If there is ever a competition for the title of Busiest Minister in America, the smart money will be on Yoan Mora, senior pastor of Primera Iglesia Cristiana, a small but vibrant Spanish-speaking congregation in San Antonio, Texas. The weeks are nuts: worship services, classes, and meetings on Sundays; a radio program on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; prayer service and Bible study on Tuesdays; house church meetings in the southern reaches of the city each Thursday; a job-training program hosted at the church on Saturdays, plus other meetings scattered through the weekend.
Those are just his top-level duties. He still has to find time to write sermons, oversee church-building maintenance, teach small groups, manage budgets, and, most of all, be with people in all the ways pastors need to be with people: births, deaths, sicknesses, celebrations, life events big, medium, and small. Being a pastor is a full-time job, and then some.
But being a pastor is not Mora’s full-time job. Most of Mora’s weekday hours are devoted to his work as an accountant at a health-care clinic in the northeast part of town. He’s also trying to finish a master’s degree in theology.
Mora believes he was placed on this earth to pastor, so that’s what he plans on doing. But for now, he can’t make a living as a pastor because the congregation he serves is in an extremely low-income neighborhood. Pastor salaries are drawn from church budgets, which are drawn from the household budgets of congregants. So in a low-income area, even when a church grows, its budget does not expand so much as stretch. Primera Iglesia Cristiana can’t pay Mora much for all his efforts, so for the foreseeable future, he’ll hustle.
Mora appears to be good at his juggling act. Primera Iglesia Cristiana now sees 50-60 attendees on any given Sunday, which amounts to a comeback: The church, which was founded in 1899, experienced something of a heyday in the mid-century, then saw a precipitous decline from the 1980s forward. By the time Mora arrived in 2011, Primera Iglesia Cristiana consisted of four old-timers who would gather for Sunday worship behind closed doors.
Mora shakes his head at the memory. “I say to them, ‘Why you no open the church doors to the community?’ They say, ‘Because we need to save money for air conditioning.’”
Primera Iglesia Cristiana may be 118 years old, but it’s essentially a startup, or a start-over. That makes it something of a unicorn: Most church startups, known as “church plants,” do not happen in neighborhoods like this one. San Antonio’s West Side, a colorful, historic Mexican American community adjacent to downtown, has for generations been a distressed area, with high rates of poverty, joblessness, and high-school dropouts. While that description may make it sound like the kind of place faith leaders would target, church planters tend to focus their efforts on areas that are higher-income.
Churches are not just faith institutions; they are economic institutions, too. And church life in general seems to be falling along economic lines: Churches of all sizes proliferate the suburbs and the tonier parts of America’s urban cores, while in lower income, economically stagnant neighborhoods, churches tend to be very small, very old, and in general, not as active in their community.
Sociologists, like Robert Putnam and Ram Cnann, have shown that religious participation is in its steepest decline among lower classes. Church attendance is correlated strongly to higher levels of education and income. Working class and poorer families are less likely to participate in a religious community than any other socioeconomic group. Religious faith and practice is a reflection of human beliefs, but it is also a marker of economic realities, including the gap between affluent and distressed neighborhoods.
Putnam has argued that involvement in religious groups is associated with a variety of positive outcomes for youth—including better mental and physical health, lower levels of substance abuse, and high educational attainment—in part because religious groups provide strong social connections and a sense of identity. Plus, faith communities provide significant assistance for struggling families, from rental and food assistance to after-school care and mentoring of both kids and single parents.
Communities that are arguably in most need of the social supports churches provide are the communities where churches seem to be vanishing—and where new, upstart church activity is not happening. In 2016, a Barna Group study of 769 church start-ups found that half of them were in wealthier locations. Brooke Hempell, the senior vice president of research at Barna Group, noted that church work in economically disadvantaged or economically mixed areas presents a higher degree of difficulty. “Churches in urban areas tended to be extremely financially strapped,” she said. “Not only is it more expensive to operate but they are also serving more needy populations.”
That’s the loop of church economics: It needs money to serve people, but in many cases, it gets that money from the community it serves. So ministers are incentivized to plant and grow their churches in areas where people can afford to give money away.
Churches, especially new churches with young leadership and young congregants, seem to be a feature of stable and upwardly mobile communities. The disadvantaged communities that are most in need of the services churches exist in part to provide cannot afford to start and sustain those churches—and thus they are not getting them.
Mora knows that affluent churches abound in San Antonio, and is not surprised by the gap between rich and poor churches. Indeed, the challenge he’s facing in the West Side confirms and clarifies one of his core beliefs: God calls people like him into hard places.
Mora is an American citizen, but he came here by way of Cuba—his family moved to the United States upon obtaining refugee status in 2001, he said. For a decade, they lived in New Jersey, but they were long drawn to Texas. Mora’s wife, Lisbet, had family in Corpus Christi, where her father, who spent years in a Cuban prison for preaching Christianity, was running a church, Mora said. They knew about a church in San Antonio that needed a pastor, and in 2011 the Moras—Yoan, Lisbet, and their two adolescent daughters—took a trip to the West Side to check it out.
“When I made the first tour around the neighborhood, [I said], ‘Is this the United States?’” he said. He recalls seeing a Bienvenidos al Westside sign at the bottom of a local bridge. Many West Side streets lack sidewalks; others lack any pavement at all. On some blocks, the housing stock is severely aged—some properties look as if they are about to crumble inward, yet are home to families of all sizes.
So far, a significant amount of Primera Iglesia Cristiana’s growth has been from people who share Mora’s outsider status. The church’s more active members hail from Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba—only a handful actually come from the nearby neighborhood. Mora and his volunteer leaders are working to change that through the radio program and job-training program, two ministries that Mora hopes are people magnets.
Yet Mora knows that church growth will not necessarily change his own economic situation. The median income in 78207, the zip code where Primera Iglesia Cristiana is located, is less than $25,000. If the church is a raging success someday, with, say, 150 members, and 100 of those members are adults earning the median income, and all of those members tithe a full 10 percent of their pre-tax earning (most churchgoers give far less), it would have a budget of $250,000. That budget would need to cover potential employees, insurance for the building, plus upkeep for the aging structure, and a slew of events, including food and clothing drives, among other things.
If Mora is able to manage all of that, he’ll also need to pay himself. This year, the church increased his salary to $1,000 per month, from $600. Mora is grateful, but he gives a Come on, man look as he cites the figure. “What are you going to do with $1,000 monthly? With a daughter, 17 years old? Another one 12 years old? Three ladies at home!” he says, laughing.
He’ll be keeping that accounting job.
Sometimes, churches in poor areas get backing from churches in wealthier neighborhoods. In 1899, Primera Iglesia Cristiana was a ministry of Central Christian Church, a larger Anglo church in San Antonio. In the early 20th century, Central Christian Church saw Primera Iglesia as a “mission” church, a way to help the Hispanic community in San Antonio in the wake of an influx of people migrating from Mexico to the U.S., and provided financial support, according to Mora.
Mora says financial backing from an affluent white church is not necessarily the kind of help his church needs now. “How can big churches help small churches?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s not sending money only. Help us with jobs. Good positions. Train us to be a success. I have several people in my church who are looking for employment.”
Mora and Primera Iglesia Cristiana are doing what they can to create those opportunities themselves. For the last year, they’ve been running a job-training program for people in the neighborhood. Each week, men and women come to the church and learn trades such as air conditioning repair. After about 40 weeks of training, they can take a test for state certification.
Growing the program won’t be easy. Last year, Mora learned that welding jobs were available all over San Antonio, so he’s launching a welding training program, too. He has a trainer, and he has welding students, but is missing a path to official certification because, Mora says, he lacks connections to people who can help him navigate the system.
On a recent Sunday service, Primera Iglesia Cristiana’s congregation was a little larger than normal, and the mood was even more festive. Four men from the neighborhood were graduating from the air conditioning training program, with wives, children, and grandparents scattered throughout the pews. After the sermon, a woman stood in front of the altar and invited the graduates to the front. “Esta es una oportunidad de los estudiantes [de] tener una nueva vida. ¡Una nueva identidad!” she said. This is an opportunity for these students to have a new life. A new identity!
She invited the families to keep coming back to Primera Iglesia every week, and she offered a prayer: “Ha abierto las puertas de este lugar porque es un lugar sagrado, un lugar para ayudar.” Keep the doors of this place open, because it is sacred. A place of help.
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