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Communing with Christ in the strawberry field


The faith community of Iglesia Luterana Santa Cruz communes with Christ in a strawberry field of Santa Maria, Calif. It’s but one expression of a ministry of hospitality and hope with working-poor immigrants.

Founded in 2002, this new-start community has grown and expanded its reach over the years to the larger community of working-poor immigrants who face many obstacles daily in simply living their lives. This includes coordinating the weekly lunch program with Latinx workers in the field.

The average week for the husband-and-wife team of Pastor Esteban and Angie Salazar includes leading worship with a growing community, buying fresh ingredients to make homemade tortas, managing volunteers to coordinate Santa Cruz’s food pantry and so much more.

Working-Poor Latinx Immigrants in communion with Christ

Immigrant farmworkers join in prayer with Pastor Esteban and Angie Salazar in a strawberry field.

Immigrant farmworker ministry

In 2017, Esteban and Angie felt a strong call to help their congregation’s immigrant farmworkers who labor in a nearby strawberry field. After communicating with the warden of the field, who thought Esteban and Angie were pulling a prank, they drove to the field and were greeted with a “really, you’re here?” surprised response from the warden. Now they make weekly visits, as supplies and resources are available.

On a typical Thursday morning they will shop for fresh-baked bread and other ingredients to prepare tortas. Depending on the day, they will make anywhere from 60 to 200 tortas to serve to the strawberry-field workers. Additionally, they will spend time reading scripture, singing and praying with the workers. Esteban’s belief is, “You have the ‘gospel’ and you have ‘feed my people’…you have to do both.” Creating the space to share a meal and worship right there in the field gives “loving your neighbor” a renewed outlook.

Building the church community

The immigration crisis in the United States has a direct impact on this church community. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has come in and separated multiple families in the congregation; many cannot seek medical assistance because of the high cost; and single-parent homes fight the battle between work and family care. These tough conditions can make hope for a miracle seem absent. Angie has strong feelings about these tough circumstances: “We have a responsibility to do what Jesus would do and Jesus wouldn’t leave them there with nothing.”

The community at Iglesia Luterana Santa Cruz comes together in several activities to help congregants and the larger community. One ministry initiative at Christmas is the Angel Tree Project, a gift-giving program that provides presents for local children. In 2016, a total of 75 students received gifts through the Angel Tree. Last Christmas, the number rose to 400. Additionally, sister churches have begun providing food-pantry items, clothing and monetary help to specific individuals.

The congregation needs more help to care for its immigrant community, including a shed to be built for the influx of pantry items and additional medical support for families. However, Santa Cruz continues to live out a passion for Jesus and reliance on the Holy Spirit.


by Blake Thomas, Congregational Vitality Team

edited by Kris A. Mainellis, Program Director for Communication and Events, Congregational Vitality


United States – Mexico Border Experience: Frontiers for Mission

US - Mexico border - beachDirectors for Evangelical Mission:

Invite your mission and ministry partners:

United States – Mexico Border Experience

February 18, 2020

Travel Day: February 17

Registration is now open!

The Congregational Vitality Team is reaching out to Directors for Evangelical Mission and their mission partners with a special opportunity to worship together near the beach at the United States – Mexico border.

The Spanish word for “border” is frontera. As we think about the borders in our lives — country, state, neighborhood, even our churches — why not think about these “borders” as FRONTIERS to explore? How can we grow and learn together, as Christ’s people in mission? How can we explore the frontiers of our faith and reach out to all people in love and service, united in the Good News of Jesus Christ?

This experience will take place the day before the Congregational Vitality Training Event in San Diego in February 2020.


This one-day opportunity on February 18 is also open to people who will not be attending the CV Training Event.




$50 — Includes Registration and Bus Fees

$150 — Includes Registration, Bus, and Double-Occupancy Hotel Room for Monday night, February 17.

$250 – Includes Registration, Bus, and Single-Occupancy Hotel Room for Monday night, February 17.



For Congregational Vitality Training Event participants who ALSO want to participate in the Border Experience, Monday night housing (if needed) MUST be reserved through the Border Experience link.

  • Please use the Border Experience link above to reserve your Monday night housing.
  • Register for Tuesday – Thursday housing using the CV Training Event link found on the Timing and Training Tracks page. Don’t worry, we will reconcile all the housing requests so that you will remain in the same room for the week’s events.


UPDATED (12/4/19) Rough Agenda:**

  • 8:15 am: Load charter buses at Town and Country Hotel; depart by 8:30 am.
  • Up to 200 participants will cross the border to the Mexico side to participate, and up to 100 people will participate on the US side.
  • Join in a border worship experience in a park / open space near the beach (approximately 10:00-11:00 am).
  • Lunch (arranged with our help, “on your own”)
  • Travel by charter bus to an immigrant-hospitality center on the Mexico side of the border OR to one or two historic Latinx churches on the US side of the border. This activity will include time to process and share regarding this experience.
  • Return to the hotel (via charter bus) approximately 4:30 – 5:30 pm.
  • Testimony from this experience will be shared at the Congregational Vitality Training Event, which begins Wednesday, February 19.
  • Participate in an optional dessert reception gathering Tuesday evening (beginning at approximately 7:30 pm). You will have an opportunity to hear about what other participants experienced (on each side of the border). This activity is for:
    • People who can stay longer in the evening before traveling home OR:
    • People who have been invited by their DEM to register (using a separate link) and stay overnight Tuesday night to participate in the CV Training Event, which begins Wednesday, February 19.
    • Housing is extremely limited at the Town and Country Hotel: People who are not involved in the CV Training Event who need a room on Tuesday night will need to book their own room at a nearby hotel (there are plenty!) if planning to stay over on Tuesday night. Thank you!

** Exact details may vary. We will keep you posted!


What You Should Bring:

  • A valid (blue) US passport that will not expire for at least 6 months from February 18, 2020. Please see the very important legal notes below.
  • Water
  • Money (U.S. dollars are fine) to purchase food/lunch/snacks.
  • Snacks, such as snack bars and fruit.
  • Comfortable shoes (high-sided tennis shoes or boots), and please dress for the weather and for walking on sand and through watery/muddy paths.
  • Sunscreen and/or a hat.
  • Travel light, as you will be walking for 30+ minutes both to and from the worship site.


Important Participation Notes:

  • All participants must be present at the Town and Country Hotel, San Diego, and ready to travel to the border at 8:00 am, Tuesday, February 18. This may mean you will need a hotel room on Monday, February 17.
  • Participants must be able to walk for up to 30 minutes to and from the worship destination (sandy/wet area near beach).


Legal and Safety Considerations to Help You Plan

Preparation Requirements:

  1. All participants MUST submit the following to our team and to a designated alternate person: emergency contact information including name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address in case of a participant’s ill health, detainment, death or other circumstances.
  2. All participants who plan to enter Mexico MUST have a valid US (blue) passport that will not expire for at least 6 months after February 18, 2020.
  3. All participants who plan to enter into Mexico MUST make a copy of their passport and give it to a family member or other designee.
  4. All participants who plan to enter into Mexico MUST sign an ELCA waiver (available at registration).


Additional Important Notes

  1. No participant is to allowed to drive a vehicle into Mexico. We have been advised that driving into Mexico without proper Mexican auto insurance is a very serious violation of Mexican law that is strictly enforced by Mexican authorities.
  2. Please check the following US State Department sites for risk information concerning Mexico:


Questions? Contact Pastor Anna-Kari Johnson (se habla Español).


Ministering with immigrants in detention in New Jersey


The Rev. Ramon Collazo is a second-career pastor from Puerto Rico who ministers with immigrants in detention. It’s one way he channels his passion for immigration reform and raising awareness about human rights.

Quickly after finishing his time at United Lutheran Seminary (formerly, Luther Theological Seminary at Philadelphia), Collazo received a call to serve as mission developer for a new Synod Authorized Worshiping Community (SAWC) called Santa Isabel Ministry to Immigrants in Detention. This ministry focuses on providing spiritual care and hope for Puerto Rican and immigrant inmates at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey.

One mission starts another

The Iglesia Luterana Santa Isabel Latino Mission congregation in Elizabeth launched the SAWC in 2015. Itself a mission congregation — sponsored by the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — Santa Isabel started the new detention ministry SAWC as one way to care and advocate for immigrants and their rights. The congregation also hosts a citizenship drive twice a year and collaborates with the New Jersey Coalition for Justice.

The Elizabeth Detention Center is specifically designed for immigrants who either do not have proper identification of their citizenship or have committed a minor crime. It holds male and female citizens of multiple countries from Latin America, Europe and Asia. Collazo first became active in this  detention ministry when he was invited to provide prayer during a rally outside its walls.

Santa Isabel detention ministry

Rev. Ramon Collazo (shown second from left), with ministry partners who presented the Puerto Rican Christmastime music tradition of Parranda to inmates at the Elizabeth Detention Center in December 2018.

Ministry in detention

Collazo brings a unique voice to this ministry, which centers on doing intentional work to help and share the gospel with its immigrant community and other detainees. He hosts two worship services each week. Each service typically has 50 to 100 participants in worship, Bible study and prayer. Collazo also spends time offering prayer over specific requests or distributing rosaries and Bibles.

On December 27, 2018, Collazo gathered together a few ministry members to bring the Puerto Rican Christmastime music tradition of Parranda to the  detention center’s residents. “We gathered not in a porch, but in a conference room, with guitar and cuatro puertorriqueño (a guitar-like instrument) to practice. We began the Parranda to the dorms, where we surprised the men and women with ‘Feliz Navidad’ and other songs.” Collazo could feel the joy this activity created in the residents as well as a strong sense of unity where it would normally be absent during Christmastime in the  detention facility.

Raising awareness of immigration reform

Collazo has learned much from hearing the stories of people who have tried to flee from oppression but then had to face the harsh reality of being forced to return to the situations from which they fled. He believes, “If we don’t watch the news and don’t put ourselves in their shoes, nothing will change.”

He points out that the reality is that change does not always happen from institutions, it happens through people who are willing to advocate and show empathy to those who are hurting. “It has to come from God, and it has to come from our hearts because we love God and are called to serve our neighbors.”

Touching the hearts of people is where we meet the authentic work of the gospel. Collazo is living this out wholeheartedly and invites fellow congregations to pray for those affected by immigration policies.


by Blake Thomas, Congregational Vitality Team

edited by Kris A. Mainellis, Program Director for Communication and Events, Congregational Vitality


A common witness: Lutherans and Episcopalians team up in West Denver new start


Sunday morning is a lot busier these days at the corner of Raleigh Street and 5th Avenue in West Denver. For the past several years a new community of God, called Latino Ministry West Denver (Cristo Rey), has been growing in the church building at this intersection, in this changing neighborhood just south of busy 6th Avenue and west of major Interstate 25. Known to the neighborhood simply as Cristo Rey, the new-start congregation connects with its community and actively engages people to be in relationship with each other and Christ.

Cristo Rey arose after an unsuccessful attempt to create a new church by merging a shrinking Anglo congregation and a Latinx faith community. Although the merged congregation did not last, it helped point to a new direction. The church building retained an important community connection, serving as a popular place to host family celebrations and a home for community activities, including a growing Head Start preschool program. This connection strongly suggested that a Lutheran Latinx congregation could thrive.

The Rocky Mountain Synod and the New Start team (now called Congregational Vitality team) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided to close ALMC / Cristo Rey and try again, in a new way, with new leadership. The church closed at the end of July 2016, and then reopened the very next month, in August, as Latino Ministry West Denver (Cristo Rey), a Synodically Authorized Worshiping Community Exploration. But there was a twist – the new start’s developers are from the Episcopal Church.

Quirino Cornejo communion service

The Rev. Quirino “QC” Cornejo leads a communion liturgy for children at the Cristo Rey new start in West Denver.

New start, new leaders

Thanks to the full-communion partnership between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, Cristo Rey’s leadership comprises an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Quirino “QC” Cornejo, and ministry partner Margarita Reyes, who is married to Cornejo. This dynamic duo embodies an ecumenical spirit, connecting people to the message of Jesus in new and welcoming ways.

One of the most compelling parts of this story is the background of these two leaders. Cornejo is an ex–Roman Catholic priest — now an Episcopal priest — leading a Lutheran congregation with the partnership of his ex–Roman Catholic, now-Episcopal wife.

Cornejo grew up a child of the Roman Catholic church in Mexico. He discovered his vocation early in life and committed himself to the priesthood at the age of 12. Ordained in the Catholic Church on May 25, 1991, in San Angelo, Texas, Cornejo served as a Catholic priest for 20 years in West Texas. Reyes, too, grew up in the Catholic Church and discovered her gift of evangelism as part of that tradition. She led adult and youth faith formation for years.

Sharpened call, new leadership role

Cornejo and Reyes met in Texas. A short time later, “after 20 years of service as a Catholic priest, I began my discernment process to answer God’s call to form a family,” Cornejo said. Reyes and Cornejo moved to Colorado, got engaged and joined the Episcopal Church. They were married on March 18, 2016, and Cornejo was received as a priest in the Episcopal Church on June 18, 2016.

The Episcopal Church sharpened Cornejo’s sense of vocation and offered a way for the couple to continue to serve God as priest and evangelist and follow the call to form a Christian family. The couple have a daughter, Analey Sophia.

Just as Cornejo found a renewed sense of call in the Episcopal Church, so too did Reyes. In her ministry through Cristo Rey, she has focused her vocation using a new lens: “Now I call myself a Lutheran evangelist,” she quipped. “Our faith formation classes adhere to Lutheran theology, and I consider myself a strong advocate.”

Margarita Reyes youth ministry leader

Margarita Reyes (shown back row, center) leads Christian education for youth (and adults) at Cristo Rey.

Connecting in a new way

Cristo Rey relates to the neighborhood in a unique way as its two Episcopalian leaders serve in a Lutheran setting. Nearly 90 percent of the people in the community are of Latinx descent and many have strong Catholic roots. Worship is central, and Cornejo and Reyes are passionate about connecting the gifts and interests of the community and developing leaders through spiritual formation and outreach.

Reyes conducts faith-formation classes for adults, youth and families at 11:30 am each Sunday, and Cornejo leads worship and preaches at 12:30 pm. Families are drawn to Cristo Rey for traditional reasons — baptism, first communion, quinceañeras and Christian education. Once involved, they experience the joy and sense of purpose in belonging to this life-changing, thriving faith community. Changes range from Sunday morning priorities to how people interact with one other. Reyes recalled learning how one couple’s relationship had been transformed since the husband began treating his wife with more respect: “his wife thanks QC every time she sees him!”

Invested in the community

From its beginning, the people of Cristo Rey have impacted their community in a positive way. As the new start began to reach out to the surrounding community, Cornejo and other leaders noticed changes taking place in the neighborhood. “We’ve been building relationships. When I first started here, we had car break-ins in the parking lot four times in one month, and even a car that was stolen was hidden at the back of the church building.”

Now, the people look out for each other and are invested in the ministries of the church. The congregation reaches out to the community with Thanksgiving dinners and a Christmas Giving Tree. Recently, they partnered with a nearby larger Lutheran congregation to host a community dinner for the neighborhood.

The Latino Ministry West Denver (Cristo Rey) began with three people but now has grown to more than 100 people (45 families) in one year, and it is still flourishing. Cornejo believes it will move from a SAWC to an organized congregation most likely within another year.

Building relationships and fostering ecumenical connections

Ministries such as Cristo Rey are taking off across the country as a result of relationships nurtured between synods and the ELCA churchwide office, as well as ecumenical connections with full-communion partners.

The involvement of the ELCA’s Congregational Vitality team with the REDIL (Red Ecumenica para el Desarollo de Iglesias Latinas) Latinx ecumenical network was essential to finding Cornejo and Reyes to lead Cristo Rey. The REDIL network is a partnership among the ELCA, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Reformed Church in America.

Cornejo and Reyes are inviting others to look at life in a new way. These two leaders embody an evangelistic emphasis with an ecumenical spirit, and that’s exactly what attracts the community and connects people to the message of Jesus. They are setting a powerful example of how people from differing denominations and traditions can come together to grow in relationship with Christ and make a difference in the world, in common witness.


by Kris A. Mainellis, Program Director for Communication and Events, Congregational Vitality


Overcoming challenges in El Cenizo

The Rev. Mariana Mendez knows how to make the most of difficult situations. Mendez and ministry partners at Misión Luterana Agua Viva work to share God’s love in spite of, or perhaps because of, the challenges of life in El Cenizo, Texas. Located 20 miles south of Laredo, this small, rural city of a little more than 3,000 people is situated just four blocks from the banks of the Rio Grande River. The river serves as the border between the United States and Mexico.

Incorporated in 1989, El Cenizo’s history is framed by its origin as one of hundreds of south Texas colonias established in the 1950s rural, unincorporated subdivisions lacking basic infrastructure such as potable water, sewer service and electricity. This region continues to be one of the most impoverished areas in the United States.

But Mendez focuses on the positive. She believes that although the community of El Cenizo faces significant challenges, “it also has significant opportunities for life and ministry.” Misión Luterana Agua Viva is a place of refuge, offering help and instilling hope. The church partners with local organizations, agencies and other churches to help the people of El Cenizo survive, find stability and grow through a combination of direct support, education and training.

Agua Viva school supplies program helps families overcome challenges of life in El Cenizo.

Each fall, with help from partner Lutheran churches and individuals, Agua Viva provides backpacks filled with school supplies for 250 children in grades K-12, through its Aprendiendo a Leer Con Jesús (Learning to Read With Jesus) program.

Empowered leaders share God’s grace

Key to its mission is its focus on cultivating leaders. The church identifies leaders and sends them for training with public agencies. Episcopal and Methodist sister churches and nondenominational partners provide further training in health care, education, self-sustainability and entrepreneurship, nutrition and family care. In addition, Agua Viva works closely with a local pastoral counseling and coaching center, which has (so far) certified and graduated 12 leaders who serve as community facilitators from Agua Viva.

Mendez’s late husband, the Rev. Moises Mendez (who recently passed away), set into motion the church’s ongoing practice to develop and multiply church mission workers. One essential element of training: each leader is charged with identifying and developing other leaders. Mariana believes this practice is essential to accompanying the people of El Cenizo in their efforts to survive and thrive in this Third Culture border town. “We are multiplying the priesthood of all believers as we work together as partners inside the church and in the community to become facilitators of the work of God.”

Vegetable garden beds at Agua Viva, El Cenizo, Texas

Agua Viva church members plant and harvest organically grown vegetables for use at the Pan de Vida (Bread of Life) hunger-relief after-school program (typically serving 125 children ages 1-17). More than 2,500 monthly food portions are prepared by a full-time volunteer staff at the Vida Plena (Plentiful Life) program, which offers warm, freshly made food to more than 120 elderly people daily. Agua Viva’s pantry distributes 60,000 pounds of food per year.

Mission partners make all the difference

Mariana and Moises were initially called to mission development in Laredo in October 2002. The mission moved to El Cenizo in 2007, where Agua Viva took up residence in two double-wide trailers within four residential lots purchased 14 years earlier by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With additional partnership and support from the ELCA’s Southwestern Texas Synod and the help of seven partner churches, Agua Viva was able to refurbish the trailers, pay off the mortgage on the land, build a sanctuary, and begin ministry and mission in the community. Agua Viva continues to steward its resources carefully, including ongoing ELCA churchwide mission development support. Mendez credits the Holy Spirit for “helping us to grow the Kingdom of God on earth,” and she appreciates the church’s many partners: “Thank you for your prayers, your commitment and solidarity toward those most in need within our border community.”

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” — Jesus (John 17:18 )

by Kris A. Mainellis, Program Director for Communication and Events, Congregational Vitality