BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer
To the outsider, Arvin Union Congregational Church is a church in decline: It has fewer than 40 members, all of them elderly, there is only one Sunday service and there are few ministries. Yet as this tiny but historic church community celebrates its centennial, the congregation has made the decision not to look back but ahead -- for a way to give the church a new life.
On Tuesday, the congregation will entrust all it has built -- the church building, the parsonage, even the church bank accounts -- to St. John's Lutheran Church of Bakersfield, with the hope that the church will continue to serve the people who now live in Arvin.
"We're saying, 'Take us over and help us keep our church alive,'" said Arvin Union Congregational pastor the Rev. Wanda Mello, who will officially retire from the pulpit on Monday. "It's huge and (the members) know it, and they know they won't be around to see it."
The Rev. Dennis Hilken, pastor of St. John's, said he was stunned when he was approached two years ago by members of the Arvin congregation.
"They sought us out and said 'We're giving you our money, our property, our people," Hilken said. "It's fantastic. It's amazing. It's such an unselfish, amazing offer they made us."
For most of the Arvin church's history, the southeast Kern town has been a farming community populated mostly by people of Northern European heritage -- most famously by immigrants from the Great Plains and South who swept westward during the Great Depression.
"The people who began this church were Dust Bowl babies who encouraged their children to grow up and move away, so there wasn't that growth the church needed," Mello said.
Hilken echoed Mello, calling the early church parishioners "an active community" that eventually grew complacent.
"By their own testimony, they failed to adapt to the changing culture in Arvin," he said.
But as is the case with the rest of the valley, Arvin's population has changed over the decades, into one dominated by people from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Traditionally, they are Roman Catholic, although many have embraced Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Arvin Union Congregational is a mainline Protestant church.
"One of the frustrations for the people of Arvin is that their own denomination has moved far more liberal than what they would like to be," Hilken said. "When they went looking, they went looking for us."
Before accepting the offer from the Arvin church, Hilken hired the Rev. Sam Gomez of Escondido to learn about the city's residents.
"Just because you speak Spanish, doesn't mean you are a homogeneous people," Hilken said. "What do they need? Not what do we want to give them?"
Gomez said he made repeated visits to Arvin to meet with members of other churches in town, attend religious services, community events -- anything to learn about the people living there.
"I needed to immerse myself in the community and the people so I can keep my promise to serve them," Gomez said. "The picture that I wanted to bring is the most accurate picture of the community."
What Gomez found was a community that had the resources and potential to grow.
"And for the Latino community, for the next generation to be successful, we have to focus on the school years," Gomez said.
"So if we focus on education, we help the community to move forward, to be more stable, and just to grow. And to get more roots into the American culture."
Gomez said he came up with a plan about six months ago to offer after-school programs in a new community center the church would establish there in the fall -- not to offer religious programs, but secular ones like science courses and a computer lab.
"I don't think we are doing this to get people into our church," Gomez said. "We are doing this because this is our call."
This Sunday will be the last service for the historic church, which will be renamed St. John's Valley of Faith and become part of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, said Debbie Holbrook, Hilken's assistant. Starting July 6, St. John elder Marvin St. Pierre will lead services at the church until a new pastor can be found.
Earlier this month, on Pentecost Sunday -- appropriately, Christians consider that the birthday of the Christian church -- Arvin celebrated the centennial of the church, which had Mello thinking about the spirit of the people who started it.
"They were truly pioneers," said Mello, pastor of the church for 14 years. "Their families came out here and lived in tents and worked in the fields.
"And they're still pioneers."