SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (BP)–At each stage of her ministry in San Rafael, Calif., Marian Engelland recounted, “God has provided people with other gifts when we were lacking.”
That, in a nutshell, is what Engelland and her co-laborers in the East Bay Baptist Association are hoping comes out of their recent Opportunity Tour, in which they guided 67 church and lay leaders from around the country through the East Bay area, giving them a glimpse of the vast need for new church starts.
“There are faithful people who are planting churches among diverse peoples,” said Lyman Alexander, director of missions for the association. “And there are cities and cultures that have no church where people can worship in their heart language. Our desire is for God to bring people and churches who will partner with us to discover and support potential church starting leaders here in East Bay.”
Many of the current ministers in East Bay Association received their training from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.
“There’s a real renewed interest in church planting in the association because of this Opportunity Tour,” Linda Bergquist, a church planting missionary with both the California Southern Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board, said. “It’s created a lot of energy. More than 37 churches participated and we had 100 people at the banquet.”
Bergquist said the association has been praying weekly since February in three specific areas: for the Opportunity Tour, for specific locations where new churches are needed and especially for “laborers for the harvest,” as referenced in Luke 10:2.
“It has been just amazing. Church planters have just started showing up in the area, and they have just the skills and gifts we need,” she said.
The church planters and associational staff in East Bay Association are not thinking small. Projects include:
— two Chinese churches in Oakland’s Chinatown. Oakland ranks ninth in U.S. cities for its Chinese population.
— one Vietnamese church in Oakland’s Chinatown.
— a church targeting restaurant workers in Chinatown.
— a church targeting young urban professionals in Chinatown.
— one Spanish-language church in the Fruitvale district — 2.5 square miles with more than 48,000 people.
— three churches targeting English speakers in Piedmont, the restored upscale Rockridge neighborhood, and the wealthy Oakland Hills area.
— two multi-ethnic churches in the area of Jack London Square and Lake Merritt, both in downtown Oakland.
— Afghan and south Asian churches in Fremont.
— one multi-ethnic church in the ethnically and economically diverse Richmond Parkway area.
— an indigenous church to serve the 29 communities of dire poverty in the East Bay Association.
— other language churches, churches for arts communities, churches in major businesses and the Port of Oakland.
Many of the projects listed above have no church starters in place. Some have church planters who have several other ministry responsibilities.
Engelland, her husband, Ryan, and Debbie Pridemore all began their ministry to the Latinos in the Canal District of San Rafael while they were students at Golden Gate Seminary. They were part of a core group of people who started a weekly event in the Canal known as “La Puerta,” meaning the door or gate, in 2003. The goal was to teach English as a Second Language, and thereby share the Gospel and start churches.
“Our heart for the Hispanic people and culture grew, and we began to sense a greater call from God to join Him in His work among the people of the Canal,” Engelland, a native of Dallas, said. “We moved here to this apartment community in the district because we are convinced that the greatest impact you can make is when you live with the people.”
And they are making an impact. The church planting team offers four levels of English classes each Friday evening at the neighborhood’s community center, with more than 10 teachers, followed by participatory Bible study, small group discussions in Spanish, and refreshments and fellowship. They hold large-scale evangelism events such as holiday-themed parties, Backyard Bible Clubs in apartment complexes, fiestas, a photography class for children, movie nights, and a children’s version of La Puerta.
Engelland and her team also build relationships on a smaller scale through living in the community, getting to know neighbors and extended families.
The team has seen nine professions of faith, including that of Mario, who faces strong persecution from his Catholic family because of his decision. Like many of the Hispanic immigrants in the Canal District, the Guatemalan native plans to return to his home country within two years. Engelland hopes that he will return as a missionary.
Their goal, she says, is to see indigenous house churches planted and multiplied throughout the 70 percent Hispanic district, led by effective and trained indigenous leaders.
“We seek to start churches that meet in homes or other easily accessible places, needing no money for buildings,” she said. “Because of this, our costs are significantly lower than for a normal church plant. A two-year apostleship in the canal would require $72,500. And because the churches will be led by indigenous leaders, church planters, we hope, will work themselves out of a job — us included.”
Across the Richmond Bridge lies a warmer and more industrial setting. There are also million-dollar homes a minute’s drive away from poor neighborhoods fraught with homeless people.
Port Wilburn, another graduate of Golden Gate Seminary, and his wife are East Bay natives. In 2000 they sold their home in Vallejo, just north of the East Bay area, went to seminary and felt God leading them to the Richmond area.
“We would drive through this area and stretch out our hands and pray to God, ‘Please let us minister here,’” Marshelle Wilburn said. “God totally provided for us a place to live and church to minister with.”
Port is pastor of the diverse Rock Harbor Christian Fellowship in San Pablo, one of many communities along the Richmond Parkway. The church has set as its target the neighborhoods within a three-mile radius, which includes upper middle class, middle class and lower working class communities of many races: African-American, white, Filipino, Asian and Latino. That radius also includes Contra Costa Junior College, with almost 3,500 students.
Port holds an expansive view about those who Rock Harbor Christian Fellowship is called to reach.
“Who do we work with, play with, live with, study with? That’s who we will reach,” he said.
He is also convinced of the need for East Bay area churches to recognize and develop new church planters from within their community.
“A lot of pastors come in to the area and stay three to five years, work, and then go home,” he said. “This is our home. We’re not going anywhere.”
But the church is nonetheless in need of prayer partners, groups wanting to serve in multi-ethnic mission opportunities, and funding for staff salaries, building improvements, outreach events and more.
Go south from the Richmond Parkway about 25 miles to reach Fremont, in Alameda County. There, between 40,000 and 60,000 Afghans represent more than five language groups — the largest concentration of Afghans outside Afghanistan.
A North American Mission Board church planter named Tim, whose last name is withheld for security reasons, took people on the Opportunity Tour to a mosque and an Afghan community center.
“Less than one percent of Afghanistan is Christian,” Tim, a graduate of Golden Gate Seminary, said. “I am challenged and amazed that God has brought this missions opportunity to our door.”
The South Carolina native said his ultimate vision is for Afghan people to come to know Jesus Christ and for a new, indigenous Afghan church to be started. “I dream of a day when new believers from Fremont will return home to evangelize Afghanistan,” he said.
Tim is raising salary support so that he can continue his work when his appointment with NAMB is over, and he seeks operations support to continue the ministry.
Throughout the East Bay Baptist Association, Golden Gate alumni are joining with other church planters in reaching the Hispanics, Asians, whites, African-Americans, rich, poor and everyone else.
“This is not about us. It’s Kingdom, and it’s universal,” Port Wilburn told people on the Opportunity Tour. “That’s why you’re here. That’s why we want you to join us.”