Formation for the Missionary Church
A Two-In-One Ministry Grows In Houston
In a changing world, the Missionary Church needs leadership and trust. This is what we have found in forming San Romero at St. Christopher’s in Houston, Texas. The one requirement that must be present when planting a new Christian congregation is the leadership of the Spirit of Christ. It is his church and his mission.
I can describe the experience of housing San Romero and St. Christopher’s together in one word: trust. To work together we must trust each other, but as we all know, trust is earned. I decided to trust Andy Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, from the moment he told me, “we are waiting for you here, whenever you are ready.” I did not hear conditions to that invitation, and that is why I considered it some years later.
I trusted the diocesan leaders when they said to me, “We trust you.” They trusted my experience in ministry, and they wanted me to present a project after I had a chance to get to know West Houston. It made a great difference to hear that there were enough funds dedicated to mission. I mean this sincerely, because other initiatives want to send missionaries without committing funds, knowing well that they are available for other priorities.
Maybe I just trust people too easily, but the same process repeated itself in our decision to choose St. Christopher’s as our host church. Father Bob Goolsby and the leaders of the congregation opened their church and hearts to us and remained committed to the project, even after we decided to be a separate congregation that would not be integrated into their parish.
Sharing space and making space for each other
When people are forced to be together, togetherness can become an obstacle. Sometimes we think that if we require others to speak our language, come to the same place, at the same time, try to look the same, never disagree in anything, etc., then we are one. But we are all one church, with people who are allowed and encouraged to be different. We speak and worship one language at a time. There is no requirement to integrate all people into one like-minded, same-cultured group. We are, however, asked to be respectful and appreciative of one another.
Housing two congregations together requires sharing space and making space for each other. There are always issues regarding sharing space, but good leadership handles them with authority when trust has been built. St. Christopher’s has given full use of the campus to San Romero, even though we do not own it. When we presented the project to the vestry of St. Christopher’s, I was ready, good missionary that I am, to be told what specific areas we could use, and which ones we could not. The Holy Spirit has surprised me several times, and one was when the vestry told us that they wanted us to use their entire campus, without exceptions, whenever needed. In that same meeting, after I explained that we would come in every Sunday to set up our musical instruments and take them down after our worship, they decided that it was not acceptable. They would take two pews out of their newly renovated sanctuary to make room for our band. No need to set up every week. Our ministry is one.
Of course, earning trust takes time, and it only happened after I spent more than six months sharing with the people of St. Christopher’s at every opportunity. Before we invited other people, we got to know each other. I learned to appreciate who they are and what they have done, and I made sure that they knew that I would love and respect them, no matter what.
Father Bob Goolsby and I trusted each other, and when it was time, we presented the project to the Diocese together, surrounded by our leaders. Because we had first built trust, we were confident that we were called to be two separate congregations. When San Romero began its public ministry in Spanish, some of St. Christopher’s lay leaders participated in our leadership. It was critical that they welcomed people, not to their building, but to their church. The planting of San Romero became an integral part of their mission, and when it was time, they were able to step back.
“What language do you speak at home?” This was an important question in our preliminary research on the residents of Spring Branch, Houston. It made sense to start our ministry in Spanish when we learned that 52.85 percent of residents spoke Spanish at home. It is good to feel at home when we go to church. We must depart from the idea that we are different. God has showed us that our differences are not a problem, unless we make them one.
New rector, new insights
Father Rich Houser inherited the project of San Romero in 2019, when he became St. Christopher’s rector, and he has gained our trust. Leaders must trust each other to share in the one mission of Christ, and one of the many ways that God has showed us we should trust Father Rich was a new insight into our ministry. At that time, San Romero was gearing up for the possibility of having our own campus. One of the main reasons for that was us feeling the call to add ministry in English, which might have caused our churches to compete for new members and present a problem.
Father Rich’s answer was, “I don’t see the problem. We just have to work on our schedules.” And with the support of his vestry and our Bishop’s Committee, San Romero is on its way to starting worship in Spanish and English. Because we trust each other, our two congregations offer newcomers different options for Episcopal worship and membership on the same campus.
We have a ritual now that I call “the moving of the ropes.” To be two-in-one, we need to be allowed to be different. St. Christopher’s is excellent in dealing with the pandemic and having in-person worship safely. And we have followed their leadership in all but one detail - the ropes for social distancing. Large families that live under the same roof come to worship at San Romero. No social distancing required. Father Rich told us, “Well, you can do your own thing, move the ropes if you need to.” So, every Sunday before worship, we move the ropes to accommodate to our needs and put them back afterwards to respect theirs.
The Missionary Church needs leadership and trust. I believe you should try to hear everyone, but not consult everyone. Decisions and authority are given by the congregation to those in leadership. I am sure that there are some at San Romero and St. Christopher’s and some outsiders who do not get it. They might say, “Why do they/we have to move the ropes? Can’t they accommodate to our way?” But even if they disagree with the way things are done, they respect it, because they are met by the maturity, commitment, courage and hope of their leaders. This applies to all disagreements. We need to recognize that we are different. When we can be different and embrace each other as we are, then we are one in Christ Jesus, our leader.
The people of St. Christopher’s and San Romero have come together often. We have shared outreach efforts and events such as Trunk or Treat, Pet Blessing, Easter Egg Hunt, and Ashes to Go. We have been in the first row for each other at every special celebration for our two congregations. We have not felt the need to make bilingual gatherings or liturgies because we trust our leaders, who serve as a bridge, and because we feel at home in our separate languages and cultural heritages. We know we are there to support each other. And we know well that even if we don’t gather together and only greet and talk between services, we are two-in-one, still one Christian Church in the Episcopal tradition.
A few words from St. Christopher’s and San Romero’s leaders
The Rev. Rich Houser, Rector of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church
There is not much more to be said, so I won't say much. I will say that trust is so important in these multiple ministry environments. We have San Romero Episcopal Church, Saint Christopher's Episcopal Church, Saint Christopher's Episcopal Day School, Saint Christopher's Resale Shop, and Total Football Soccer Club in our community, not including our anonymous groups and neighborhood groups. It's a lot of folks who share the unified belief that St. Christopher's in Spring Branch is important to all of us.
You might ask, how did trust grow? Trust takes time, lots of communication in the various ways we take in communication, embracing cultural differences - and a central Google calendar! One calendar that everyone can see definitely helps us see possible bumps before they become hills.
It is truly an honor to be entrusted with hosting San Romero Episcopal Church and the Rev. Uriel Lopez.
From Becky Hubert, Lay leader of St. Christopher’s
I was serving as senior warden and had just come back from a mission to Honduras, when Fr. Bob Goolsby spoke to us about the possibility of having Hispanic ministry at St. Christopher’s. I had been praying about something like this, and when Uriel chose us, it was an answer to our prayer. I wanted our church to open its doors to a greater diversity of people, more representative of our local Spring Branch Community.
We have been part of Uriel’s leadership from the beginning, and we pray for each other all the time. We were present at the beginning of their public worship, and we were there for the ringing of the bell when San Romero was received as a Fellowship. We really feel that their ministry is part of ours, and we are so happy to be able to share our buildings with them.
From Patricia Perez, Lay leader of San Romero
I met Father Uriel at a family gathering of a friend. At that point, my marriage was almost over, and my husband and I started going to him for marriage counseling. When we started counseling, our friends also invited us to come to San Romero with them one Sunday. We loved it. Even though most people were from El Salvador and other countries, we felt very welcomed and pampered.
During one of the Eucharists in my first year, I had a powerful invitation of the Holy Spirit to receive holy communion which I had not done for many, many years, and it changed my life. This church has helped my husband and I remain together and value each other as a couple. To the glory of God, we now celebrate being together for 27 years. We have found a family who loves us unconditionally.
Father Uriel, his wife Luisa and other leaders are always close and attentive to us, and during this past year, when I lost both my parents, we received phone calls and visits daily. They cooked and brought us hot soups and medicine when we caught COVID-19, and they offered a complete virtual novena for my family when my mom died. The love that we feel in this family of San Romero we have never found in any other place. Every Sunday, I feel that I go to a family gathering to be fed and renewed. There is always a message in the sermon that touches you personally; there is always a teaching that I can use. There was an empty space in my life and in my faith before, but now I love sharing my experience of God and my church. I love serving and sharing, and now it makes me proud to be a member of the Bishop´s Committee of San Romero Episcopal Church.
Padre Uriel Lopez did parish ministry with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, in the suburbs of Chicago for nine years before transitioning to the Episcopal Church in 2011. He has great experience in bilingual parish settings, and in leading English and Spanish speaking groups in one community. He was received as a priest of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Chicago and served as the rector of Church of the Redeemer in Elgin, Illinois, for four years. Uriel was called to lead in the creation of a new mission in West Houston, and he is now the vicar for his church plant, San Romero Episcopal Church, Houston. Uriel has been a member of Gathering of Leaders since 2019. He is married to Maria Luisa Mateus Cuesta, and they have two children, Meiby Yeritza and Carlos Uriel.
The Reverend Rich Houser is rector at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas. Prior to becoming St. Christopher’s rector in 2019, he served at Trinity, Houston. Houser is married to Trish Houser, a private college counselor. Rich has been a member of Gathering of Leaders since 2016. They have two young daughters, Ella Rae and Emmaline, Annie, a rescue “lap kitty” and Nora, a Norwegian dwarf rabbit.
- Breaking Down Walls by David Romanik, Vestry Papers, July 2020
- Mission of Union and Integration by Daniel Vélez-Rivera, Vestry Papers, May 2011
- Friendship Beyond Language by Anna Olson, an ECF Vital Practices blog, July 31, 2014
- Multisites Growing...Just Not in the Episcopal Church by Greg Syler, an ECF Vital Practices blog, October 21, 2019