Latino Church Finds New Home

God reunites past friendships and forges new ones as two congregations cultivate the mission field in their own back yard.

By Jenny Donohue

Highland Community Church and Iglesia Christiana Internacional have three things in common: They love the Lord Jesus Christ, they have a heart for community outreach and missions, and God has brought them together in His service.

Located within 15 blocks of one another on Lorain Avenue in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood, they have diverse historical backgrounds; yet each congregation shares the same vision in the Lord’s work—to reach the community for Christ. Beginning January 10, 1999, they will also be sharing the same facility.

"Highland Community Church has always been an outreach church," states Pastor Pearl Sentelik. Established 101 years ago, HCC has been in its current building for 76 years. The congregation no longer utilizes the entire facility; and rather than simply renting the unused space, "we have invited a whole congregation into our building as a missions project."

Iglesia Cristiana Internacional’s co-pastor Victor Martinez, echoes this sentiment and describes the partnership as being like a parent-child relationship. "This is truly the love of Christ being shown by this congregation. They are changing a lot and giving up a lot—and asking nothing in return from us. They have truly, truly been wonderful. It is unbelievable how they have just gone along and made all these accommodations for us. It is actually a humbling experience."

HCC has a rich history of service in the West Park community. From the beginning it has been an outreach church. For 26 years it has been the location of the West Park Food Cupboard; and HCC hosts the West Park Seniors and the Church Women Fellowship groups which are comprised of West Park residents of all denominations. Its former pastor, the Reverend Louis Knowles, was an integral part in establishing and working with the Cleveland Christian Home, a tradition of giving which the congregation continues today.

ICI has a missions vision as well, according to co-pastor Alberto Arroyo. "We believe that God is doing something with us that is rather unique. We are the only church I know (of which is) Spanish people of all nations. We have people from seven countries right now," including Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. "That is what we want to do—reach people of Hispanic tradition so they can know Christ and grow with us."

"One of the things we wanted was to stay close to the neighborhood." Martinez adds, "I believe Highland is strategically placed for our ministry. We are trying to celebrate the diversity that we have—people of different countries."

Arroyo concurs, "There are thousands of Latin people who are simply unchurched. Many of the people who come to the United States from Latin America and Mexico do not come from Christian backgrounds. They simply need to hear the Gospel for the first time. It is not that they knew it and went back. There are probably more than 50,000 people in this area who are unchurched and are Latin. We want to have a church where nobody is distinguished by class, race, money or education. We simply are equal. We serve the same Lord."

But there is more glory for the Lord in this union—the way the Lord brought his people together.

Martinez, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, was born in Lorain, Ohio; and Arroyo is a native of Puerto Rico. Both attended the Assembly of God Bible Institute in Puerto Rico, but at different times. They met in the 1980’s at the House of Praise in Lorain. Meanwhile, Arroyo went on to pastor another church in Lorain; and Martinez and his family moved to Cleveland and started attending La Iglesia Cristiana, the name of which has recently been changed to reflect their international vision.

When a pastoral vacancy occurred at La Cristiana, Martinez, who was an elder, invited Arroyo to pastor the church. Arroyo suggested a dual pastoral role with Martinez. The two prayed about it and have shared in the pastoral duties since February 1996. "We ended up with a ministry that appeared to be in trouble," Martinez remembers, "Anyway, (it was) a very decisive moment - - but we saw it through. There were times when I recall being there with my wife, Margie; and Alberto had to teach in the evening. We carried on a service like we had 200 people. There was one night in particular I remember, it was rather cold and snowy; we had one lady in the service. We sang and preached and prayed for her and did everything just the way we had always done it. We remained faithful with one or ten or five. Through it all, the Lord has blessed us, and we have grown to a number that is about 60," which is the capacity of the building ICI currently occupies.

"We began to think about a place. I had three places in mind. Highland was one of the places that I looked at about two years ago, just dreaming about some day moving on from where we were at, but did not give it much thought. I called Highland and spoke with Pastor Sentelik there. She wanted to have a meeting, and we planned a meeting for that Wednesday. This was late August. We talked and sort of let things hang open for further discussion and did not really settle anything.

"That night (my wife and I) were talking. Margie had this inclination that we knew her, and so did I. As we were talking, and it was like a flash. I realized who she was. She was my son’s kindergarten teacher. My son, when he went into kindergarten, had a lot of difficulty with the English language.

She took him in with a special love for him and nurtured him through this very traumatic experience of coming to school and not being able to communicate very well.

"So at the end of that year we lost contact. She (Sentelik) did not come back; we had no way of contacting her. Of course, the school would not give us any information, but we often thought of her. The years went by and we were apart. Little did we know that she was also wondering about us and how our son (who is now 18) was doing. I said, ‘wow, this is really the Lord’s hand in this.’"

Although each congregation will continue to hold individual Sunday School and worship services (ICI services are conducted in Spanish), all three pastors see the potential for the two congregations to work together in the future. Highland will host an open house tea for Iglesia Cristiana Internacional on January 9, 1998, so that both groups can meet and get to know one another in anticipation of ICI’s first official service to be held at Highland on January 19, 1999.

"The way this whole thing evolved I thought was rather unique, but I am finding that it is happening in other places. Some of the circumstances that happened around us are absolutely unique - - the way the Lord has put it all together," Martinez concludes. "I think it is something other churches can do in the furtherance of the Gospel in the inner city. Even here in Cleveland, there is more room for it to happen."