Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hispanic Baptist Church, since 1920s, may lose ground

Disputed vote may spell demise of Hispanic Baptist
By Bo Poertner/Managing Editor

Primera Inglesia Bautista Hispana has struggled to survive ever since the 1930s, when devout Southern Pacific Railroad workers began worshipping in a converted dining car.

Throughout the decades, the Hispanic Baptist church, with a congregation that was too small and too poor to afford a full-time pastor, fought just to pay a succession of part-time pastors while serving an impoverished Lompoc community.

During the past year, a new issue has threatened the existence of the church, which is waging what may be its last battle.

Caught in a dispute over homosexuality between its parent organization, American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), and the more conservative American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest (ABCPSW), members of the congregation were forced to choose sides.

Church Administrator Joseph Gurrola, whose grandfather preached in Lompoc in the 1920s and served as pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana for many years before retiring, said the issue came down to a crucial election in February 2008 that was rigged in favor of ABCPS.

The congregation voted 6-5 to join ABCPSW, which is now called Transformation Ministries.

Despite the protests of church officials, Gurrola said, two nonmembers were allowed to vote in the election — one an illegal immigrant, which violated church rules, and the other the wife of a minister who had been terminated by Primera Inglesia Bautista Hispana officials less than two months earlier.

“What I’m fighting is this invalid vote that took place. Because of this vote, we lost our church. It completely went to Transformation Ministries,” said Gurrola, who lives in Alhambra near Los Angeles.

He said he fears that Transformation Ministries intends to sell the church, a sorrowful death after so many years of struggling to survive.

After the votes were counted, Pastor Daniel Huerta, acting on behalf of Dale Salico, executive minister of Transformation Ministries, immediately demanded the keys to the church and the church checkbook, and ordered that the doors of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, 323 W. Hickory Ave., be locked, said Gurrola.

“It was very legal, very right. It was an amicable separation,” Huerta said. “I think (Gurrola) has a good heart, wanting to do the right thing, but doesn’t have the understanding about what was going on.”

Huerta declined to answer more questions, referring questions to Salico. Neither Salico, of Transformation Ministries, nor Sam Chetti, executive minister of ABCLA, could be reached for comment.

Gurrola said he believes that Huerta manipulated the outcome of the election. And he blamed the representative from American Baptist Churches of Los Angeles for being too passive in support of the small church’s rights.

“The representative that they sent, Dr. Jose Menendez, was not the best representative. He was more pastoral. We needed somebody to fight for us, and we didn’t have that,” Gurrola said.

“ABCLA decided to accept that illegitimate vote and just walk away, hoping things would get better, hoping it will disappear,” he said. “But it will not.”

Menendez disagreed with Gurrola’s description of the vote that was taken; he said Gurrola did not understand the process that was followed.

“That’s his point of view,” Menendez said. “He’s not qualified to talk about anything. ...”

The two women were eligible to vote because they met the standards of ABCLA, in that they had been baptized, attended services for six to eight months and had made regular offerings to the church, Menendez said.

Gurrola disagreed. “They did not meet the standards. Meeting the standards means you have to ask to be a member. You don’t become a member merely by sitting in the pews and giving money,” he said.

Menendez said that the church kept poor records of baptisms and offerings. He said there were about 45 members, but most had not been baptized and did not qualify to vote.

Gurrola acknowledged that the record-keeping could have been better, but said it was another of the church’s many challenges.

“Ms. Cabrera took care of the church; she was keeper of the church. Perhaps her record keeping wasn’t the best, but she definitely kept that church together and she was a strong defender of the church — and she did it for 25 years,” he said. “We operated as a Baptist church. We practiced the Baptist belief and we did the best that we could under the circumstances.”

Gurrola launched a campaign immediately to try to regain the church, including prayer vigils on the sidewalk at Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana and attempted negotiations with Transformation Ministries.

Ousted church members now meet at First Baptist Church of Lompoc, 220 West Cypress Ave., which is where the early railroad workers worshiped while they built their own church on West Hickory Avenue.

Transformation Ministries reopened the Lompoc church in November under the umbrella of Iglesia Ministerios El Buen Pastor, an Oxnard church that has sent a lay pastor to conduct services, according to the group’s Web site.

According to Santa Barbara County property records, the church property’s assessed value is $82,414. The church and parsonage sit on four-tenths of an acre, according to county records. Assessed value is not the same as market value, which is normally much higher.

Hector Gonzalez of Scottsdale, Ariz., a general secretary at ABCUSA and the national organization’s former president, said he supports Gurrola, Treasurer Ramona J. Cabrera and Secretary Maria G. Sanchez.

Gonzalez said it is unfair that Transformation Ministries, which chose to leave ABCUSA, now claims ownership of the Lompoc church based on so few votes.

“Why do they want the property and leave these people as orphans?” he said. “I think the whole thing was manipulated. The intent of Transformation Ministries was to just get them out of there and take the keys, keep the building, the pews. ...”

Gonzalez said that of about 290 churches in the Southwest, 60 left ABCUSA and joined Transformation Ministries.

Gurrola said he, Cabrera and Sanchez, are trying to negotiate with Transformation Ministries for the return of their church property.

He said, though, that Salico has told him that he considers Hispanic Baptist church to be “operating out of order” and has refused to allow Gurrola to inspect church files, including the church constitution.

“The more I dig deeper,” Gurrola said, “I just get the feeling that some wrongdoing happened.”

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