Shelter in a time of storm: Miami’s Sunset church endures setbacks, finds new ways to serve God
Like storm debris, signs of the global recession are easy to spot. Billboards advertising discounted fees for bankruptcy filing stand along palm tree-lined boulevards. Houses that once sold for more than $500,000 are in foreclosure, vacant.
“The people who don’t have the church … I don’t know how they’re sustaining,” said Crissy Pace, a member of the Sunset Church of Christ in Miami.
In less than four years, Pace has gone from a six-figure salary to unemployment. She left a high-paying job in credit and collections in Miami and moved to New York, where she worked for Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch, a church-supported ministry. As the economy faltered, the ministry cut her job. She returned to Miami and couldn’t find work.
“In one year, I sent out 435 resumes and got five interviews — three of them in my actual field,” Pace said. She is upside-down in her home, owing more than it’s worth, and rents a room from one of the church’s elders.
Pace, who was baptized in Trumbull, Conn., also has worked in Houston and Atlanta but inevitably returns to Miami.
“Something keeps bringing me back, and it’s definitely the people,” she said. “They truly are brothers and sisters in Christ.”
As she looks for work, Pace lends her time to help other church members.
“If somebody is hurting within the body, we all hurt,” she said.
A MELTING POT OF FAITH
Like Pace, the Sunset church has endured hardships — financial and spiritual — in the past three years. The 600-member congregation lost the pulpit ministers for its English and Spanish services and the Christian school housed in its building. With every setback, though, the church’s leaders say that God has presented them new opportunities to grow as believers.
“Sunset has faced extremely difficult challenges — economic hardship, losing family members, dissatisfaction with church and life in general,” said Jeff Hinson, one of the congregation’s eight elders. “But with each struggle, God has continued to bless this family.”
The church itself had a serendipitous origin. Two congregations — the Central Church of Christ, born in 1911, and the South Miami Church of Christ, established in 1926 — were considering the same piece of property in southwest Miami for expansion.
Rather than compete, the congregations pooled their finances, bought the land and merged. In June 1985, the newly named Sunset Church of Christ worshiped for the first time.
Dale and Fern Doyle started attending the Central church when they moved here from southwestern Oklahoma in 1958. One year later, Fidel Castro took power on the island of Cuba, 90 miles south of Key West. Waves of Spanish-speaking refugees washed over the city, fleeing Castro’s communist regime.
As they raised their three children, the Doyles saw Miami transform into a bilingual, multi-ethnic hub of Cuban culture. Some immigrants were members of Churches of Christ in Cuba. Congregations added Spanish worship services. The Central church appointed a Spanish-speaking elder.
“I thought all Latins were Cuban,” said Paco Perez, who was nine months old when his family fled Cuba in 1961. He grew up immersed in the culture of his homeland, and remembers “the first American meal I had — at age 16,” in an English-speaking church member’s home. Perez was baptized in 1977 and attended the Central church. Now he is an elder of the Sunset church.
The congregation mirrors the increasingly diverse South Florida community, home to more than 5.5 million souls. Immigrants from Central and South America worship during the church’s Spanish assembly. Second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans, including Perez, attend the English service, alongside immigrants from Haiti and the Caribbean.
“Miami is such a wonderful melting pot,” said Dela Grant, who was born in Miami and baptized during a gospel meeting here in 1962. Nearly 40 years later, after her children graduated from high school, Grant moved back to Miami and found the Sunset church.
“I love the way that the family here just brings you in and immediately you become part of them,” she said. “I see that they are truly God-fearing people.
BLESSINGS IN HARD TIMES
In the prosperous, stable-filled neighborhood near the church’s building, the faltering economy is hard to sense.
As Christians arrive for Sunday worship, Floridians in cowboy hats take their horses for an early-morning ride around the church’s perimeter.
During a combined Bible class in December, the elders detailed the church’s budget for 2011 — $9,350 per week. That’s about two-thirds of the amount they budgeted five years ago, elder Bob Perkins said.
In recent weeks, however, the church has averaged more than $500 above that goal, he said.
In 2009, the church-supported Tropical Christian School closed due to low enrollment and lack of funds, said Perez, former president of the school’s board of trustees. The school — which began in 1960 — had operated since 1991 in Sunset’s building.
Now another private school meets in the building and rents classroom space. Though not associated with Churches of Christ, the school invites Sunset’s ministers and elders to teach Bible classes, Perez said.
Two years ago, Sunset’s pulpit minister for its English service, Terry Singleton, left to preach for the Mesa Church of Christ in Arizona.
To fill the pulpit gap, Jim Holway coordinated a team of four volunteer preachers.
Holway, a former missionary to Argentina, moved to Miami in 2005 as part of the Latin American Mission Project, or LAMP, a cooperative effort among Churches of Christ to plant congregations in Latin America and Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S. The Sunset church provides one-third of Holway’s support.
“It’s in my best interest that Sunset remain strong,” Holway said.
One member of the preaching team, Jason Roberts, said he never intended to be a minister. In fact, he was disillusioned with church when he moved here about six years ago to work for a health-care company.
He found the Sunset church, and “it felt like home,” he said.
He still doesn’t intend to be a full-time minister, he said, but is happy to use his talents to serve the church and God.
PREACHING TEAMS IN TWO LANGUAGES
In mid-2010, Sunset’s pulpit minister for the Spanish service — who had served for 23 years — resigned. He read a statement to the church, acknowledging that he violated the congregation’s trust.
Church members were devastated, said Alicia Pardo, who coordinates the women’s ministry for the Spanish speakers.
“We went through a time of trying to understand what happened,” said Pardo, whose husband, Pedro, is an elder. The Pardos and fellow church leaders worked hard to help the Spanish speakers move on, to put their faith in Christ instead of man.
Holway helped organize a rotation of five church members to serve as a preaching team for the Spanish service.
“Losing both our pulpit ministers in a two-year period could have been catastrophic,” Perkins said, “but the development of preaching teams has been more that just a stopgap measure. God has raised up men who are giving sound, challenging and encouraging messages, week after week.”
The church does not plan to hire full-time pulpit ministers but hopes to add a ministry coordinator and a congregational life minister — both bilingual — to its staff in the future.
“Our desire is to have ministers that serve the entire congregation, not just ministers for one language group,” Hinson said.
DOUGHNUTS, FLAGS AND FELLOWSHIP
Twice per month, Holway preaches at Sunset, alternating between the two language services. His work with both English- and Spanish-speaking church members has resulted in more interaction between the two groups, Sunset member Max Lopez said.
“He’s like the glue between the Spanish and English sides,” said Lopez, a law school student who was baptized in 2006. “This barrier in language shouldn’t be a barrier that keeps us from having a relationship with each other.”
Every Sunday, the church uses boxes of doughnuts to help break that barrier. Between the English service, which ends at 11:30 a.m., and the Spanish service, which begins at noon, members from both language groups gather in the fellowship hall to share pastries and conversation.
“Because we all share the stress of the life that comes with tough economic times and an uncertain future, we tend to focus on our similarities rather than our differences,” Hinson said. “I feel we are looking more at what is in a person’s heart, rather than what language they are speaking.”
Also, he said, “we are looking beyond our church family … at the community around us.”
Each November, the church has a “Blessed to be a Blessing” Sunday. Instead of worshiping in the pews, members pack food boxes for the hungry and participate in community service projects.
English-speaking Christians participate in the Spanish-speaking members’ celebration of “Dia de las Americas” (“Day of the Americas”). Last year, the festivities included a parade of flags for each of the 18 nations represented at the Sunset church.
The Spanish speakers cheered for the flags representing their homelands. But when the U.S. flag was announced, “everybody stood up and just took the roof off,” Perkins said. “I almost cried. I had goosebumps.”
The congregation’s efforts to be one church with two languages is attracting new members.
Noelle Hidalgo found the Sunset church through its website. She asked a question and was surprised how quickly a church member responded.
“A lot of churches are either English or Spanish,” she said. But Sunset is both, and “something’s always going on here, almost every day of the week.”
Hidalgo was baptized and became active in the church’s Christians In Action group for young adults. She drives about 20 miles from her home in Hialeah, Fla., to worship.
“That’s a long drive for me,” she said. “It has to be important.”
‘FAMILY IS COMPLICATED’
On a recent Sunday, Sunset’s English- and Spanish-speaking members gathered in the auditorium for a bilingual service. David Capiro led “I Will Call Upon the Lord,” switching languages between verses.
Holway preached, translating his own words from Spanish to English and vice versa.
“Remember that family is complicated,” Holway said. The members responded, “Amen!” The missionary reminded them that God calls his followers to be families of faith.
Perez, who is bilingual, later said that it was one of the best sermons he’s ever heard — twice.
The combined service sounds a bit “like the tower of Babel,” said Larry Short, one of the English-speaking members. But members from both language groups are learning from each other.
Alicia Pardo said that she notices more English speakers saying “Hola” to Spanish members when they meet.
“You can see that we have differences,” she said, “but a smile and a hug, they don’t need any translation.”
Janet Claypool, a Sunset member whose grandfather was one of the first church elders in Miami, said she grew up with the idea that Christians should be “quiet and reverent.” She’s not sure how her grandfather would feel about Sunday worship a century later.
“He might have a lot of turmoil inside,” she said. But she knows “the Lord looks on it with a smile.”
SUNSET CHURCH OF CHRIST
LOCATION: Southwest Miami, near Florida’s Turnpike 821
MINISTERS: Community outreach minister David Capiro, college minister Orlando Henlon, youth minister Mark Herrera, preaching team coordinator Jim Holway, children’s minister Nancy Perez
ELDERS: Jeff Hinson, Jorge Pacheco, Pedro Pardo, Paco Perez, Bob Perkins, Charles Ramsey, Paul
Schweip, Bob Sistik