At Jones A.M.E., 4 congregations are the merrier
By SALATHEIA BRYANT-HONORS FOR THE CHRONICLE, Jan. 2, 2009
A couple of weeks ago the Rev. Robert Green was finishing a Bible-study series on the simplicity of the Christmas message — caring about and sharing with others.
“Christmas is not about us receiving gifts, but it is about us helping people,” said Green, pastor of Jones A.M.E. Praise and Worship Center, 115 West Road. “None of this belongs to us. Everything we have, including this building, belongs to God.”
Green and his African-American congregation have put into practice what they preach about Christmas and Christianity in a tangible way since buying the spacious church campus in October 2007. Jones moved to the patch of property on the northeast side of town from the Heights where the 89-year-old congregation had been since 1964.
In this era of megachurches with facilities all over town, Green’s church offers a new twist: four different congregations in one location.
Jones, an African Methodist Episcopal congregation, shares its campus with two Hispanic congregations and a small Laotian congregation. On Sunday, morning services are conducted in English, Spanish and Lao.
At least two services are usually going on at the same time. Parking is at a premium. Members from each congregation easily refer to the leader of the other churches as “pastor.”
Along West Road are four church signs in a row: Jones A.M.E. Praise and Worship Center, Nueva Vision Iglesia De Dios, Iglesia Sendero de la Cruz and one knocked off its hinges by Hurricane Ike, First Lao Presbyterian Church.
“I don’t say rent. We share because all this belongs to God. There is no contract,” Green said. “We’re brothers and sisters in Christ. We all respect each other.”
Green said the partnership also means greater outreach efforts into the community.
“Everybody benefits. Something goes on at the church seven days a week,” he said.
The pastors believe their communal ecumenical arrangement illustrates Christian principles and makes economic sense in a down economy where even the faithful are pinching their pennies and churches are careful about balancing their budgets.
The Rev. Ricardo Ramirez pays $2,000 a month to use the sanctuary, classrooms, offices and spacious grounds where they held outdoor festivals last summer.
“It’s a big help for us,” said Ramirez of the congregation he and two other families formed three years ago. “It’s a big campus at a good location. It is no way we could afford something like that.”
Before moving here, the Hispanic congregation rented a smaller space that had been a machine shop.
Ramirez said friends and other pastors are curious about how they make it work.
“There have been no problems. Pastor Green works the schedule. All of us have different hours,” he said.
Ramirez hopes one day his congregation — Iglesia Sendero de la Cruz, a Pentecostal denomination — can afford its own building. He offers two services on Sunday and also meets a couple of days during the week.
“This is a way to work together so that we all can grow, said Ramirez. “For churches like us that are under 300 (members) it’s a good opportunity for us to share expenses to save some money.”
In the past year his church has grown from 50 to 150 members.
“The spirit of Christmas teaches that we’re supposed to share and help each other. That’s what we’re doing over there in the building, helping each other,” said Ramirez.
The Rev. Javier Manrique, pastor of Nueva Vision, said he has talked with other churches, but they wanted as much as $4,000 a month. His congregation already met at the site when Jones bought the property from Advent Presbyterian, which now worships in Spring.
“Brother Green understands the outreach for the Hispanic in the area,” said Manrique. “I do not pay real rent. I pay an offering. We may be here another two or three years or maybe forever. I don’t know.”
He and Green have held a service together in which Manrique preached and the message was translated into English and Green preached and the message was translated into Spanish. Manrique’s church has members from eight countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela and Guatemala.
The idea of sharing has taken on new meaning since Hurricane Ike.
The Jones congregation used the main sanctuary until the hurricane’s winds ripped the roof off, damaging everything inside.
The congregation lost all its pews, sound equipment and instruments. Now Jones and Nueva Vision share the space that Iglesia Sendero de la Cruz uses.
Jones’ service has been rescheduled from 11 a.m. to 8 a.m. Then Iglesia Sendero de la Cruz has its service at 10:30 a.m., Nueva Vision meets at 1:30 p.m. Iglesia Sendero de la Cruz has a Sunday evening service at 6 p.m. First Lao Presbyterian Church uses another space for its Sunday services that starts with Bible study at 9 a.m. and worship at 10 a.m.
First Lao Presbyterian is the smallest congregation with 47 members. His church has met here for more than a decade He pays $100 a month for his space.
“Cars are everywhere,” Vorabouth said. “It’s like a friendship.”
Vorabouth says that each church’s teachings is similar but their styles differ.
“It’s kind of loud,” Vorabouth said of the vibrant singing that reverberates from the Hispanic and black congregations.
Green laughs heartily and nods. In fact, he said, there may be room for one more congregation — another pastor is interested in moving in.
Green said he would like to see other congregations duplicate what they have done.
“It’s important for the children. They get to see other ethnicities and other church environments,” Green said. “We’re trying to start a movement by our example. What we have done shows that it is possible for different denominations and different ethnicities to work together and to be ourselves. It has been a beautiful thing.”