Despite multiple obstacles, Texas Gulf Hispanic District wields supersized impact.Bounded on the east and south by the Gulf just north to Corpus Christi, and the embattled border with Mexico, the southern tip of Texas is rife with God-sized challenges.
This is the Texas Gulf Hispanic District, geographically the smallest of the 14 U.S. Assemblies of God Hispanic districts. Its two largest metro areas (anchored by McAllen and Brownsville) ranked first and second on a list of America’s poorest cities. Many of its foreign-born residents lack legal documentation, which limits their opportunities.
Then there’s frequent natural disasters, the volatile border with Mexico, and, in 2020, COVID-19.
But far greater than the difficulties and obstacles is the Philippians 4:13 spirit: Whatever the Lord calls them to do is possible through Christ’s strength. Since the district’s founding in 2012 as one of four created from the vast Gulf Latin American District (GLAD), it’s grown from 102 churches to 146. Beginning this year, Texas Gulf Hispanic aims to plant 20 churches each year for the next decade.
“We never think of ourselves as poor; we can't think of ourselves as victims,” says Eddie De la Rosa, 58, the district’s superintendent and a member of the AG’s Commission on Ethnicity. “Our churches don't make an issue of us being pobrecitos nosotros — poor us. We want to impact the society.”
“If you invest in Kingdom matters, the King will take care of you,” says Dino Espinoza, the district’s general presbyter and superintendent from 2012 to 2016. “Though we have some humble little places, we have some super-nice churches in small communities because of the attitude we are here to win the lost.”
Both note that obstacles have solutions.
The district can’t hold a gathering in one location because of immigration checkpoints that would block some congregants from attending. So three times a year, De la Rosa, assistant superintendent Rick Reyes, secretary-treasurer Maricela Hernandez, and an itinerating missionary as a staff themselves tour the eight sections in the district.
“They can’t come to us, so we go to them,” De la Rosa says. That’s also led to opening more schools of ministry (SOMs) so everybody in the area can access one.
In 2012, the lion’s share of the district’s 150 pastors topped age 40. The district focused on encouraging young people to become credentialed ministers, which, thanks in part to multiplying SOMs, has made studying the Word and doctrine so accessible. Today, the district has 302 ministers. Espinoza, 71, points out that 25 percent of the ministers are now age 40 and younger.
Many of the older generation speak primarily Spanish, but the young now feel more comfortable in English. So churches add second services to allow for individual preferences. All but two congregations offer at least one Spanish service.
Churches that have received help are now turning around to assist others in need. Seeing the Lord’s provision after devastating Hurricane Harvey has strengthened the faith of congregants and pastors alike, De la Rosa says. A fruit of that, for example, is pastor Robert Sáenz, who received help rebuilding Primera Asamblea De Dios, the devastated church he leads in Corpus Christi. He now uses his know-how to help guide other congregations in similar straits.
The same goes with battling hunger. De la Rosa cites Family Christian Assembly, planted by Rafael and Maricela Hernandez in rural Peñitas, five minutes from the Mexican border. Although the community is among the poorest in the district, the church donates boxes of fruit and vegetables to those in need.
“We used to be the missionary field, the ones getting the help,” says. “Now we’re giving the help,”
While 2020 may not seem to be a year for which to be grateful, De la Rosa is relishing the moment.
“Even in the middle of the pandemic, we’re interviewing for first time credential candidates and planting churches,” he says.
Noting the strength of the Assemblies of God in Mexico, De la Rosa says adherents migrating to the Rio Grande Valley look for AG churches.
“Even if services are in English and they don’t understand a word, they go because of their affiliation,” he says.
That growth, however, didn’t just happen by itself.
From the district’s inception, Espinoza says the Lord impressed upon him the need to invest in revitalizing and planting churches. Likewise eight years ago, De la Rosa pinpointed church planting as the key to the district’s future.
So leaders from the AG Church Multiplication Network visited the then-GLAD district office in San Antonio for a church-planting seminar. That event proved to be the first of many.
“We don’t look for excuses for not being able to grow,” De la Rosa says. “We find a way.”
A primary method to empower church planting is through bivocational plants, Maricela Hernandez notes, especially in poor areas. Many planters are women. Husbands recognize their wives’ calling and financially sustain the plant, often beginning with child outreaches that meet the community’s needs.
“It bothers me that we haven’t taken the time to put a church in every community,” De la Rosa says. “If a little town has a school district, there are enough people to congregate for a church. Every community has to have a church.”