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In A Lonely Place

What Happened When Local Leaders Didn’t Want The Fastest-Growing Church In Yuma … In Yuma

To get to Centro Familiar Iglesia of Yuma, Arizona, you have to go for a drive in the country.  Out onto the county roads, where the pavement crunches into gravel … past the Marlin Packing Company, where the sign with the big swordfish, shimmering ‘neath the wide, blue desert skies, makes you do a little double take … and then on out past the half-dozen dromedaries standing around in the camel corral.

You step out into gale-like forces that whip at your shirt as they hurl the top layers of this southwestern landscape back toward the Dust Bowl, and let the blast muscle you along toward the freshly painted warehouse and the joyful sound of an upbeat hymn undimmed by the whistling wind.

Inside, you see what you’d see in most medium-sized evangelical churches on a shiny spring Sunday morning: about 150 people of all ages, united in song – dignified seniors standing amid squirming little ones, wide-eyed infants staring back from their mothers’ shoulders, ushers huddling to squint at the thermostat. An ensemble plays, a praise team serenades, people crowd the back pew and leave the front one empty.

You’d know this church anywhere.  

What you wouldn’t know is that three years ago, this group had twice as many members as it has today. That back then, this congregation was poised to become the fastest-growing church in one of the fastest-growing cities in the state.  

"We had a vision from God, and we truly believe God was directing us downtown."

Pastor Jorge Orozco
Just three years ago, Centro Familiar had the momentum, the money, the motivation, and the green light to set up sanctuary in the very heart of the community.

Which is when the city chose to break this church’s heart.

Tucked into a bend of the Colorado River in the far southwestern corner of the United States, Yuma has long thrived as a military installation, an agricultural center, and the biggest oasis on the long desert road that runs between Phoenix and San Diego.

img-church-buildingRecent years have seen a steady surge in the local population, particularly among young families, which makes the city a natural for a church like Centro Familiar. Under the leadership of Pastor Jorge Orozco and the auspices of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, the church has ministered the Gospel of Christ for a decade to the poor, the homeless, and the addicts of the community, while attracting a solid core of local families. Although Pastor Orozco himself speaks only Spanish, his enthusiastic preaching and warm ministry style draws both Hispanic parents and their English-speaking children.

By 2007, Centro Familiar had nearly 400 members, and was rapidly overflowing the suburban movie theater it shared with another congregation. Gradually, the church, deeply committed to reaching their city for Christ, came to share a vision of how best to accomplish that – a  vision that, in the eyes of their pastor, looked a lot like an empty downtown department store.

Call it JC Penney’s from heaven: Pastor Orozco was inspired to purchase one of the chain’s old two-story buildings, deserted for most of the last 25 years. Situated front and center on the main street of downtown Yuma, the building promised to put the “central” back in Centro, and make the burgeoning congregation easily accessible to people throughout the city.

Southern Baptists offered to send in volunteer mission teams to renovate the building, and members figured all sorts of ways to sweeten the deal for the city – by persuading a Starbucks franchise to set up shop off the foyer, by pledging to use a rear entrance to scale down traffic, and, most of all, by promising to bring new life and energy to the heart of the city, where 71 percent of Main Street’s buildings stood empty.  

The man who owned the downtown building gave the people of Centro Familiar less than a month to decide whether they wanted to buy it. And city officials were telling the congregation that it would need a special “conditional use” permit to convert and develop the store into a church. But that insistence didn’t bother church leaders very much. They knew the building was located in an area clearly zoned for public assemblies – meaning any membership organization (Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.) or structure designed to accommodate people with a common purpose (a movie theater, a dance hall) was free to buy property or build there.  

img-ChurchAnd so, with this congregation’s fervent heart for outreach, the building and especially its location seemed like a gift from on high. “We had a vision from God,” Pastor Orozco says, “and we truly believe God was directing us downtown.” After much prayer, the church voted enthusiastically to buy the old store. The sale went through. Excitement surged through the congregation.

Two months later, the city denied the conditional use permit.

The city of Yuma, it turns out, had a vision of its own for that downtown area – a vision that didn’t include Centro Familiar at all. Local officials envisioned that street as a booming entertainment scene, thriving with pubs, restaurants, theaters, shops. To their view, Centro Familiar would be not just an exception, but a threat to that atmosphere.  

“There was some opposition from local business leaders,” says Dr. Martin Lara, Centro Familiar’s administrator. “It was pretty obvious that the city didn’t want us there … and not being able to move to the building caused quite a financial ordeal for the church.”

Centro Familiar was between a financial rock and a legal hard place.  They now owned a building they couldn’t use – one costing them tens of thousands of dollars a month. They’d already agreed to move out of the cramped theater – and now that space was no longer available.  

The only place the church could still afford was the warehouse … 18 miles away, out in the farming areas. Instead of heading into the heart of Yuma, they were moving out past the city limit signs.

That’s when they called the Alliance Defense Fund.

“Doing the right thing doesn’t mean that you don’t pay a price. This church has paid a price.”

Attorney Byron Babione
“What you had here was the City of Yuma treating churches differently than non-religious assemblies,” says ADF Senior Legal  Counsel Byron Babione, who represents Centro Familiar. “But the law requires that religious assemblies and non-religious assemblies be treated the same. If a municipality allows movie theaters, dance halls, or any other kind of other secular or non-religious assembly into a particular area, it has to allow churches in that area as well.”

A little homework revealed that no other business or organization meeting in downtown Yuma had been required to submit a conditional use permit. Centro Familiar was being blackballed from its own community not for violating any codes or zoning ordinances, but because city officials wanted a vibrant night life, not a church, enlivening their vacant inner city.

img-doors-lockedOn behalf of the church, ADF filed suit in federal court requesting that the government compel the city to grant the permit and recompense the congregation for damages.

“The Alliance Defense Fund has been a blessing for us,” Lara says. “The church is tremendously grateful. We have been treated like royalty. They are people who really care.”

Still … lawsuits take time. And with each passing month, the financial burden and emotional strain wore more heavily on the people of Centro Familiar.

“We struggled, in going from place to place,” Orozco says. “We lost people. We lost money. We got to the point where we felt that our church was going to disintegrate.”  

“It was painful,” says Associate Pastor Humberto Montero. “Even some who stayed questioned whether they wanted to be part of a project that was going through all these struggles.”

Even more distressing, for many at Centro Familiar, was the realization of the opportunities lost by the move away from the inner city. The church had hoped to do baptisms in the Colorado River, which runs close by the downtown area. More important, as a predominantly Hispanic church, the congregation had been excited by the prospect of ministering to downtown neighborhoods that are more than three-quarters Spanish-speaking.  

Now, with the loss of their savings, of so many giving members, and of the equity they could have accumulated with the restored building, the people of Centro Familiar find themselves not only far removed from their chosen mission field, but sharply curtailed in what they can offer even a rural community.

Like any trial, it can sometimes knock your breath out.  But it’s in those moments that you begin to see the hand of God move."

Gloria Martinez
“Downtown, the space was much bigger,” Lara says, “so we could do more things. Here, we’re pretty limited with the area we have available.”

Through it all, though, Pastor Orozco was unwavering in his conviction that the church was doing the right thing.

img-PastorOrozco“The pastor is a very wise man,” Lara says. “The most positive person you can imagine. He maintained, as much as he could, the harmony of the church and the patience of the members.”

“Those that were stronger were able to lift up the weaker, and it brought us very close together,” says Gloria Martinez, a longtime member who often translates for the pastor. “We were able to encourage each other.  Like any trial, it can sometimes knock your breath out. But it’s in those moments that you begin to see the hand of God move.”

Babione says that those who’ve remained at Centro Familiar “understand that if you don’t use your rights, you lose your rights. If we’re going to be salt and light, we can’t roll over when the opposition says, ‘You can’t be here. You can’t preach the Gospel here. You can’t worship here. You can’t use your own building to carry out your ministry.’

“When the Apostle Paul was being persecuted for spreading the Gospel, he appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen. And this pastor and this congregation understand that if they want to meaningfully spread the Gospel, be salt and light, carry out the Great Commission, there are times when they have to appeal to their rights as American citizens.”

On January 30, 2009, the federal court ruled against Centro Familiar. To do so, the judge had to effectively ignore the dictates of a federal law that is becoming a crucial legal support for churches throughout the nation.  

The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA (co-written by ADF allied attorney John Mauck), says that churches can’t be treated differently from secular assemblies in a given area unless they clearly violate the directives established for groups and businesses in that area. Centro Familiar couldn’t have violated those directives in Yuma, since city ordinances don’t require any other assembly to apply for a conditional use permit.

The Alliance Defense Fund has been a blessing for us … they are people who really care."

Dr. Martin Lara

The judge, however, essentially said that the city was free, regardless of RLUIPA, to apply their statutes to suit their own plans. In response, ADF has appealed the church’s case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where a decision is expected sometime this fall.  It’s a case not unlike several others being decided in federal appellate courts all over the country.

“At any given moment, at any given time, in any given community,” Babione says, “you always have voices and forces that are working to get the ear of judges, legislators, and executives to really marginalize or limit the influence of the church. That’s a reality we see at the Alliance Defense Fund every day.”

Whatever the Ninth Circuit’s decision, it won’t come soon enough to save Centro Familiar’s investment. Last fall, after 20 months of paying two rents, the church had to forfeit its downtown dream building in order to keep paying for the warehouse out in the country.

“Doing the right thing doesn’t mean that you don’t pay a price,” Babione says. “This church has paid a price. But I’ll tell you this: they’ve been a real inspiration to other Christians in other churches … an example to stand up and fight for the Gospel when you get persecuted for it.”

“Any kind of ordeal a church goes through,” Lara says, “is an opportunity to grow. And we have grown as a church.”

img-Martin“We may have a few bumps and bruises,” Martinez says, “but spiritually we’re very strong – and a lot stronger, and definitely wiser, for the experience. His plan is greater than our plan, and His purpose is greater than our purpose.”

But Pastor Orozco isn’t yet convinced that downtown Yuma is outside of God’s plan.

“We maintain our faith,” he says, “and we believe that if God calls us to that direction, then eventually – sooner or later – we will build a church in downtown.

On this particular morning, with the fierce winds whipping outside, this pastor who has kept his vision when so many lost theirs … whose patience and wisdom these remaining members have come so much to admire… is sharing that wisdom with the nine young people gathered for Sunday school, in a class that once drew dozens.

“If anyone lacks wisdom,” he reads from James, “let him ask of God …but let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.”

He looks up from his Bible, and when he speaks, his voice is as bold and confident as the fire still shining in his eyes.  “It’s a lack of identity that makes us unstable,” he says. “In trouble, you find out who you really are.”

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