Church transformed by new rhythms

When members of the Latin Kings and Mara Salvatrucha street gangs showed up at a concert at Camino de Vida UMC smelling of alcohol and carrying bottles of beer, the Rev. David Rocha smiled.

These young men were one of the reasons the church had put on the Regaeton concert, mixing hip hop, rap, Bachata and salsa music in a maniacal dance beat.

Organ preludes appeal to one kind of person. Regaeton rhythms appeal to another. “Churches need to move outside their walls and learn the relevance of language and culture for the people,” said Rocha, who offered to hold the young men’s beer until the end of the evening so that they could come in.

A leader in the religious community in Gaithersburg, Rocha had recently attended a meeting of the Montgomery County Police Department, where he learned that there were about 70 gangs with many members in the region. Mara Salvatrucha is the largest one with a recognized membership of 13,000.

One of the gang’s principle tools for recruiting new members is music, the police said.

“In my heart I knew this is the same way the church recruits members, with music and giving people a sense of belonging,” Rocha said.

He looked around the community and found several artists who use Regaeton to preach the Gospel and invited them to the sanctuary on the Saturday before Easter. By word of mouth and on the radio, they spread news of the event around the schools and streets.

Some members of the congregation disapproved, feeling their pastor should be keeping a silent vigil rather than dancing. “But I told them, because we’re dancing here, there will be a party in heaven, when our kids recognize Jesus as their savior” Rocha said.

It turns out, he was right. The concert started at 7 p.m. Around 9:30, Jose, one of the gang members, approached Rocha wanting to talk.

“Hey dude,” Rocha recalled him saying. “He talked like that.”

“Is it possible for me to make a change? I need to change my life,” Jose confided. Rocha took him outside and told him about God.

After quick conversation, “Jose made a prayer with me, receiving Jesus as his savior,” said Rocha, who marveled at the boy’s courage.

“Part of his gang was there. Machismo is strong,” Rocha said. “I told him, ‘I know you’re macho. But I’m going to ask you something even more challenging. Would you tell the crowd here, what you’ve told me?’”

Jose made a public declaration of his choosing Jesus. Two more people including his girlfriend came forward to receive Christ.

“Those are the opportunities the church needs to recognize,” Rocha said. “We need to be willing to lose everything. We need to make room for miracles and give God the opportunity to show and amazed us with wonders and signs.”

Rocha cried that night. “This is a different kind of church,” he said. “The conversations have begun.”

Easter came, and every one felt victorious. But the story wasn’t over.

On Tuesday, one of Rocha’s teenage nephews, was at an area McDonalds and was attacked by a group of boys with known gang affiliations.

“They started beating him,” Rocha said. “They then forced him into a car and continued beating him.” His face was disfigured. Another car, with its high beams on, pulled up behind them and the boys fled.

They left him in bad shape. “If they didn’t stop then, they could have killed him,” Rocha said.

One of his first instincts was rage and revenge. “I wanted to hurt them back,” he said.

Instead, Rocha prayed. “I bent down on my knees with my wife and daughter at home, leaving to go to the emergency room around midnight and said, ‘God, take care of this’; and I thanked him for my nephew’s life. That prayer gave us the strength to breathe and find God’s possibilities.”

The next Sunday, his nephew was in church and renewed his communion with God. The father of one of the attackers has asked for forgiveness. Doors are opening with possibilities for redemption and faith.

“The reality is that I don’t like to be in this position,” Rocha said. “It is not my choice, but it is the place God puts me in ministry. When I go to the streets, God is calling me to serve. All I do is to answer ‘yes.’”

The reason behind that “yes” is clear to Rocha.

Seventeen years ago, almost to the day, he and his family fled Bogota, Colombia.

“I had a weapon in my pocket. I had a threat that my family was to be kidnapped or killed. We escaped and I realized it is because of God’s mercy and love that we are here today. There is nothing you can do to pay it back. If God asked me for my life, I would give it.”

For Rocha that is the “real Discipleship Adventure.”

“It’s not about Camino de Vida having 10,000 members,” he said. “It’s about Camino de Vida equipping 10,000 people to transform the community in the name and example of Jesus.”

But to do that, the church needs to realize that the world changes. “If we’re not able to change, we’re not going to be in a position to minister to the world around us,” Rocha said.

“I became a Gentile with Gentiles; a Jew with Jews and today I am a regaetonero with the regaetoneros. The church must change its language, rhythms and culture to be culturally relevant. But the main thing is to maintain the work presence and influence of the Spirit of God in us,” Rocha said. “That is my prayer.”

 

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