A Hispanic congregation has taken root and is changing its southern California neighborhood. How? It wasn’t flashy programs—just simple invitations to dinner.
“We haven’t had any drive-bys in five years in our street,” says Arnoldo Escobar. “We used to have a lot of prostitution in the corner of our street, and it’s gone now.
“The neighborhood is a whole different neighborhood now.”
Those are marked changes for four blocks of Peck Street in Compton, California, where Escobar copastors City Church.
City Church of Compton launched in 2010, a church plant of Emmanuel Reformed Church in nearby Paramount, California. Compton was plagued by poverty and notorious for gang violence. Planters Pat and Julie Dirkse moved into the city, along with several families from their launch team, and bought or rented homes within a couple blocks of each other. “We wanted people to move in because we believe the city gets transformed from the inside out,” Dirkse told RCA Today in 2011.
Escobar and his wife, Viviana, were part of the launch team from the beginning and moved to Compton two years later. From that day, they took a more active role in leading the church, which has included growing a Spanish-language congregation.
The launch team started by painting fences. Picking up trash. Praying as they walked through the neighborhood. Gradually, they’d put out signs, offering free prayer. They held block parties. They met, then got to know, their neighbors.
Eventually, they began worship services once a month in the Dirkses’ garage. Once a month became twice a month, then every week.
City Church still meets in a garage on Sunday mornings, although they’ve moved to a bigger garage. They’ve got a playground for kids and a small soccer field—places that draw children and families, places that foster relationships. Neighbors call it the ranch, and even people who aren’t part of the church credit the church with the changes they’re seeing. “They say, ‘Since we got new people at the ranch, things started changing,’” Escobar says.
A Spanish-language congregation begins
“After we moved, we find out that 62 percent of the population is Hispanic,” Escobar recalls. “And at least on that block, most of them speak Spanish. We just say, we should do something in Spanish.” It started with meeting people, and they borrowed an approach from the early days of City Church. Every Wednesday, Escobar and Viviana and their small kids, Camila and Santiago, would grab buckets, walk down the street, and pick up trash. When neighbors asked why, they said they wanted to love the city and get to know people around here. “That opens doors for us to say, ‘How can we pray for you?’ That’s how we started for the first year,” Escobar says.
“After that, we just invite people to come to our house, and people start coming to our house for dinner. We have a really good group going.
“We start introducing little things: ‘Hey, we just like to give thanks before we eat, so let’s give thanks.’ Two months later: ‘What’s happening in your life? Let’s celebrate.’ Eventually: ‘We believe God wants good things for us, and he wants to meet your needs. How can we pray for you?’
“Little by little, without really forcing it, we’re getting a small congregation going.” And little by little, that group became a place of discipleship, where people learned about and drew closer to God.
Escobar considers the group a missional community. Missional communities are groups of 20 to 50 people who unite around a specific mission as they follow Jesus together. Since its beginning, City Church has formed missional communities as a way to grow faith and reach neighbors. Some have focused on one block in the neighborhood; others organized around interests like enfolding young adults or addressing particular challenges in the community.
“This [Spanish-language missional community] is 90 percent nonbelievers,” Escobar says. “In these two years, we had seven adults that came to Christ, and probably ten to twelve kids that came to Christ in Children and Worship classes.
“These people, they invite us over. Every single activity—family reunion, parties—they invite us. We being part of that, and other people from the neighborhood seeing that we’re not Christians coming, but people trying to follow Jesus—that has been huge for us. Sitting down with people and talking about anything, sports. Sharing life together. They say, ‘Will you pray for our daughter?’ That happens through missional communities.
“This is not a Bible study; this is just trying to be family. We keep it low maintenance. People bring food, we eat, we pray, we celebrate, and we leave.”
That low-key approach is bringing major personal growth. People who never thought they’d pick up a Bible are now bringing Bibles with them as they walk to a neighbor’s to study the Gospel of Mark. People who initially came just to eat are now volunteering to pray when someone shares a prayer request. “It’s indigenous leaders rising up,” Escobar says, “not just coming, but stepping in.”
One day, someone asked, “Are you guys going to do something like a mass?” “We said, ‘Would you come if we do it?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’”
The church prayed about it and decided to start a Spanish-language service. Like the English service, it began once a month. Now, in its second year, the service takes place every week.
Escobar says in spite of the language differences, the congregations together make up one church, and there is some crossover between the congregations. One couple, Craig and Evie Chapman, attend the Spanish service but only speak English. “It has to be the Holy Spirit because they’re not understanding anything. They still have a relationship, and it’s really, really powerful. Everybody calls them Nana and Grandpa.”
The impact widens
Now, Escobar says, the congregation is looking at how to take what they have done through City Church and start it in a different part of the city to have a presence there, too. Three members have started a new business in Compton, a coffee shop called Patria, the first coffee shop in Compton other than a solitary Starbucks. “That is really something positive for the city,” he says. (Patrons agree; Patria has scores of four- and five-star reviews on Google and Yelp.)
Dirkse runs City Catering, a BBQ business that provides food and employment. Escobar is also an entrepreneur; he started a screen-printing business four blocks from home. “We are a family on mission; this is a business on mission,” he says. “Now that we have new neighbors here in the business, I got people coming for prayer, I’ve had prayer meetings here at the shop. I’ve got a good relationship with different neighbors here now.
“That’s the way we try to look out—not just in City Church, but be a presence in the city.”
Are you inspired by the simplicity of City Church’s dinner invitations to neighbors? It’s a great, low-risk way to develop relationships. This week, put a big pot of soup on and call up that neighbor you haven’t really gotten to know.