The Gifts of God for the People of God
When I was 11 years old, my family lived in Harlingen, Texas, a town in the Rio Grande Valley. Some years earlier, my parents, sister, and I had immigrated from my birth country of Peru to Guatemala, where my father attended seminary. Four years later, with all our belongings in an old 1960s model Ford Fairlane that my dad had won in a raffle at the seminary, we drove through Mexico, from Guatemala to Texas, so my father could pastor a small Christian and Missionary Alliance church in Harlingen.
The church’s property included a tiny wooden rectory next to the church building and a small stand-alone parish hall in the backyard area.
One of the things I vividly remember of our time in Harlingen was how my parents hosted people who would stay on the church property, some of them for several weeks, from time to time. They were immigrants who had just crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States, and they were seeking refuge as they made their way north. Some of them were young, and some of them were old. I remember the meals we had in the church’s backyard in the evenings, sitting around long tables, people telling the stories of their journey.
Of your own have we given you
“The Gifts of God for the People of God” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 364) is the invitation given by the priest or bishop during Holy Communion. And besides being words of invitation, they are a proclamation.
“But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering?” asked David after contemplating the abundance he and his people had given for the building of the temple, from large amounts of gold, silver, and iron, to large quantities of precious stones. “For all things come from you,” David continued, “and of your own have we given you...O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own” (1 Chronicles 29:14, 16). The Gifts of God for the People of God.
All that we have and all that we are
Back in Harlingen, Texas, my parents had the gifts of hospitality, cooking (including my mom’s delicious rice), time, space, and buildings, all empowered by the fruit of the Spirit: gifts from God for the people of God. Years later, my father, now an Episcopal priest, continued to live out this same understanding as he led Iglesia Episcopal San Mateo in Houston, Texas, and instilled it in that congregation. And it rubbed off on me as well.
It is interesting how our perspective changes when we enumerate what we have as faith communities: the gifts of the members of the faith community, the relationships and connections each have, their wisdom, their knowledge, their stories, their brokenness, their ongoing healing, their offerings and tithes, the church property, buildings, and equipment, and so on. Abundance, the Gifts of God for the People of God.
Gifts of service, gifts in action
When I had the privilege of “planting” a church that became St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Manor, Texas (a suburb of Austin), it was the gifts of those joining us – hospitality, cooking, catering, dancing, flexibility, arranging things in a trailer, piñata-making, music, connections – empowered by the Holy Spirit, that helped us create an atmosphere and culture of inclusiveness. Gifts that allowed this community to become a multi-ethnic community of Spanish-speaking, English-speaking, and bilingual people. That let us be connected to the life of the surrounding community and to be able to gather in several places, including the Manor High School cafeteria, Manor Lions Club hall, and local parks, for four and a half years. And when our diocese purchased land and built a church with a bell tower and office and classroom space, those same gifts and more allowed us to transition to this new opportunity. The Gifts of God for the People of God.
We also did not forget that the “People of God” is not limited to those within our faith community, but includes those people in our surrounding communities. So, as we continued to be involved in the life of our surrounding community, joining and partnering with others in work for its wellness, we understood that what God had given us was also an asset for the Manor community: These were not only our buildings and property, but were also buildings and property for our surrounding community.
A community garden was built on St. Mary Magdalene’s property in partnership with the Foundation for the Homeless, which was serving Manor ISD students and their families. All the produce grown was given to these families. Food gardening classes for the Manor community were also hosted in the community garden in partnership with the Sustainable Food Center of Austin. The church building was used for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; to start a Manor chapter of Toastmasters International; for English as a Second Language classes; to create the Manor Community Wellness Alliance, which piloted a free clinic in the church building; to host the Salvadorian Mobile Consulate which processed documents for hundreds of Salvadorians in the Austin area; to have a free prom dress boutique for Manor ISD students in partnership with a local shop; and during the peak of the pandemic, the church building became the Manor Food Pantry and food distribution center in partnership with the Manor Disaster Relief organization. The Gifts of God for the People of God.
We are called to live abundantly
Living as a faith community and caring for properties and buildings can be challenging. We were unhealthy whenever we stopped seeing and appreciating each church member’s giftedness and gifts we had received from God: lack. We were healthy whenever we acknowledged and appreciated the gift that we were to each other, the gifts that each brought to the community, the gift of being part of the Manor community, the potential of all our partnerships, and the potential and flexibility for using our property and buildings. The Gifts of God for the People of God: abundance.
What abundance can you discover in your context? You are indeed the Gifts of God for the People of God.
The Rev. Alex Montes-Vela is a member of the Mission Amplification team of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, which supports leaders and congregations in starting new communities and nurtures existing congregations and their leaders through coaching and consulting, helping them respond both strategically and effectively to opportunities and challenges. Prior to this appointment, Alex was the founding priest of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Manor, Texas, which began in his home in early 2010 and became a multi-ethnic community that worships and lives bilingually (English and Spanish). Alex is married to Thi (born in Vietnam), and they have three adult children and two granddaughters.
- Beyond the Numbers by Aisha Huertas, Vestry Papers, May 2021
- Enough Love to Go Around by Jimmy Bartz, Vestry Papers, September 2020
- An Audacious Spirit of Abundance by Sandy Webb, Vestry Papers, September 2019
- Gratitude + Generosity = Abundance by Forrest S. Cuch and Michael Carney, Vestry Papers, September 2022