Confident Despite Roadblocks
Single Latina church planter Adelita Garza has no qualms leading a congregation.With the Assemblies of God SoCal Network acting as liaison, Iglesia Puente de Vida (Bridge of Life Church) in Santa Paula, California, recently managed to purchase a $1.5 million building for $170,000. By reselling the property, the church will have the necessary funds to move to a yet-to-be determined site. When that happens, Iglesia Puente de Vida will have adequate parking for the first time in its 13-year history. Attendees now must walk at two to four blocks to reach the building.
Adelita Garza planted the church in a garage, which it outgrew in three months. Puente de Vida began as a Spanish-language church, but it is now bilingual. Garza preaches two services, one in Spanish, one in English. For three years, she translated herself.
Garza’s parents — her 88-year-old Mexican-born father, Adan, and 87-year-old Texas-born mother, Rosa — met in Washington state, where they worked as farm laborers. Adelita, 50, is the 10th of 13 children. For her higher education, she moved to California, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the AG’s Bethany College and a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.
In 2005, Garza started a Spanish-speaking ministry called Puente (Bridge) at Connect Church in Ventura, where she served on staff. The church plant emerged from that experience.
Several families who attend Puente de Vida originally came from Puruándiro in the Mexican state of Michoacán. In 2019, Bridge of Life Church launched a daughter congregation there, Misión Puente, for friends and relatives who remain in the area. Puruándiro, a city of 70,500, has been plagued by poverty and drug cartels. The church there, now with 120 attendees, has held food and clothing outreaches with a spiritual component for children. The parent church also has provided startup funds for Misión Puente to operate a bread-baking business in an effort to be self-sustaining.
At Iglesia Puente de Vida in Santa Paula, 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles, around 70% of the congregants speak Spanish. Garza purchased a home in Santa Paula to show her investment in the city of 30,657, of which nearly 80% are Hispanic. For a time, Garza hosted a daily Spanish-language Christian radio program, but she ultimately found it too time-consuming.
The AG’s Church Multiplication Network provided Matching Funds to help Iglesia Puente de Vida get started. Garza now occasionally is a presenter at CMN’s Launch Training regional events. Around 250 people attend Sunday services at Iglesia Puente de Vida/Bridge of Life.
“Our vision is to improve lives and families,” Garza says. “We are all about healing and restoration, being a hospital without walls, journeying with people in their messes and watching God gracefully restore.”
Garza is something of a rarity: a never-married middle-aged woman Hispanic church planter ordained AG minister.
Early on, she sometimes questioned her calling at 16 years of age as an introvert. But 13 years of leading a church has bolstered her confidence.
“As a single woman, I have the freedom to be completely devoted to Jesus,” Garza says. “Jesus is the best protector and provider I could have.”
Garza says gender is always a factor for credentialed women who minister, whether that’s preaching from the pulpit or other roles. She realizes the theology of some denominations would forbid her from preaching. Yet she still faces resistance from a fair number of churchgoers in a Pentecostal setting.
“It doesn’t impact me anymore when people leave the church because I am a single woman,” Garza says. “If God has called me, He will equip me. I rely on the boldness of the Holy Spirit when I step on the platform.”
Garza also is grateful for the men on the church board who protect her from other men who have tried to demean or disrespect her in an effort to remove her.
Faith never has been an issue for Garza. At 7, God healed her vision so she didn’t need the eyeglasses prescribed for her; she still has perfect vision. At 16, an evangelist prayed for back pain to subside so she wouldn’t have to walk in pain; before her eyes, Garza saw one of her legs grow an inch to match the length of the other one.
MENTORING YOUNG WOMEN
As she grows older, Garza wants to model a legacy to girls and young women who sense a call of God, to help create a pathway that will open ministry paths. Four female interns from the AG’s Vanguard University and Azusa Pacific University have lived with Garza for anywhere from three months to a year.
“I want to help them discern their gifts and to gain confidence,” Garza says.
That includes Natalie Mendoza, a Vanguard religion major with a pastoral emphasis who spent a semester as an intern at Bridge of Life Church in 2014. Every Friday, she made the 100-mile, three-hour drive to Santa Paula, returning to the Costa Mesa campus on Sunday.
“Adelita helped me solidify my calling,” says Mendoza, who now is the full-time worship and creative arts pastor at the West McKinley main campus of Refinery Church in Fresno. “Just being around her made a world of difference.”
Mendoza says she had never seen before — or since — a Latina pastor unapologetically leading a church. She says Garza gained the trust and admiration of adherents who grew under her ministry: men and women; English and Spanish speakers; and young, middle-aged, and elderly. After graduating, Mendoza found a trio of jobs and kept living with Garza for an additional year of mentoring.
“Adelita opened her home, life, and heart to me so I could learn and grow,” says the 29-year-old Mendoza, whose husband, Nicholas, is a probation officer. Natalie provides support to the worship leaders on the five other Refinery Church campuses.
“When I feel insecure in my calling, I remember how Adelita gently nurtured me to remind me that I am who God says I am. I am forever indebted to her leadership.”