How one church went into the community to pick new children up in a Love Bus
By Lindsay Peyton
You can’t miss the FUMC Joaquin church bus when it drives by. The vehicle is painted white, adorned with multi-colored handprints and reads “Loving All God’s Children” front and back. Pastor Robert Ortigo wants everyone to take notice – so they can get on board and take a ride to church.
Ortigo purchased the bus about a year ago. He found it in Jackson, Mississippi. “We bought it, brought it in and repainted it,” he recalled.
He wanted to start a bus ministry, to provide transportation for children and teens who otherwise would not be able to make it to church.
A year later, the bus is busy on Sundays and Wednesdays, picking up dozens of children who want to go to Sunday school or youth groups. In the summer, the bus takes students to vacation Bible school. Sometimes, the vehicle is loaded with children headed to skate or to a splash park. Other times, the kids may visit a nursing home to sing or read scripture to the seniors.
When Ortigo was appointed to FUMC Joaquin five years ago, there were only 10 members in the pews. That first year, he led 16 funerals. He worried about the church’s future.
He asked the congregation if they wanted to increase membership, “Do we want to be visible in the community and demonstrate Jesus?”
The pastor noticed something else was wrong right away. There were no children or babies in the crowd.
“Without children, your church is dead,” Ortigo explained. “Some people say children are the church of tomorrow. Well, that’s wrong. Children are the church of today. Show me a church that has children, and I’ll show you a church that’s alive.”
Pastor Ortigo went to work creating a nursery out of a room adjoining the sanctuary. Now that there’s a place for them, babies are in the church.
Ortigo also realized that there were children in the small East Texas community, but they were simply not coming to church. He had a similar experience elsewhere, but it seemed worse.
Ortigo explained that when children and teenagers struggle with alcohol, drugs and depression, there is typically the same problem at the root. “They don’t have anything to do,” he said. “And then they get so far in, that they don’t think there’s any way to turn around.”
By making church more accessible, the pastor wanted to provide an alternative space, where youth could engage in positive, productive and life-affirming experiences. “There’s a whole host of issues out there,” he said. “And the answer is Jesus Christ. They’re just waiting on someone to bring it to them.”
Or they just need someone to give them a ride to get there – and that’s where the bus comes in.
The first order of business was going to houses and knocking on doors. Even if the parents were not church-goers, Ortigo found that they were willing to let their children board the bus for Sunday school and youth group activities.
The church provided paperwork, found out about food allergies and registered the children. “Once they’re on the bus, they start telling other children,” Ortigo said. “It’s been a good tool for us.”
The bus helped bring some of the parents to the church, as well, after they heard how enthusiastic their children were.
“If we don’t minister to the children, there’s not going to be a church,” Ortigo said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s always worth it.”
Adult volunteers also gain from helping. “They learn more in the children’s class sometimes that they would in adult Sunday school,” he said.
In order to teach something, you truly have to understand it yourself, he explained. Once a month, FUMC Joaquin hosts a family night, and Oritgo has noticed children and adults doing better on trivia games. “It’s amazing to see how much they’ve grown in the Lord,” he said.
Recently, Ortigo went to see Bishop Scott Jones speak in Tyler about the “We Love All God’s Children” initiative – and it affirmed his own efforts to make children’s ministry a top priority. “Bishop Jones was right on,” Ortigo recalled. “He gave us confirmation that we were doing the right thing.”
Since the bus hit the road, FUMC Joaquin’s youngest members have been multiplying. “They wouldn’t be here without it,” Ortigo said.
He encourages other congregation to consider new and creative ways to bring youth back to church. “We tend to sit back and pass the blame to someone else, but we’ve got to step up and make a difference,” he said. “It’s what the Lord commands us to do.”