We have updated our Privacy Policy to provide you a better online experience.

Reaching Rio Grande Valley

Young Mexican pastor plants church across language, culture divide.

As a third-generation son of a prominent Assemblies of God family in Ciudad Victoria, capital of Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, Nepthali Zozaya was poised to receive his parents’ baton from their three-decade ministry. At age 18, he led the city’s AG youth. At 20, he became Mexico’s AG northeast district youth leader.

But Zozaya sensed that while building on his family’s ministerial foundation would be comfortable, God had other ideas. So he prayed: Lord, take me somewhere I can see You, just You and me.

The Lord answered by burdening him to reach the Texas Rio Grande Valley. That meant going as a missionary and starting from scratch.

Much weighed against Zozaya, who was born in Mexico and lacked U.S. citizenship. United States visas are next to impossible to obtain. He didn’t have enough command of the English language to preach.

Zozaya applied for a U.S. religious worker visa and recognized he indeed had received supernatural favor. In 2014, the AG congregation Comunidad Cristiana Emanuel (Emanuel Christian Community) in Edinburg, Texas, a city now with a growing population of 101,000, called him as youth pastor. Emanuel, the second church planted by Octavio and Sarai Luna, started in 2006. Emanuel has birthed three other congregations in less than 10 years.

Zozaya describes the Lunas as instruments of God to confirm, support, and deeply influence him. Under Zozaya ’s leadership, Refresh Youth grew to 120. In 2015, Zozaya married Sarai, also from his home city in Mexico. She sang on Emanuel’s worship team.

The Lord called Zozaya to nearby McAllen, a city with only two AG churches, each with 100 adherents and services mostly in Spanish. However, Zozaya recognized that young people in McAllen, population 143,000, prefer English, a language in which he hadn’t ministered.

“Most people think because it’s the Valley, just do it in Spanish,” Zozaya says. “But if we do that, were losing families who feel more comfortable in English.”

In 2019, the Zozayas attended an AG Church Multiplication Network Launch training, which equipped them with knowledge and networking support to plant a Matching Fund church also financed by CMN and AGTrust.

Nepthali says the Holy Spirit put the 78501 ZIP code in his heart.

“They call it ‘apartment city,’” Zozaya says of that area of McAllen. “You see all types of social statuses — people with lots of needs, but also people with good income. Even those people could say, ‘I don't need your help.’ But they do need the gospel.”

In late February 2020, he and Sarai drove to 78501, got out of their car, consecrated themselves before the Lord, and prayed for direction.

Their church in Edinburg appeared secure and provided a salary. In contrast, risk-taking is scary. But beyond the usual concerns that church planting entails, a week later, COVID-19 became a household word. The Rio Grande Valley became a hot spot for the novel coronavirus.

The couple chose to obey the burden on their hearts. In turn, they say God affirmed His call them with 1 Kings 17 and 18 about the Old Testament prophet Elisha, the drought, and the widow who provided food for him. As the Zozayas stepped out in faith, a single mom told them that God had burdened her to deliver groceries to them.

The Zozayas knew few people in the vicinity. With their small team, they began knocking on doors and found people surprisingly receptive. In November 2020, the couple, now with their infant son, Ithiel, launched bilingual parent-affiliated Anchor Church under Emanuel’s umbrella. Sunday attendance is around 45.

“God honors planting, having a vision,” says Zozaya, who is Texas Gulf Hispanic District assistant youth director. “It’s good to say to God, Whatever Your vision is for me, I'm willing to take a risk.”

Eddie de la Rosa, Texas Gulf Hispanic District superintendent, appreciates Zozaya.

“If I had 10 Nepthalis — with the desire, the passion, and vision he carries — we would be a tremendously strong district,” De la Rosa says.

Maricela Hernandez, the district’s secretary treasurer, notes that when she grew up in the AG section that includes McAllen, no one attempted to plant AG congregations there. Existing church programs were Spanish-only.

“It takes effort being bilingual, but Nepthali is not afraid to speak it and make mistakes,” Hernandez says. “He knows the Lord has called him to reach a generation, and if he's not bilingual, he won’t be able to fulfill that call.”

Additionally, the Zozayas understand the importance of social media to their generation. Anchor Church is active on Instagram and Facebook.

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.