In the heart of Little Havana, just west of the Miami River, sits an anomaly—Riverside United Methodist Church.
It’s in a neighborhood that struggles with poverty, inadequate housing and social isolation.
There are plenty of churches, but most are storefronts with just enough room for a small crowd on Sunday morning. They don’t have facilities most churches take for granted, like kitchens and education buildings.
Riverside is different.
|Riverside pastors Victor Gonzalez and wife Marta Interian.|
Even though it has only about 70 members, many of them just as poor as the surrounding community, Riverside has three buildings on a sizeable lot.
That’s because it’s a legacy, a church formed nearly 100 years ago by the former, relatively prosperous Anglo residents of the near-downtown neighborhood.
Today, its members use those facilities and resources for mission work to help the residents of their surrounding neighborhood.
They have little money, but they reach out with what they do have—their time, their buildings, a parking lot and even their own homes.
Academy of Missionaries and “Casas de Pacto”
The church started what Interian calls “an academy of missionaries,” training their members in Bible study and theology. With members trained, they began programs called “Casas de Pacto”—Houses of Covenant—in the missionaries’ homes, bringing the ministry into the neighborhood. They now have five Houses, including one in the parsonage, for discipleship, worship, training and children’s programs.
In the children’s Casa, they read Bible stories, do crafts, have snacks and can connect with a “spiritual guardian” or mentor.
In its Rescue in the Corner program, the church opens its corner door and invites people in for a soup dinner and fellowship.
Then there is Proclamando de Maravillas or proclamation of wonders—small, impromptu prayer services held in the evenings around a table at a McDonald’s or in a local supermarket. Church members will buy dinner for a family or pick a family in a line for a cash gift.
Why at McDonald’s?
Many families in the neighborhood depend heavily on cheap fast food because they can’t cook at home, Interian said. The power may be turned off, the landlord may forbid cooking (illegally) or with two or three families sharing one house there isn't enough time and kitchen space.
So, sometimes it's necessary to take the church into the neighborhood.
“You can walk around (the neighborhood) and see all kind of needs,” said Marta Interian, who is the church’s education and children’s minister, volunteer secretary and wife of the pastor, Victor Gonzalez.
“Many small churches in this town are struggling and worried about space, but not Riverside. We feel a big responsibility about how to use the wonderful properties we have.”
Their outreach is small-scale because the church is, but they partner with other organizations that do bigger things.
One of their buildings is a halfway house for newly released prison inmates, usually housing about 70, run by Riverside Christian Ministries. The church holds dinners for those residents and their families and does mission work among them.
Another building is used by Urban Promise Miami, which provides after-school activities, a summer camp and high school-aged “street leaders” for younger neighborhood children. The church recruits kids to attend.
The Riverside members also do what they can.
They started a few years ago with a barbecue and yard sale with clothes, shoes, toys and household items, held about every three months in their parking lot. Every item is priced at $1, and families can take home dinner or attend a service and meal in the church.
Most of what they sell are gifts from affluent households in other parts of the city where the Riverside members work cleaning houses or tending yards.
Interian and her husband arrived in 2012 from Cuba, where they had helped found a seminary that trains both pastors and lay leaders, and they come from a family of Methodist pastors. Gonzalez’s father, uncle and brother also are Methodist pastors in Florida.
In true Wesleyan tradition—“The World is my Parish”—the church members feel privileged to be able to use the legacy facilities for the benefit of the community.
“Even though they are poor people,” Interian said, “they love helping people in need.”
—William March is a freelance writer based in Tampa