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Knee Deep In The Trenches

by Mary Domb Mikkelson

The goateed Latino, shirt sodden with sweat, jeans caked with dirt, put his back into excavating the long trench in which he stood.  The work was going well.

While there’s nothing unusual about a brown-skinned man doing hard manual labor on a southern California construction site, what of the women and men comprising his crew?  Sore-muscled Anglos, many of them retirees, most were laying their first foundation, defeating inexperience with enthusiasm. 

Members of the United Church of Christ of La Mesa (UCCLM), they, with their Puerto Rican pastor, Félix C. Villanueva, were kicking off Habitat for Humanity’s “Building on Faith” program in Escondido, California, working side-by-side with the single mother whose “sweat equity” would one day make the house hers.  They had, in addition, donated a third of the cash required for the project — $30,000.

“I didn’t know you had such a young and vital congregation,” Habitat’s construction chief commented.

 “Félix’s presence with us is bearing fruit,” Doug Brunson, one of the weary workers responded, “changing our image and our own minds.  We are planning for the future and the future looks good.”

Knee-deep in the trenches, changing images and minds, planning for the future — that’s Félix.

Take his first, dying on the vine church, for example. 

“I was young,” he explains, “young, rebellious and in the way.  It was a good place to “park” me.  I saw it as a challenge.”

The twenty-five member congregation, caught up in his dream, doubled, quadrupled and doubled again in two years.  The church was thriving when Félix, seeking entrée into the United States, left to become a Navy chaplain.

Challenge followed challenge and sometimes the road was rough, the trenches deep. 

Assigned to a refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay, he encountered Cuban detainees, deprived of their clothing – and their dignity, fighting back with anything that came to hand.  A raid on a red-tape-sealed warehouse filled with donated clothes solved that problem.  The gratitude of the refugees turned the camp into a model program, the reprimand that followed into a badge of honor.

After twenty-one years of service, the trenches of Iraq proved a turning point.  Opposed to the invasion – and quite vocal about it, Félix completed his tour of duty then, four years early, retired.

Newly married, he started job shopping – but not for a pulpit.  Neither he nor wife Sherry wanted that.  God, it seems, had other ideas.

Work as a hospice chaplain followed, as did membership at UCCLM, another church in crisis.  Losing their minister after six months, the dispirited congregation reached out to Félix.  Declining to serve as interim, he offered to do pulpit supply as they searched for a pastor.  One sermon and he knew where he belonged.  He agreed to be considered for the job and, some months later, was back in the trenches.

Back in the trenches with three, five and ten-year plans to move UCCLM, in the words of the weekly benediction, “from despair to hope” and “to work together to build one world of peace and justice for all [1] — both within the framework of the church and without.

The congregation has accepted the challenge and the leadership of Félix, self-described radical and pot-stirrer.  In the words of Julius Caesar after crossing the Rubicon, “jacta alea est!”  — “the die is cast.”  There was – and is — “No turning back” for UCCLM.

Outreach – active involvement in social programs, attracting youth and young families and involving them fully in the life of the church, striving for diversity in membership and affirming the worth of all who come – has become the name of the game and the members are right there in the trenches with Félix.

UCCLM is, indeed, “young and vital.”  Watch us grow!

 [1] The Upanishads

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