Church grows by finding multicultural community
By Lindsay Peyton
Rev. Luis E. Ramirez was appointed to Cedar Bayou Grace in Baytown at the beginning of the year. When he looks at the 30 acres of land on church campus, he imagines the possibilities. He envisions a school building. He pictures a soccer field near the detention pond. He considers potential sources of revenue. “How can we think of something bigger and better to get bigger and better results?” he asks.
Ramirez’s last experience at the helm of Cypress Trails UMC in Spring helps him see potential. About six and a half years ago, he showed up at a time when that congregation was struggling to survive. When he left, everything turned around. Now he’s ready to apply what he learned.
When Ramirez arrived at Cypress Trails in 2014, he was faced with a familiar problem. “It was a situation you have in so many churches in the conference,” he said “It was just a dying church.”
He explained that the congregation was chartered in 1980 to serve an area that, at the time was shaped by “white flight,” the phenomenon of middle-class white people fleeing from urban centers.
Since then, the population has changed significantly. Ramirez found it was almost evenly divided among white, Hispanic and Black residents. “It really was a diverse community,” he said.
The church, however, did not reflect that diversity, and its leadership was entirely white. But that wasn’t the only problem.
Attendance was low, with only about 60 or 70 people in the pews. “There were only two children there my first Sunday,” Ramirez recalled.
The congregation’s finances were also in complete disarray. Apportionments were not paid.
Ramirez was undeterred. In fact, he saw the situation as a challenge, one that he was more than willing to tackle. There was nowhere to go but up, he explained.
“I looked at it as a blessing,” Ramirez said. “It was a win-win appointment.”
First, he scheduled a series of home meetings with current members and asked them what they liked about church. Together, they brainstormed and formed a vision for the future.
Then, Ramirez asked members to go on prayer walks in surrounding neighborhoods. They would stop to pray every four or five houses – and take turns leading the devotion.
“Every time we did this, someone would stop and ask who we were,” Ramirez recalled. “We would say that we were praying for the neighborhood, and people would share their prayer concerns.”
That’s where the change began, he said. Church members could see their community and learned residents’ concerns firsthand. Coupled with the information gathered from home meetings, a direction forward formed.
The first charge was developing an active ministry for children. “We started a soccer league that first year,” Ramirez said. “We had about eight kids at first, my daughter being one.”
By the time he left, there were closer to 80 children enrolled. “It just took off,” he said. “That’s how you engage people. You meet them where they are. You find their dreams, their aspirations. That’s where you find your community.”
Cypress Trails UMC wanted to reach more youth and began thinking of ways to work more with area elementary schools. Ramirez had another idea. “Do we need to be our own school?” he asked. “We could have our own charter school.’
Before long, the church partnered with Sam Houston State University to start its own elementary program. At first, the school opened with kindergarten through second grade – and then added a new grade each year, up to fifth.
The school created a stream of revenue for the church, Ramirez explained. Families in the community benefitted from top-notch instruction developed by professors at SHSU.
Cypress Trails UMC also discovered that when students were engaged with two points of connection at the church – like soccer and choir — they would begin showing up on Sunday mornings.
In addition, the congregation began reaching out to serve neighbors in new ways. For instance, Cypress Trails hosted a large Girl Scout Troop, with 90 members who were predominantly homeschooled.
The church expanded to a new community building – and developed ministry in other parts of the neighborhood as well. “There was a lot of excitement,” Ramirez said. “Members saw the church grow.”
Once the school and the ministries were established, there was a momentum in place. “And you can’t stop that,” the pastor said.
“I went into a situation where they needed change – and they needed it now,” Ramirez continued. “They didn’t have a choice.”
At first, a few members were upset about the new direction, he recalled. After the first year, and witnessing the expansion of the church, their concerns lifted.
The existing membership of the church embraced the new diversity of the congregation. “Diversity became the only path,” Ramirez said. “That helped with both the leadership and the membership of the church.”
He explained that as the members became more diverse, so did the staff. And vice versa. When individuals saw themselves reflected in leadership, they were more likely to join.
For example, his associate pastor Rev. Cynthia Dreesen grew up in Colombia, and pianist Chi Wai Liu is a Hong Kong native. At the same time, lay minister Donald Risinger is a founding member of the church. “We weren’t in the business of excluding anyone,” Ramirez said. “We wanted to bring everyone in.”
Developing diversity in lay leadership was also essential, he explained. That meant adding more voices to church committees.
When Ramirez was appointed to serve a new church, he was proud to leave behind a congregation that boasted an attendance on Sundays of 200 members. It had almost tripled in size, and the budget was balanced.
Most importantly, Ramirez said, the church created a number of partnerships with the community, including SHSU, reVision, Northwest Assistance Ministries and Street Grace. He always wanted the church to be a vital part of the neighborhood – and now it was.
The Rev. Brandi Horton took over his role as Senior Pastor at Cypress Trails. “We spent two solid weeks transitioning,” Ramirez said. “She’s going to continue our work – and continue that vision.”
At his new church, Cedar Bayou Grace, the situation is different, Ramirez said. For instance, the congregation is regional, not a community church. There isn’t the same sense of urgency or need to adapt.
A traditional service and contemporary service are thriving, but the later service on Sundays has room to grow and better reflect the community. Ramirez is rolling up his sleeves.
“The last service has the greatest potential for growth,” he said. “That’s the service that can engage the Baytown of today.”
Finding ways to develop a more multicultural church is a worthy focus for all congregations, Ramirez explained. “Just do it,” he said. “That’s what I learned in the past six years.”
He also promotes trying new things to enliven the congregation. “It’s easier to attempt and fail than it is not to attempt at all,” he said. “But I provide a safety net for my employees too. If they fail, it’s going to be okay. Failure is how you learn.”
And if ministries thrive, then stick with them, he said. He carries in his heart the lessons learned from his past congregation – and they have become his mantra going forward.
“If we do what’s done before, you get the same results,” Ramirez said. “The key is to think bigger and find new ways.”