We are working together to free people from the burden of harmful passions, attitudes, and behaviors that prevent them from fully engaging in the “abundant life” that the Bible invites each of us to experience.
The role of helping people free themselves in order to embrace life at its fullest is a familiar one to me because I accumulated more than two decades of experience as a prison chaplain. It started in May 1996 when I became a supervisory chaplain assigned to the Federal Correctional Complex in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. Two of us chaplains were serving the spiritual needs of 1,300 prisoners. During the subsequent decades I served in four other locations in the federal prison system.
At the beginning, I felt that I was discovering a new frontier in my religious practice — learning what the church can be like when it is behind bars. As Johnny Cash sang, it is… “…a house of worship in this den of sin. You wouldn’t think that God had a place here in prison. But he saved the souls of many lost men.”
People imagine that it would be difficult to work with individuals who are on the bottom rung of society and whom even friends and family members have given up on. However, such people have lost the ability to hide themselves behind a façade composed of such things as wealth, status, possessions, and reputation. Many of them have been broken and are now prepared to allow Heaven to reassemble them into healthy functioning human beings. In December 2016, while serving at the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California, I retired from the chaplaincy and three months later followed a call to my current ministry of reaching out to members of Brentwood’s Latino Community.
The local Hispanic demographic is made up of people who work hard to support their families and their community. Many of them are immigrants who are overcoming language barriers and cultural differences. They are courageous survivors anxious to provide opportunities for their children that they didn’t have themselves while growing up. In short, they are sacrificing themselves in their search for the American Dream, just as countless immigrants have done during the 400 years that preceded them.
We’re planning to find ways to communicate effectively to these dear people — to let them know we are here and that we love them and are prepared to serve them in any way we can, and especially to show them the way to God and to the “abundant life” that waits for them.
If you are Hispanic, join us for Spanish Bible Studies at Neighborhood Church on Sundays at 9:00 a.m.
I was born in 1966 as the youngest of three children in the small farming community of Vega Baja, which is located almost directly in the center of Puerto Rico’s North Coast.
My parents were Catholics when they were young and attended Mass each Sunday. Just before I was born, Mom became acquainted with a teacher in the local high school. The woman was the wife of the associate pastor of a local protestant congregation. The two of them developed a close friendship and the woman brought Mom into a closer relationship with God. Mom, in turn, brought Dad along, and they both ended up becoming members of the congregation where the woman’s husband served. It was a Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA) church — the same denomination where, five decades later, I am serving myself.
After graduating from high school in the class of 1984, I enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico majoring in business and marketing research. My goal was to become a lawyer specializing in corporate law, which was something of a rebellion against my two older siblings who were both into science and technology. At that point I had been studying the Bible my whole life and was surprised when reading my first textbook on administrative practices to find that the author acknowledged Moses as employing a business principle of distributed responsibility when he set up history’s first recorded administrative structure. Even more than that, however, I was pleased at how closely many of the emerging principles of effective business administration and the “best practices” of so many successful companies seem to be drawn from teachings expounded in scripture. For example, it turns out that the Golden Rule of treating other people as you wish to be treated was not only an instruction for righteous behavior, but is a fundamental value for running a business most effectively.
I graduated in 1988, but no longer aspired to be a lawyer. Halfway through my course of studies I felt a calling to ministry. It was, in part, a natural result of my years of not only studying the Bible but during high school I had often taught Bible to my fellow students. In fact, my pastor, Jorge Cuevas, invited me to preach the sermon during a Sunday Mother’s Day when the entire service had been turned over to us high school students. I thought I did a terrible job, but everyone was kind and said how much they enjoyed hearing me speak. Their lack of criticism was based upon their love for me and for the fact that the youth had brought the service. However, I really was awful. My sister Blanca was less kind than the others who heard me. My text was from the book of First Peter and afterwards she made the disheartening observation that I had confused the names of Paul and Peter throughout the whole sermon.
Following graduation from the University of Puerto Rico, I enrolled in our denomination’s seminary — the Alliance Theological School (ATS) in Nyack, New York. It was a wonderful experience; my three years in seminary became a good season of my life. I matured theologically. The main thing for any Bible teacher is not merely to learn the Bible but to learn how to learn — to become a lifelong student. ATS gave me a good push down that path.
I graduated in the class of ’91.
During the winter of my second year at ATS I had a break and flew back home where I met a young woman named Sorlin Melendez. People were trying to push the two of us together but neither of us was ready for romance. I simply ignored Sorlin that day and she ignored me. However, our friends kept encouraging us to get together, so during the next semester break I finally buckled under the pressure and told them, “I will write Sorlin a letter but then you have to shut up.”
I was both relieved and a little disappointed when Sorlin didn’t write me back. However, a month later I returned for a visit to Puerto Rico to participate in a youth campaign and Sorlin showed up at the meetings. We said a friendly hello to each other. For years I had kept myself free of romantic entanglements by using what was surely one of the worst pickup lines in the history of the English language:
“I’m Carlos,” I would say. “The Lord called me to fulltime ministry and I will be a pastor someday.” Then I would add a clincher, “I hope that’s not a problem.”
I pushed away a lot of girls with that deliberately off-putting line, but when I tried it on Sorlin, she failed to buckle so we sat down together and had a conversation. I realized I liked her and we subsequently began to see more of each other. Sorlin set her hook in me for good one day when a group of us from the church had stopped at McDonald’s following a service. Sorlin went to the restroom to refresh herself. When she came out I had an experience similar to that of the Apostle Paul recovering from his blindness in Damascus because something like scales seemed to fall from my eyes, as well, and I actually saw Sorlin for the woman she was. Her beauty stunned me into silence and awe and I came to regard this lovely creature with a “for the rest of my life” type of love on the spot.
Following graduation from ATS I began pastoring two churches. One day that summer as we were returning from a service, I asked Sorlin, “Would you like to get married?” She answered so quickly that I nearly missed her response. I admit that my proposal was shamefully unromantic but neither Sorlin nor I cared much about the dreamy and starry-eye side of love. We intended from our hearts to love and care for each other “until death do us part,” long before we actually recited the line before a pastor. That was enough for us.
That occurred in the summer of ’91. We were married the next March.
I subsequently spent three years as fulltime senior pastor at Las Cumbres C&MA church, which was a small church with 80 members. Before I left I got the congregation started on a building project.
I enjoyed teaching and was lecturing at a couple schools and learning centers, so I decided to return to the United States to get a masters degree at the prestigious Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania. I went there because of the impact that one of the New Testament professors, Dr. Moses Silva, had on me through his writings. Dr. Silva was Cuban and an authority on the Book of Galatians.
While studying at Westminster, I pastored a Hispanic church in North Philadelphia and divided my time between church activities and my studies. Things came crashing down in 1995 when Sorlin suffered an ectopic pregnancy requiring emergency surgery and running up heavy bills. I had to drop out of school and get a job working in a grocery store to pay my debts. I came to a crossroads. I knew that stocking shelves and bagging groceries was not what I wanted. However, I never lost the conviction that God was in control of the trajectory of my life.
Everything changed when I met with a former youth pastor, Jesus Huertas, who was a chaplain in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He had learned through my sister of our situation, and encouraged me to consider joining the prison ministry. “God needs people like you in this ministry,” he told me. After nine months of prayer I applied for a chaplaincy position and we embarked on two decades of fruitful service with those beloved prisoners. Now here I am in Brentwood, becoming God’s hand reaching out to the beloved members of the Hispanic community in this area.
Once again, if you are Hispanic, join us on Sundays at 9:00 a.m. for Spanish Bible Studies at the church. If you know people who would profit from this, pass the word to them.
The church is at 50 Birch Street, Brentwood. We learn lessons about living and about life while studying the Bible together. Plus, we enjoy the fellowship we have with each other.
Or just come and say hello. I’m looking forward to meeting you and having a chat.