Overcoming challenges in El Cenizo

Posted on March 6, 2019 by Congregational Vitality

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