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Age Not a Limit for this Pair of Inner-City Children's Pastors

Gilbert and Maritza Ceballos feel called to give children what they didn't have as children — an opportunity to know and love Christ.

It’s pretty safe to say that “grandparent” isn’t a word that first comes to most people’s minds when describing a children’s pastor, but for Gilbert and Maritza Ceballos, children’s ministers at Sheffield Family Life Center (SFLC) in central Kansas City, Missouri, it works just fine. These 50-somethings will likely be great-grandparents (and then some) before they step away from children’s ministry.

The Ceballos’ have been leading children’s ministries programs at various Assemblies of God locations across the country for three decades. Their path to ministry at SFLC is a bit complex, but both say that what continues to drive them to minister to children is simple: they want to share with kids what they didn’t have as children — a knowledge of and a love for Christ.

“I was born in the inner city of Gary, Indiana,” Gilbert says. “I know what it’s like to be poor, not to have anything. I didn’t know Jesus until I was 25.”

Maritza had an even more challenging childhood. “As a young girl, I was raised on the streets of New York,” she says. “I left home when I was 14 and took off to Florida. The only thing I knew about God was in the book of Romans — ‘if I called on the name of Jesus, I would be saved.’ Thirteen years later I met Gilbert, he gave me a good witness and led me to Christ.”

Over the years, the couple have seemingly been drawn to the challenging places. They ministered through an inner-city children’s outreach in Pembroke Pines, Florida, for 10 years; worked with AG U.S. Missions Hispanic Project, USA, in Miami, Florida, for a year; and then moved to Omaha, Nebraska, ministering to kids on Indian reservations as well as to kids from the Sudan and Romania in nearby housing projects for another six years. From there the Ceballoses worked with the children’s ministry at Lenexa (Kansas) Christian Center for a little more than six years, and then it was back to Florida, where they re-established a children’s ministry in a Fort Lauderdale AG church in their two-and-a-half years there.

“I’ve known Gilbert and Maritza for more than 20 years,” says David Boyd, Boys and Girls Missionary Challenge (BGMC) director. “They have a gift for inspiring people to serve. They see gifts in people and speak affirmation into them, and through that, they are able to raise up an incredible team of volunteers — and they’ve done that in every church they have served.”

“When we left Lenexa, the Lord spoke to us that we’d be coming back,” Gilbert says, “When [SFLC] Pastor George Westlake III asked us to come to Sheffield [a relatively short drive from Lenexa], we knew it was God keeping His promise. We feel at home in the inner city — to us, it feels right.”

However, inner-city Kansas City is not an overly safe place. On a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the safest, Kansas City is rated a 4 by neighborhoodscout.com’s crime index. Compared to the rest of the United States as a whole, a person living in Kansas City is three times more likely to be robbed or assaulted and four times as likely to have their car stolen.

The Ceballoses don’t dispute the findings. However, they also recognize that over the past 35 years, Sheffield Family Life Center has made an impact on the community and continues to be a lighthouse and beacon of hope to the inner city.

“The church is a safe place for people to come,” Maritza says. “Kids come into our building and they see what life can be like . . . they see young men and women who model what it means to by a man or a woman of God. In the two years we’ve been here, the children’s ministry has doubled in size to over 400 every Sunday.”

One of the reasons the ministry has exploded in growth is due to the volunteers, which the Ceballoses are regularly identifying and investing in — maybe not to volunteer in the upcoming weeks, but perhaps in the upcoming months or following year.

“We’ve learned that volunteers have the greatest amount of impact when they have longevity” says Mark Entzminger, AG Children’s Ministries senior director. “For example, often volunteers don’t feel comfortable teaching until after they’ve seen some success in teaching. That’s why investing in teacher training is so important — it sets volunteers up for teaching success.”

"Gilbert and Maritza really understand this principal,” agrees Boyd. “I remember, back in Florida, we would go to a teacher training conference and 500 people would come — one-sixth of them would be from their church!”

Although SFLC is located in an area where poverty runs rampant, as indicated by about 70 percent of school children being on the free lunch program, the Ceballoses have led in developing compassion within the hearts of these poverty-stricken kids.

“For some, it may be hard to imagine kids who have less than many of the children in our church’s kids ministry,” Gilbert says, “but poverty is relative. There are children all around the world who have far less. When our kids realize there are children who have never owned shoes, never have had a single toy, who struggle every day to simply stay alive, they want to help and raise funds for missions.”

Maritza explains that the kids are encouraged to bring whatever they can in their BGMC Buddy Barrels and boxes — pennies, nickels, dimes — and the adults in the church are made aware of what the kids are doing and participate as well.

The Ceballoses say that when they first arrived at SFLC, the children’s ministry program was not giving any money to BGMC and its work in helping missionaries. This past year, the church gave more than $7,500! As for ministering to the needs of its neighborhood, the church has established relationships with local schools. The school provides the church with a list of needs, and the church works to raise the money and provide for those needs. And when the church holds a special event, the school is quick to spread the news through its network. This June, the church is also going to be the site for a Convoy of Hope outreach.

When people ask if the Ceballoses think they’re too old for children’s ministry, they laugh. “So many people think that children’s ministry is only for young people,” Gilbert says. “But with age comes experience — and for a church like Sheffield, or any church where children’s ministry is challenging, you not only need experience, but the right kind of experience.”

“There’s really no substitute for experience, especially when its coupled with passion for ministry,” Entzminger says. “Although we do have many gifted young leaders and volunteers, many of our best children’s pastors and volunteers are people closing in on senior citizen status, and have no intentions of stepping away from ministry.”

Unfortunately, too many volunteers have the false sense that once their kids are raised, it time to get out of children’s ministry.

“But that’s just the opposite of what it should be,” Entzminger says. “Having just raised a child, parents are far more qualified — and typically have more free time — than at any point in their parenting lives to be a part of children’s ministry.” 

“If you don’t care about people,” Gilbert says about being effective in children’s ministry, “they won’t care about you or what you have to say. But love kids like they are your own and show parents that you care about them, and you will begin to see change in their lives!”

Entzminger and Boyd agree. They also credit the Ceballoses for being masters at taking children’s ministries programs that are actually driving young parents away from the church, and revitalizing them — from the physical facility to the volunteers who serve — so parents are now drawn to the church because of its ministry to children.

“Yes, some kids can be a real challenge,” Maritza admits, “but love on them, build a relationship with them, allow time in service for the Holy Spirit to minister to them, and one day you’ll turn around and realize you have kids who are on fire for God and ready to be leaders in your ministry!”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.