Called by God: Women Who are Breaking the Stained-Glass Ceiling

Called By God, Part Two

Women Who Are Breaking the Stained-Glass Ceiling

 October 24, 2019 | See Part One

One female lead pastor in the Covenant engages her community by building relationships on Chicago’s South Side. Another is inviting her Portland, Oregon, church to explore issues of systemic injustice and what it means to live into holistic compassion. Two serve in churches in Southern California, becoming stabilizing presences and prophetic voices for their congregants, the majority of whom, like their pastors, are immigrants.

These women are serving in lead pastoral roles as a result of the decision at the Covenant’s Annual Meeting in 1976 to ordain women. Forty-three years later, women pastors are serving in every aspect of ministry. Yet only 9 percent of Covenant churches are led by women. In Part One of our series, we asked why that is the case and delved into changes that need to happen on societal, congregational, and denominational levels. In Part Two, the Companion staff spent time with women who are serving in these roles to witness firsthand how God is using them to transform their communities. These are their stories.

Stephanie Ahn Mathis


“I lean into my call to pastor
and to love and feed the sheep.”

Co-senior Pastor
West Hills Covenant Church
Portland, Oregon

 

Stephanie Ahn Mathis stands in front of her congregation of about 150 people at West Hills Covenant Church and grasps a ball of thick, braided yarn. Above her, a projection screen displays a drawing of the yarn, labeled with the word “HAN.” Han, she explains, is a Korean concept representing “unresolved pain and resentment against injustice suffered.”

She strolls with ease around the stage in jeans and flats, quoting Jesus and Gandhi to demonstrate the fruitlessness of resolving han with violence. “You are kingdom-of-God subjects,” she tells the congregation. “Now, live out your God-created identity, not like this world of violence and revenge. Live generously and graciously toward others—the way God lives toward you.”

With gentleness, she unfurls a portion of yarn. There’s another way to respond to suffering, she says. It’s called “hanpuri, or the unraveling of han in artistic and revolutionary ways.”

Above her, the screen switches to a mural of Harriet Tubman, stretching out her hand as a symbol of courage and invitation to freedom.

“God invites us to co-create with us something beautiful, and it will take some time and some tenderness to make it into something. We fight with healing and compassion. We fight with righteousness and joy.”

Hanpuri looks like the risky, selfless freedom Tubman offered, Ahn Mathis says. It’s what she sees God doing in this church. It’s deconstructing racist and oppressive narratives. It’s having hard conversations around immigration. It’s bringing meals to each other and selling wedding dresses to raise money for combating human trafficking. It’s engaging in a curriculum on rethinking incarceration.

Four and a half years ago, West Hills called Ahn Mathis and her husband, Mark Mathis, to co-lead their church, a brown-roofed building at the end of a Portland cul-de-sac whose congregation that was about 80 percent white (and noticeably more multicultural since the couple started leading it). The member vote was 69-0. Ahn Mathis, the church’s first senior female pastor and its first senior pastor of color, still has the piece of paper recording the ballot.

“A leader came up to me right after the vote with tears in his eyes,” she says. He told her, “We’re an artist church; someone always has to be different. But this is the first time in our history we’ve ever been unanimous in any pastoral call.”

The evening before she preached, over a meal of bibimbap and beef short ribs at Always Spring, nestled on the second floor of a Korean grocery store, Ahn Mathis, who was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Houston by parents who had immigrated from Seoul, shares that “I never thought seminary could be for me.”

After serving as a missionary in East Asia and while working in corporate human resources, Ahn Mathis spent a year immersed in the Gospels, studying Jesus’s approach to justice and compassion. She wondered, “How have I been a professional Christian for so long and nobody told me” that Jesus’s concern for oppressed people was core to his message? “And then I heard this whisper, and God said, ‘Go to the pastor factories. That’s how you change the system.’” She responded at first with doubt. “How could I do that? I’m a woman.”

Then she heard about a “discover” event at  Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside of Boston that would cover her room and board while letting her visit classes. “That sounded awesome—for a vacation,” she says, laughing. She decided to go.

Afterward, the director of admissions phoned her monthly, calling her “the one that got away.” As God inspired her to write Bible studies about Jesus’s encounters with the poor and oppressed, she “didn’t want to mishandle Scripture,” prompting her to think more
seriously about seminary.

 

“One big reason some churches
do hire women as senior pastors
is their pastors teach about
biblical inclusion of women.”

 

When she finally agreed to enroll, the director who had called arranged a sizable scholarship for her. She left Austin, Texas, relocated to South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and while there, met her husband, Mark, a steadfast supporter of women in ministry.

“He was never pushy, never judgmental, never condescending, just quietly and unpretentiously living out the upside-down kingdom,” she says. “I was like, ‘I want to be like that guy.’”

While attending a storefront church in Boston, Ahn Mathis also encountered female senior pastors for the first time. At Gordon-Conwell, she founded the school’s justice student association and helped implement a biblical global justice course that is still being taught now.   

She went on to work with the Oregon Center for Christian Voices in advocacy and justice before being recruited by Warner Pacific University to serve as a campus pastor. She was serving a six-week stint as the interim pastor at Irvington Covenant Church in Portland when she and Mark got the call from West Hills.

She credits the work done at the church by Ted Nordlund and Randy Roth, co-pastors in the 1970s and 1980s, for preparing her path to ministry there.

“They had lots of discussions and forums and conversation about women in ministry,” she says. “One big reason some churches do hire women as senior pastors is their pastors teach about biblical inclusion of women at all levels of leadership. Doing that work helps churches step into their responsibility to empower the gifting and calling of women.”

At the Mathis family’s home the day before church services, Stephanie cradles her two-year-old son, Eliot, feeding purple and pink Pedialyte Freezer Pops to him and his older brother Noah, seven, who had both been sick for several days. In the midst of prepping for her sermon and cuddling her kids, Ahn Mathis received a 5:30 a.m. text message from a congregant asking for advice. The night before, someone else had texted her at 9:30 p.m. about an anxiety-inducing diagnosis. Though her calling as a pastor can appear closer to life integration than life balance, she loves feeling connected to people.

She and Mark job share, together composing the equivalent of a 1.25 full-time employee. “We get into spikes where it’s more like 2.5,” Mark says, “but co-pastoring, job sharing, has been a cool opportunity for us both to be engaged. We still work when the kids are around, but we have the opportunity to be really present with them. We share the work and the home stuff together.”

Ahn Mathis brings these perspectives as a mom, wife, Korean American woman, and justice advocate to the way she preaches and shepherds her congregation. She has a consciousness about whom she quotes in her sermons and a subconsciousness about how people may react to her as a woman of color.

She nearly always wears her ordination stole to weddings and funerals so visitors will know her role. Though she’s aware of varying reactions to her call, she says it’s crucial for her to maintain a posture of embrace to all; the stole also reminds her of being yoked with Jesus. “Regardless of hurtful comments, whether unintentional or intentional, I lean into my call to pastor and to love and feed the sheep,” she says.

Wayne Smith, a retired Covenant pastor who serves on the one-and-a-half-year-old biblical justice ministry at West Hills, says he appreciates how Ahn Mathis “has been able to release her passion for biblical justice and racial justice” into the congregation—and how she’s helped inspire his own continued involvement.

After the service, Smith and other congregants linger in the sanctuary, chatting with each other and Ahn Mathis, who’s generous with her hugs. A few feet away, a whiteboard hangs on her office door, and someone has scribbled in blue marker, “Thanks for all you and Mark do.”

That morning, Ahn Mathis preached to laughter and nods. Now, she strolls by artwork in the church’s interior hallway made by multiethnic artists, another of her ideas. One painting depicts Bethlehem as Native American-style cliff-dwelling homes and a close-up acrylic of a brown-skinned baby Jesus.

Everyone has left, and she replaces the skein of “han” yarn on her office bookshelf. She walks out of West Hills, letting the doors shut so she can head home to eat chicken wings and play basketball with her family.

by Erin Chan Ding


Margarita Monsalve


“When I’m speaking with them,
I am always giving them words of hope.”

Lead Pastor
Navegando con Jesús
Torrance, California

 

Margarita Monsalve stands in front of the small stage at her church on Cabrillo Avenue, a wide street punctuated by palm trees in the coastal California city of Torrance. Props nailed to the wall symbolizing the armor of God encircle her—the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation—as well as brown sandals representing the gospel of peace.

The outside of the building, part of a series of storefronts, has a green doorframe and windowsills and an HVAC unit affixed to a concrete overhang. Though Monsalve has named the church Navegando con Jesús, or Navigating with Jesus, a music stand with a white sign attached bears the following in black, cutout letters: Casa de Oración. House of Prayer.

The smell of picanha and filet mignon cooking on spits at the Brazilian churrascaria next door floats into the church. Once every several seconds, a pickup truck or sedan whirs by.

Inside the one-room church, below the armor, sits a copy of Discursos a Mis Estudiantes, by C.H. Spurgeon, a Spanish translation of his Lectures to My Students. A basket in the back overflows with tambourines. Paper figures with names scrawled on them have been affixed to a nearby net. They’re the children, neighbors, friends, and relatives for whom the church is praying.

Fittingly, Monsalve first started Navegando con Jesús on a boat in the California port town of San Pedro. The church mirrors its pastor: small, slight, and unassuming from the outside but bursting with care and community within.

Monsalve, whose stature belies a gravel voice that resounds while preaching, begins, “When I got arrested and sent to prison…”

Seeing stunned faces, she backs up, detailing her immigration journey to California in the 1980s from Colombia.

Pablo Escobar, who controlled a swath of the cocaine trade in Colombia and surrounding countries, had founded what would become the Medellín Cartel in the 1970s. Notorious for his ruthlessness, Escobar and his operatives went after government officials, police, and rival drug cartels. Monsalve’s husband and his brother were political figures in Colombia.

 

“Knowing their pastor is in a similar situation
as they are lessens their anxiety.
I know what it’s like to not know what will happen,
yet I am at peace. I no longer have fear.”

 

People Monsalve knew served as political figures in Colombia.“Cuando nosotros nos venimos, alguien que me conocía lo habia detenido por las guerillas,” Monsalve says in her narrow church office, pointing to the city of Medellín on a world map. “When we came, someone I knew had been detained by the guerillas.”

Then, someone else close to her was killed by a letter bomb.

Soon after, Monsalve left for the United States with her daughter and son.      

Reflecting on her journey, Monsalve, now 65 and a grandmother of three, takes a breath, and exclaims while exhaling, “God is good.”

The story that began with an arrest happened about nine years ago and is still ongoing. After fleeing Colombia, she applied for political asylum, but a series of snafus unexpectedly led to a deportation order. The order led to her arrest, and immigration officials sent her to a detention facility in Los Angeles.

A network of Covenant pastors intervened. They got her legal help, and church, conference, and national leaders also signed a petition pleading for permission for her to stay, which was granted. Monsalve says she now checks in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials every year.

Monsalve’s immigration experience has become a balm to her own congregation of about 100, several of whom are undocumented.   

“When I’m speaking with them, I am always giving them words of hope,” she says in Spanish. “Knowing their pastor is in a similar situation as they are lessens their anxiety. I know what it’s like to not know what will happen, yet I am at peace. I no longer have fear. God will take care of us if he wants us over there, and God will take care of us if he wants us over here.”

Valerie Franco, 36, walked into Navegando con Jesús a decade ago and stayed when she felt its embrace of others and the warmth of its pastor. She considers Monsalve a mentor and with her pastor’s encouragement, has started preaching at the church.

“It’s undeniable she serves God wholeheartedly, genuinely and with love,” Franco says. “Words of comfort, words of love. All of that changes hearts and communities.”

by Erin Chan Ding

 

Karen Brewer


“‘I’m Pastor Karen.’ I didn’t make a big deal over it.”

Senior Pastor
Atonement Covenant Church
Chicago, Illinois

 

On a warm afternoon last summer, Atonement Covenant Church in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood was hopping. Vacation Bible school was meeting in the basement while outside a group was setting up for a block party. The doors of the church were open as people came and went. Some volunteers from the congregation bustled around a baby in a stroller. Others helped assemble and coordinate the activities set to take place outside.

In the middle of the activity at the 110-year-old church building on the corner of South Laflin and 70th is Pastor Karen Brewer, who that day was out on the sidewalk, taking time to listen, laugh, and give a hug.

She explains that it’s her priority to develop relationships with the church’s neighbors. “We are more a member of the community than the community is a member of us,” she says. “Everybody in the community says this is their church. We have more membership outside than inside.”

As a neighborhood, Englewood struggles with declining population and 18.6 percent unemployment. In the past ten years, 861 buildings in the community were demolished, the Chicago Sun Times reported in August, and 46.6 percent of households live below the poverty line, according to the Chicago Data Portal. Despite the economic challenges facing the community, Brewer says, those who remain are thriving, and they are hopeful for an even brighter tomorrow.

The churches in Englewood are a significant part of that vision. One Friday night last spring, Brewer joined a group of local pastors as they walked through the neighborhood. “We wanted to meet the people out on the streets where despair and hopelessness sometimes abound,” she says. They walked from 9:45 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. “You hear a lot of things in the news that do not adequately reflect what is really happening,” she says. “The media habitually highlights the problems of Englewood and almost totally neglects the positive things taking place here—and there are a lot of positive attributes.”

 


“If the opportunity has presented itself
for us to be recognized as servants of God,
as lead pastors, then we have to lead and not stumble
over the unfairness or the uncertainty.”

 

 

Brewer began serving as interim pastor in 2004, and she was called to the role permanently a year later. When she arrived, she says, some longtime members struggled with the transition. “We had men pastors all these years, and now this woman is going to come and change things.”

She adds, “Across the board, inside and outside the church, people struggle with the idea of female leadership from the pulpit.” But the congregation made space for her to find her own way and follow God’s lead.

Before becoming a pastor, Brewer had done advocacy work on behalf of survivors of domestic violence. For 13 years she ran an agency she had founded, then she began working with Wellspring, an advocacy ministry of the Central Conference.

And then the Spirit began to stir her heart. “Should I be working on domestic violence?” she started wondering, “Or should I be working on things of God? Should I be teaching Sunday school or in the prayer ministry? Should I be serving my church?”

Eventually Brewer began training to become a licensed minister. In 2003, she enrolled in seminary, and after a long journey with illness that included cancer, diabetes, and fibro myalgia, she was finally ordained at the Annual Meeting last June. In 2018, she was awarded the denomination’s Irving C. Lambert Award for her commitment to urban ministry.

Because she had been a member of the church for two years before she began serving as pastor, it was a challenge for some people initially to shift from calling her “Miss Karen” to “Pastor Karen.”

“I didn’t necessarily try to declare who I was. I just met them and kept meeting them where they were. I just said, ‘I’m Pastor Karen.’ I didn’t make a big deal over it.”

Gradually the church began to know her as a pastor who understood recovery, domestic violence, financial problems, divorce and remarriage, and blended families—because she had experienced all of it.

“As they came to know me as a pastor who didn’t just talk about it or give them a Scripture verse, they met me as a pastor who walked with God and learned how the joy of the Lord could be my strength. They were getting a pastor who could tell them, ‘I know you can’t see God, but he’s as close to you as your skin.’”

Brewer calls upon her fellow women colleagues in ministry who may be feeling a lack of respect to boldly model how God is working in and through them.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by those who would attempt to marginalize us,” she says. “If the opportunity has presented itself for us to be recognized as servants of God, as lead pastors, then we have to lead and not stumble over the unfairness or the uncertainty. We are created in God’s image, and we have to be confident about that. If we are yielded vessels he can work through, the power of God will overcome the opposition.

by Linda Sladkey

Heidi Wiebe


“I finally agreed with my mother that
perhaps it was time to go to seminary.”

Lead Pastor
Hope Community Church
Strathmore, Alberta

 

Heidi Wiebe’s father initially discouraged her from pursuing pastoral ministry. “I think at some level he didn’t want me to experience the same kind of pain my mom had,” she says.

Her mother, Marie Wiebe, was one of the first women to be ordained in the ECC and served on staff of a church that did not fully embrace women in ministry. It took several years before she was able to convince the leadership there to allow her to lead a communion service. When the senior pastor left, she was told the church would not consider calling a woman to fill the role.

However, the Pacific Southwest Conference recognized Marie’s gifts and passion and asked her to plant a congregation in Camarillo, south of San Diego. In 1986, she became the first ordained woman to plant a church in the Covenant.

“I think being on her own and making the church into a place that really echoed her own desire and love of God was a wonderful thing for her,” Wiebe says. “She reveled in the experience of planting a church. The people who went there already knew there was a woman pastor, and I think that tempered her pain.”

When Wiebe was young, her mother encouraged her to pursue ministry. “I think she saw some of her own pastoral gifts in me.
I loved talking about my faith
.”

But she wasn’t excited about the idea. She wanted to become a physician, but when she didn’t pass the oral exams for her master’s thesis on what was supposed to be the path to medical school, she started rethinking her plans. She traveled for a year with Covenant Heartsong, a volunteer ministry that shared the gospel through music, drama, and puppetry across the United States.

Wiebe also helped plant a Mission Lutheran congregation where she volunteered and served on the board. Several years later, she says, “I finally agreed with my mother that perhaps it was time to go to seminary.”

So she enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary where her mother and brother had attended—they were the first mother-son pair to graduate together there. Another first came in 1993 at Heidi’s ordination when mother and daughter both participated in the
service—Marie laid hands on Heidi, passing on the mantle of ministry.

 

“I’ve been really blessed
because I’ve been able to be
a pastor who happens to be a woman
rather than a woman pastor.”

 

As Wiebe neared the end of her orientation studies at North Park Theological Seminary, a superintendent cautioned her that some congregations would not consider calling a woman. After her graduation, it was months before she even got an interview. It was “a painfully long wait,” she recalls.

Then Grandview Covenant Church in Larchwood, Iowa, asked if she would talk with them.

“I immediately asked if my gender would be an issue,” Wiebe says. “I didn’t want to go through a long process if it was going to pop up later.” Their response: “We haven’t even talked about that.”

She ended up serving the congregation for seven years.

“I remember sitting in my little office at the farmland-surrounded church and thinking I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this,” she says. “It was so much fun!”

Since then, Wiebe has served Covenant congregations in Oberlin and Topeka, Kansas, as well as two interims.

Last January, Hope Community Church in Strathmore, Alberta, a congregation with an average attendance of just over 200, called her to serve as their lead pastor.

Over the years, Wiebe says, “I’ve been really blessed because I’ve been able to be a pastor who happens to be a woman rather than a woman pastor. It was more of an issue with laypeople when I went to conference annual meetings. They didn’t know what to do with
me, especially when I said I was single.”

Wiebe says personal interactions often change people’s attitudes about women in ministry. “When you live in a small community and you’re there when babies are born, and you’re there for support when parents die—through all that stuff, all they want is someone to love and care for them. When you do that kind of work, it doesn’t matter what your gender is.”

But she laments there aren’t more opportunities for women.

“There are still these big swaths of the country where women aren’t allowed in the pulpit,” she says, noting that one church did not allow a female superintendent to preach in their service. “That’s crazy!”

Wiebe says that despite his initial concerns, her father has been a strong supporter throughout her ministry. She still experiences the same joy as when she served in her first congregation. “I could not be more satisfied or more blessed to have the life I have,” she says. “It’s not where I thought I would end up, but I can’t imagine having done anything else.”

by Stan Friedman


Becky Manseau Barnett


“I was made for this. I am so happy.”

Co-Lead Pastor
Highrock Acton
Acton, Massachusetts

 

Becky Manseau Barnett did not want to go into ministry. An English major, she intended to teach high school when she graduated from college. “I’ll be the biggest cheerleader for women in ministry ever,” she said in an interview recently, “but I didn’t want to climb that mountain. It’s just too complicated for women.”

Yet when her husband, Will, enrolled in seminary, she inexplicably wanted to follow suit. “I just had this sense that I needed to go too, for my own growth and development and questions.” Her plan was to earn dual degrees in ministry and social work to prepare for a career in counseling.

They ended up at Princeton Theological Seminary. When it was time to do her internship, Barnett tried to get the requirement waived. “I wasn’t going into pastoral ministry. I tried hard to get out of it.”

But the administrators were unconvinced, and she eventually began her internship in a congregation nearby.

A couple weeks in, she came home and said to Will, “I was made for this. I am so happy.” As it turned out, she loved the variety of ministry and she loved working with people all day. She began to see how she could use her experiences and gifts to serve God’s purposes through the church.

Yet the transition to fully embody the role took time. She resisted calling herself “pastor” and flinched when she heard other people refer to her that way.

“For over a decade, I really wrestled with my identity as a pastor, asking on a daily basis, should I do this or shouldn’t I? Part of the reason was I had this idea that I needed to be amazing at it in order to do it.” Then she says she realized the average man in ministry probably doesn’t wrestle with that in the same way. “Sometimes being good enough is good enough. Maybe part of my call is to be good enough with confidence.”

 


“For most people, they just
need to experience a woman
they trust in that role.
Then it becomes personal.”

 

 

At the end of her internship she was preparing to graduate—and then the pastor who had been her mentor announced that he was leaving. The church asked Becky to stay on as interim. She said no.

But something happened at her seminary graduation. “It was one of those rare moments where it literally felt like a light from heaven shone down on me, and said, ‘Becky, get over yourself and just do it,’” she says.

So she called the church back and accepted the invitation. A year later she was still serving in that role, and she and Will were expecting their third child. She said to Will, “If we stay, you have to help more with the church stuff.” So Will came on staff as co-lead pastor.

Along the way, Barnett encountered her share of resistance. One retired New York City police officer, who was old enough to be her father, always referred to her as “kiddo.” “After he was diagnosed with cancer, he started calling me pastor,” she says. “As I journeyed with him, bringing him to chemotherapy and even being present with him in his final days, it was a powerful lesson that this is not about me. It is about the role God calls me to play in somebody’s life.”

Another man walked out during her first sermon because she was a woman. After the service, Barnett found him downstairs. She said, “I know we have our differences, but I hope that we can be friends.” They shook hands, and he became a big supporter. “He was a retired volunteer firefighter, and he got my kids firefighter shirts.”

What changed?

“I think he got to know me as a person,” Barnett says, “and knew he could trust me. At the end of the day, we can talk theology till we’re blue in the face, but for most people, they just need to experience a woman they trust in that role. Then it becomes personal.”

Barnett used to say she would never plant a church. But she has learned that “church planting is so much easier than church revitalization, hands down.” The first church she served closed three years after she and Will began serving there. Today they are co-lead pastors/planters of Highrock Acton, 30 miles outside of Boston.

The original plan was for Will to serve as lead pastor, with Becky as associate. “At the time, it was a really good idea,” she says. Her mom had died very suddenly two years earlier, and she wanted to focus on their kids. “Our oldest was 10, and this was going to be his fourth elementary school. I felt like I wanted that psychological barrier of being an associate pastor in order to sort of protect my family.”

But they quickly realized the setup didn’t make sense. They were already sharing both the responsibility and authority of ministry, so they talked to the Highrock Network and East Coast Conference superintendent Howard Burgoyne, who all said, “We know you are already serving as co-lead pastors, so if you’re ready to name that, great.”

Barnett admits that serving together does complicate her identity in ministry. “I regularly get introduced as the pastor’s wife. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but there’s part of me that sometimes wonders if I can ever be seen as a pastor in my own right as long as I serve alongside him.”

But, she adds, “The spiritual invitation for me has been to keep leaning in and being who I am and who God has called me to be. To just speak up and show up and not to worry about it.”

And that will make a difference for the next generation of women pastors. Perhaps they will struggle less—just as Barnett recognizes that her struggles are different because leaders such as Karen Palmatier and Nancy Ebner and others in the generations ahead paved the way for her. “If I’m willing to stand in the gap, maybe the women who come after me will be able to be amazing without worrying about being good enough.”

by Cathy Norman Peterson


Carmen Quinche


“We serve as the church on the outside. That’s why our church is named ‘Comunidad.’”

Co-Senior Pastor
Comunidad Cristiana Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico
Los Angeles, California

 

A bouquet of Chupa Chup lollipops, wrapped in red, blue, and green, rests in a bowl. It sits on a table set before a stage bearing an illuminated cross at Comunidad Cristiana Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico, or Community Christian Covenant Church, located at a quiet corner in northeast Los Angeles. Despite the half-dozen assorted flavors, Carmen Quinche, co-senior pastor, worries there isn’t enough.

“Oh, I have more!” she says. “What flavor do you want? Fresa? Strawberry? Lime? Orange?”

She ducks into a room behind the stage and emerges with a Costco-size bag filled with the Spanish candy.

The feeling of abundance extends to this church, which meets in a gym-turned-multipurpose-room-turned-sanctuary. A basketball hoop with an enamel-white backboard still hangs in the back.

A year and a half ago, Quinche planted Comunidad Cristiana with her husband, Leonardo Carrillo, and they minister to a couple of dozen congregants with weekly Bible studies and prayer gatherings.

At 10:20 a.m. every Sunday after service, the church gathers in the courtyard for snacks and fellowship. Sometimes, they also eat with worshipers at the Korean Covenant Church of Los Angeles, which meets in the building’s adjacent sanctuary—a more traditional one with long wooden pews—in a multicultural mashup common to Southern California.

 

“With all my heart
and all my strength,
I wanted to find
different ways to serve.”

 

Before they even planted the church, the couple began offering computer classes to the community.

“We serve as the church on the outside,” Quinche says. “That’s why our church is named ‘Comunidad.’”

Quinche and Carrillo found Jesus around the same time, during a fragile stage in their marriage two decades ago, just after they emigrated from Colombia. They were separated at the time, and Carrillo had hit a nadir and was living at the Los Angeles Mission in the city’s Skid Row neighborhood.

“A lot of people think Skid Row is dangerous,” he says, “but I found Jesus there.”

Quinche, a cancer survivor, had started attending a church, and she had an epiphany in her home about her need for Jesus.

“We were in a crisis,” she says, “and it was the way we found Jesus. I went from never wanting to be a Christian—my younger brother had been the only Christian in my family—to wanting Jesus always. With all my heart and all my strength, I wanted to find different ways to serve.”

As they each grew closer to Jesus, they started volunteering at churches. They attended Bible studies, voracious for Scripture. Pastors began mentoring them. Their marriage mended, and Quinche began preaching.

“I never saw myself preaching because I’m nervous, I’m shy,” she says. “I prefer to be seated. When I started to teach, people told me, ‘You have that gift.’ Then, I realized, ‘Okaaaay.’”

Together, Quinche and Carrillo attended Centro Hispano de Estudios Teológicos (CHET), the Covenant’s Los Angeles-based Hispanic theological training center, and earned their bachelor’s degrees in Christian ministry.

Parents to two sons in their 20s, they served in churches throughout Los Angeles before being called to plant Comunidad Cristiana.

As co-senior pastors, they work together to arrange chairs, preach sermons, visit congregants, and fill the bowl of Chupa Chups.

“Everything,” she says, “we do together.”

by Erin Chan Ding

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