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Essay

Pastor Maria, Full of Grace

By December 28, 2020 19 Comments

In a previous post, I wrote about my conviction that the future of the church in on the margins. Referencing an essay by Steve Toshio Yamaguchi, I affirmed that the future of the church will not be a “palace Christianity” but a “street Christianity,” and that those of us in the majority culture have a great deal to learn from our brothers and sisters on the margins, especially the immigrant church. This sparked much conversation around what it might look like to more intentionally embrace a street Christianity, and what many of us may need to learn and unlearn.

To be honest, I have more questions than answers. But as a follow up to that post, I want to tell you a story. It’s a story that happened a couple months ago, a story about one of my teachers. Here it is, as best my memory can recall.

The phone call came in the morning. It was a parishioner, wondering if I’d be willing to make a pastoral call on a young Hispanic woman living in a town nearby. This young woman was frightened and in distress. A relative had put a hex on her baby, and the mother feared for her child’s life. She wanted the baby baptized immediately to undo the curse.

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I explained to the parishioner that I’d be happy to call on the young mother, although baptizing the baby would prove more difficult. We could talk about the process of baptism (and the theology behind it). But it seemed the most urgent need was for a pastoral presence, someone to go visit and pray with her. I scribbled down the woman’s address and hung up the phone.

Hours later I was forced to accept the reality that I didn’t have the bandwidth to make the pastoral call that day. Sensing it couldn’t wait, I reached out to Kristin, our pastor of children and family ministry, and she graciously agreed to go visit the young mother.

In Kristin’s great wisdom, she invited her neighbor, Maria, to go along with her. Kristin thought that Maria might be a translator and help bridge the language barrier. It would soon become evident, however, that God had a role for Maria to play that was far more significant than simply a translator.

When they arrived at the house, they clambered up to the front door and rang the doorbell. Muffled sounds of shuffling and the patter of little feet could be heard on the other side. Then a small voice calling for his mother. Soon the front door opened slightly, and the young mother appeared, eyes alert and brimming with caution. Maria smiled and said something in Spanish. The young mother’s face relaxed. She smiled, flung the door open, and invited them in.

Maria wasted no time. She walked in and Kristin followed. Maria greeted a little boy, tousled his hair with a grin, and then sat down next to the young mother in the living room. Her husband came walking out and joined them. Maria listened attentively to their concerns, all the while rocking the baby cradled in a bouncy seat on the floor with her foot. They talked some more, Kristin picking up on bits of Spanish here and there. Then Maria prayed over the baby, his older brother and the parents. Maria invoked the Spirit’s presence with such power and authority you could feel a rush of wind blow through the room, even though all the windows were clamped shut. Kristin was just there to be a support. A witness. God was on the move. This was a holy moment.

Local National Day of Prayer event to be held Thursday in Trenton

On the drive home, Maria told Kristin about her conversation with the couple. She said they were struggling financially, and their landlord was taking advantage of them. Maria told them about different community resources, and promised she would work on other housing options. Then she shared the gospel with them. She told them they needed Jesus, and they needed to get connected with a church family.

Maria then explained to Kristin that the little boy just turned five. She was going to bake him cupcakes and buy him some clothes with her own money she’d been saving. Could Kristin take her back to see the family next week? She would also start working on finding them a different place to live where the cost of rent was fair.

Kristin took Maria out for lunch and then dropped her off at her house. When Kristin pulled into the garage of her own house, she switched off the ignition and just sat there, in awe of what she had just experienced. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She told me later, “I sat in the car and wept at the beauty of watching my friend, who is a Mexican immigrant and a stay at home mom of five kids, go and do this thing I wasn’t able to do because of the language barrier. It was remarkable.”

Since then, Maria has made several trips to visit the family and helped move them into a new home. Yesterday the family showed up at our church to worship for the first time. All of this is the fruit of Maria’s ministry. “Pastor Maria,” we call her. Pastor Maria, who only finished the sixth grade and with no seminary training or official ordination. And yet who can deny that the Spirit of the Lord is upon her and has anointed her to bring good news, to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to captives, and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor?

The Incredible Meaning of Jesus' Words "The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Me"

Kristin and I have talked about what happened that day many times. What if I had, out of my own need to be needed, made the pastoral call to that young mother? What if I hadn’t reached out to Kristin, and what if Kristin hadn’t invited Maria to accompany her? And what if Kristin hadn’t been willing to move aside and follow Maria’s lead? Think about what we all might have missed out on.

Yes, the future of the church is on the margins. And we are privileged to be witnesses of such things, if we are willing to get out of the way. In this season of Christmas, I give God thanks for the unexpected ways that the light of Christ still breaks into the darkness. And I give God thanks for the ministry of Pastor Maria, so full of grace, my teacher and partner in the gospel.

A special thanks to Maria and Kristin for giving me permission to share this story.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

19 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This is good. Thank you.

  • Magnificent. “Ministry in the trenches” at its finest.

  • In my own experience in parish ministry, I’ve come to realize that restraint and awareness are the best skills I can let God cultivate in me, so things like this will happen. Thank you for more than a lovely story, but also an invitation. As always, your writing is thoughtful and eloquent. Thanks, Brian.

  • mstair says:

    “Yes, the future of the church is on the margins. And we are privileged to be witnesses of such things, if we are willing to get out of the way.”

    Happening all over; Christ’s assembly is on the streets of our neighborhoods. May God lead us not back to “normal” after COVID, but out there where He is…

  • Dale Cooper says:

    I am both moved and humbled. And summoned to sheer gratitude, too, for Pastor Maria, and countless others like her, through whom our Lord takes delight to minister

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Like you, I have done some of my best work by getting out of the way. It’s amazing what can happen when we don’t care who gets the credit.

  • Al Schipper says:

    I am convinced that cutting edge ministry will look more like 1st century than 20th century.

  • Ann McGlothlin Weller says:

    This is a lovely and touching story and I appreciate your sharing it. At the same time, I am curious about what has changed in the ministry and outreach of the church, besides relying on Maria? There likely are other families in the community needing support and resources. Will there be looking “upstream” to see what the situation is with housing and landlords, for example? Is there a local agency monitoring ways in which they may be taking advantage of their renters?

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    Yes! This is where the Spirit is moving. What has to happen in the institutional church in order for us to be attentive to this, and to join it? What do we have to let go of? Thank you for this hope-filled story.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    As always, it’s good hearing from you, Brian, on what is happening in the trenches.
    Pastor Maria, indeed.

  • Willa Brown says:

    Yes, sometimes we have to get out of the way and let the Spirit do the work. Maybe that means getting rid of all the “rules and regulations” that drive an organized church and inviting “those on the margins” to lead us.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Brian, for your take concerning the church ministering to those on the margins. Weren’t the Orange City churches (RCA and CRC) of the past and present established to minister to the Dutch immigrant population who didn’t culturally fit into the established churches of the area? At the time of establishment the Dutch were on the margins. Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, established only some twenty years ago, was likely established for a less traditional and more contemporary audience. Isn’t that an appeal to a different marginal group? As Reformed denominations, don’t our church planting efforts try to appeal to the communities in which they are planted? As to God’s kingdom, aren’t all people on the margins? Why just single out marginal groups, or don’t all people need acceptance and sustenance from God?

  • Mary Vanderkam says:

    It started with the parishioner who cared enough to call you and then through a chain of others who acted. What a beautiful story of how God works in our lives. It makes me happy to read it hundreds of miles away.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thanks, Brian. I was moved and awed.

  • Cornelis Kors says:

    Thanks Brian! There are many Marias on the margins, may we always remain open to the Holy Spirit directing us to these saints and receiving their ministry!

  • Barb Dewald says:

    Beautiful. Amen.

  • Terry DeYoung says:

    Brian, thank you for beautifully sharing this story that’s so richly laced with the Spirit’s movement and people who responded with sensitivity, grace, and a willingness to serve. There are many people on the margins who long to serve and who have much to teach us if we’d invite them. Well done!

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Wonderful story, Brian, and so much more moving because it’s true.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    A moving and very beautiful story of God’s amazing grace and powerful Spirit. I needed this today, Brian. Thank you.

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