Dynamo Along the Border
A small church mobilized for ministry can make a major impact in building the kingdom of God. While Maricela Hernandez now represents Hispanics and women in the Assemblies of God both nationally and internationally, her primary calling remains equipping women and youth through the church she planted with her husband.
Hernandez, 46, founded Women of Fire ministries, an extended food and education outreach of Centro Cristiano Familiar Paraiso de Palmas (Palm Paradise Christian Family Center), an Assemblies of God congregation in Peñitas, Texas, a town of 4,000 in the Rio Grande Valley where her husband, Rafael Hernandez Jr., is head pastor. She serves as the church's associate pastor and directs Flames of Fire Bible School, a program that equips area youth for ministry.
Her path to ministry seems unlikely. Born in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, she spoke little English when she accepted Christ as Savior at age 12. Learning the language and culture proved challenging to the adolescent Hernandez, who grew up harvesting crops with her family, which included her three siblings and widowed mom.
By 14 she was teaching Sunday School and at 15 she was preaching in a small church in La Joya, a town near Peñitas -- which is on the U.S. border with Mexico.
"My senior pastor was very open to giving opportunity to young people," Hernandez says.
Hernandez learned English, became the first in her family to graduate from high school, and earned a bachelor's degree in secondary education from what is now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. While there, she married. The couple's children are Mario and Abigail.
Together the couple helped plant Templo Paraiso in neighboring Sullivan City, Texas, where Maricela served as senior pastor and her husband led music.
With their children now grown, her full-time focus has returned to ministry at an increasingly larger scale, beginning with the Texas Gulf Hispanic District Council, for which she serves as secretary-treasurer. Her district nominated her to represent Assemblies of God women from the United States at the newly formed Assemblies of God Hispanic Fellowship (Fraternidad Hispana de las Asambleas de Dios), or FHAD, which met in August in Panama.
And at General Council 2015 in Orlando, Florida, Hernandez finished as runner-up in balloting as the AG Executive Presbytery ordained female minister representative.
But her heart remains with equipping and caring for local women and children.
"If we don't invest, strategically invest, in the young people, we're going to end up losing them," Hernandez says. "We'd better be wise and not only invest money but take care of them and train them up in Scripture -- a lot of teaching and training and being there for them." That training includes finding opportunities to plug youth into their callings. Through the three-summer Flames of Fire program, young people become grounded in the Bible and learn ministry essentials that will empower them to become credentialed pastors.
One such student who became credentialed is Syria Solano, a 23-year-old graduate of Flames of Fire. She is newly enrolled at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, where she'll complete her ministerial training.
"My responsibility is to create events. She needs to preach," Hernandez says of Solano, the oldest of three children of a single mom. Her dad has been in prison for 10 years. Now Solano is preaching in churches and leads children's praise and worship.
"God is raising an army of young people," Hernandez says. "They have a role in God's Kingdom."
Hernandez says the five core values of George O. Wood,general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, resonate with her. She's especially moved by Wood's call to passionately proclaim and strategically invest in the next generation through education -- "to mentor, teach, take by the hand" the youth of the church, she says. Many of the 100 regular attendees of Centro Cristiano Familiar Paraiso de Palmas are children and youth, living far below the poverty line.
But she's found that the Lord has made a way to meet the needs, even with a relatively small body of Christians whose resources are limited.
Once again this summer, the local school district provided two U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved meals on weekdays to 150 neighborhood children for 10 weeks in the summer. The district uses the church's facility and sends school cafeteria workers to serve the meals. The Texas Department of Agriculture also has provided food for the church's feeding program that's just completed its fifth summer. Ministry to the community's children, however, continues year-round.
Additionally, the church partners with groups that visit Christian Family Center on short-term missions. This summer, eight teams came to help with projects such as vacation Bible school and soccer camp, she says. A church in Longview, Texas, brought a team of nine that included two trained to cut hair.
"The Lord channels in many ways of ministry to them," Hernandez says. "Residents are very receptive. The need makes them receptive."
Part of the challenge is making people aware of the needs -- "making contact with people who want to do something good, making connections with key people who want to help," Hernandez says. In August, for example, the church provided 200 school uniform shirts to students after the owner of a beauty shop asked clients to donate shirts.
Dino Espinoza, superintendent of the Texas Gulf Hispanic District, describes Hernandez as "very self-motivated with an inspiring ministry."
"She has a passion for children and girls," Espinoza says. "She's constantly looking for ways to do church planting and discipleship. She has a passion about missions. She's capable of taking any assignment and going with it."