Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Our Story/Nuestra Historia: The Experience of Three Hispanic Churches in the Texas Rio Grande Valley in Leaving the PCUSA by Renouncing Its Jurisdiction

Pastor Rev. Hector Reynoso of Genesis Presbyterian Church has graciously ( a gift to me) asked me if I would post the history of the three historical Hispanic churches, who, after leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), became a part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Their history is fascinating, and their faithfulness inspiring. I am happy to do so. 

Our Story/Nuestra Historia:
The Experience of Three Hispanic Churches in the Texas Rio Grande Valley
in Leaving the PCUSA by Renouncing Its Jurisdiction

In early 2012, the congregations of three Hispanic churches in the Texas Rio Grande Valley held meetings to vote on whether to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA). Throughout the years the congregations had been deeply concerned about the direction the denomination had taken; believing it had long ago departed from sound Christian Reformed Doctrine.  Finally, the recent constitutional changes in the PCUSA simply confirmed for them this departure; thus, the churches disaffiliated from the denomination.

Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani of San Benito, located in San Benito, Texas; El Principe de Paz Presbyterian Church, located in Mercedes, Texas, and San Pablo Presbyterian Church, located in Brownsville, Texas were organized approximately 100 years ago by the Presbyterian Church of Mexico and predated the PCUSA by more than 70 years.   When the Mexican revolution began in 1910, travel became dangerous and expensive.   A meeting was held in 1918 and a decision was made to transfer these churches to membership in the Presbyterian Church (US).  

A presbytery known as the Texas Mexican, or Tex-Mex Presbytery was started in 1908 for the Mexican churches.   At one point this presbytery had approximately 80 preaching points and about 50 organized churches.  They met independently and held their meetings and worship services in Spanish.  In the mid 1950’s, the Texas-Mexican presbytery was dissolved and the member churches were incorporated into the South Texas Presbytery [Presbyterian Church US].    

After the dissolution of the Tex-Mex presbytery, one by one, the Hispanic churches began closing down.   The total number of Spanish speaking Presbyterian churches in South Texas went from approximately 80 preaching points and 50 organized congregations in the 1950’s to about a dozen congregations in 2011.  The Presbyterian Church (US) and later the PCUSA provided financial support to some of the churches in the form of loans and grants.  Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani of San Benito received loans for its land and building prior to the mid-1960s; all loans were paid back timely and with interest.  In recent years El Principe de Paz received grants averaging $26,000 per year.

Throughout their existence, the three churches, located along the border with Mexico, have served in some of the most financially disadvantaged counties of the United States and have struggled financially; they have also remained relatively small.  At the beginning of 2012, Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani had approximately 78 members; El Principe de Paz had 55 members; and San Pablo had approximately 20 members.  Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani and El Principe de Paz each had full-time pastors; San Pablo PC was served by a visiting pastor. 

In March 2011, Mission Presbytery voted by a narrow margin to adopt what was now known as amendment “10-A,” which allowed congregations to ordain practicing homosexuals to the office of teaching elder and ruling elder; a couple of months later 10-A was approved by the whole denomination.  The sessions of all three Rio Grande Valley churches responded by calling congregational meetings to vote on whether to disaffiliate from the PCUSA.  Their reason was clearly stated:  They believed sexual relations should be “only between a man and a woman and only in marriage.”   They believed “the institution of Marriage to be between one man and one woman” and “refused to accept any other definition of marriage aside from the one given to us by God in the Bible.”  They saw this change to the PCUSA constitution as a clear violation of Scriptures and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

In early 2012, the congregations voted to leave the denomination.  The votes were as follows: 
- Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani of San Benito had 78 members on its rolls.  Of those, 45 members attended the annual congregational meeting on January 29, 2012.   40 members voted to leave the denomination; 5 voted to stay.
- El Principe de Paz had 55 members on its rolls.  Of those, 42 members attended the congregational meeting, held on January 29, 2012.  40 members voted to leave the denomination; 2 voted to stay. 
-San Pablo Presbyterian Church held its congregational meeting February 5, 2012.  Of the 17 members attending, 10 voted to leave the denomination; 6 voted to stay, and one abstained.

Thus, for the three churches, of the 104 members attending the congregational meetings, only 13 voted to remain in the denomination.  The departing members left without church property.  

The 3 congregations had serious concerns with the dismissal policy of their presbytery as presented in the June 2011 meeting and later ratified in October 2011.  Therefore they chose not to go by that route.  Thus, the churches elected to renounce the jurisdiction of the denomination.  They sent a letter to Mission Presbytery on February 10, 2012, declaring that they were “no longer under the jurisdiction of the PCUSA.”  They added that they understood “that the property clause in the Book of Order of the PCUSA makes us hold in trust our property, where we worship and serve, for the PCUSA.”   It was the churches’ desire to keep the properties but they were willing to turn everything over in a peaceful manner.  They appealed to Mission Presbytery’s:
sense of mercy and implore of you to dig deep within your hearts, and allow us to keep our properties, our assets and bank accounts.  We are not rich churches, we do not have a high income, we do not have big bank accounts, and we are all located in low income neighborhoods in two of the poorest counties of the United States.  So we kindly implore for the sake of the extension of God’s kingdom that you will let us go with the little that we have; so that we may continue to let His light shine in our respective neighborhoods.

This appeal was not acknowledged. 

On February 13, 2012, just three days after the letter from the churches, Mission Presbytery sent letters to the pastors of the churches instructing them to retrieve their books and personal items and turn in their church keys “[n]o later than Friday, February 16, 2012.”  When the pastors left the buildings, all those who voted to leave the PCUSA left as well. 

Because these were family churches and poor churches, members had made some of the pews, tables, communion paraments, banners and other items for use in worship.  Others had donated refrigerators and other equipment.  Since the majority had voted to leave, some members thought they could take items with them.  Members who remained in the PCUSA became alarmed and reported to Mission Presbytery that items were disappearing.  Mission Presbytery representatives started sending multiple e-mails, text messages and phone calls  to the pastors and elders asking where items-- folding chairs, portable communion sets, old computers, a push lawn mower—were located.  The pastors along with their respective sessions contacted the members and told them that all items had to be returned.    The reports to presbytery were based on personal—and sometimes faulty—memory.  Some items had long since disappeared or had been discarded.  Other items had never been stored at the churches. Alarmed by continuing allegations that property was being misappropriated, the churches sought legal counsel.   Over the course of the next four months, the departing pastors, sessions and members began the tedious process of accounting for all church property.  All items were accounted for. 

The former Pastor Tom Johnson and the departing members of Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani of San Benito vacated the church buildings and organized a new church under the auspices of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (“EPC”).  They rented space in other places and finally in another church.   They turned over more than $118,000 in funds, including a $3,000 scholarship fund for high school students, a $500 children’s fund and a memorial fund.  They also named the new congregation San Benito Presbyterian Church.  

The former members of San Pablo Presbyterian Church, the smallest of the three churches, vacated the church buildings and also formed a new church under the auspices of the EPC.   They turned over almost $14,000 in funds to the Presbytery.   Perhaps more difficult, they also turned over a Bible given to the church by the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.  The congregation now meets as Jesus Reigns Presbyterian Church

The former pastor, Rev. Hector Reynoso, and the departing members of El Principe de Paz also vacated the church buildings and a vacant lot adjacent to a shopping mall, believed to have significant value.  They transferred approximately $8,500 in funds.  El Principe de Paz also owned a cemetery adjacent to the Catholic Cemetery.  They began meeting in another church and also organized under the EPC and now meet as Genesis Presbyterian Church.

Despite walking away from church buildings, bank accounts, cemeteries (where loved ones are buried), historic Bibles, communion paraments, pews and over 100 years of memories, the congregations have largely remained intact and have continued the work of the church in their respective communities.   Jesus Reigns Presbyterian Church was able to operate its largest vacation Bible school program ever with the help of volunteers from Hope Presbyterian Church in San Antonio.   Attendance at all three churches is holding strong, especially in San Benito which averages more than 100 per Sunday. 

When the pastors and members left the PCUSA, they told Mission Presbytery:

[i]f you decide that it is important for you to keep our building and our finances please know that we stand ready to hand everything over to you.  Our convictions have led us to make a stand for Christ and the faith of the church, not the properties…We are grateful to God and you for all the years in the PCUSA and the friendships that have been forged; nevertheless our convictions have grown deeper and stronger and we sadly, yet with conviction, say that we can no longer remain part of it.  We pray for the PCUSA to walk with Christ according to His Word for the glory of God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Standing for Jesus….

Praising the One and Only omnipotent and Sovereign God who has existed eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and rejoicing in the midst of trials and tribulations, the three congregations are grateful for their new home in the EPC, where they have now graduated from “transitional members” to “full members,” and wish God’s blessings upon the PCUSA and their former presbytery.

The congregations have a renewed energy and commitment toward their vision of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in their respective communities.  They are working with youth and children, holding home bible studies using the shorter catechism (Westminster), hosting churches doing missionary work, holding community Bible studies and elder leadership classes.  The churches are grateful to have meeting places yet they hope to someday worship and serve the Lord in facilities of their own. 

If you are interested in partnering with these churches as they continue their ministries and spreading the Gospel to those in the Rio Grande Valley, you can send tax deductible contributions to the following:

San Benito Presbyterian Church
PO Box 444
San Benito, TX  78586

Genesis Presbyterian Church
P. O. Box 1422
Mercedes, Texas 78570

Jesus Reigns Presbyterian Church
PO Box 3071
Brownsville, TX  78523

For more information you may write to Rev. Hector Reynoso at hectorreynoso@sbcglobal.net or Rev. Tom Johnson at tomjohnson07@gmail.com

1 comment:

Jeff Winter said...

Thank you Viola for describing for us what has transpired with three very courageous, former PCUSA churches who took seriously their call to follow our God. I so admire the leadership of these churches and their faithfulness to follow the Lord.