest needs.
Milstead cites Bienestar (well-being in Spanish), the health-wellness program that the Peñitas AG church adopted, as an example. Being involved raised her own awareness of the need for attention to mental health in the church.
Urban Strategies led a bilingual Mental Health First Aid certification class in the valley to equip Peñitas church leaders to be mental health first responders, marking the first time a valley church had been involved in such training. After becoming equipped, partnering churches then work to destigmatize mental health issues and help those in crisis, she says.
“This is a human concern, about human dignity,” Milstead says. “Some families are in tragic situations. It’s our job as Christians to come alongside them in their time of need.”
PHOTO: Melody Milstead (left) is grateful for the community development efforts of Maricela Hernandez.