Presbyterian military chaplain answers call to revitalize small rural congregation
Out of a stump, a shoot shall grow.
The prophet's vision fits this logging community well. And while its potential for growth has hardly seemed promising – as a rural, Southern Louisiana city whose population is transient, aging, and struggling to attract its younger generations to return – the Biblical prophet ensures a more hopeful scenario.
For out of the roots of this very community, First Presbyterian Church is growing and thriving, thanks to a committed congregation and a miracle sent by God in the person of the Rev. Pablo Rivera Madera, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and army chaplain serving as Deputy Installation Chaplain at nearby Fort Polk.
Ever since the Fort Polk Army Base was established fifteen miles from here in 1941, this city of 10,000 – the parish seat of Beauregard Parish – has been characterized by people coming in from other bases and just as quickly being transferred out.
Rivera was one of those transfers.
A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a member of the Presbytery of San Juan since his ordination in 1988, Rivera arrived at Fort Polk in January 2008, having left his post as Brigade Chaplain in the 15th Signal Brigade, Fort Gordon, Ga. "I asked why God would send me to Fort Polk," Rivera said. "I prayed to God for direction and purpose." He would soon discover that purpose at First Church.
Not long after Rivera's arrival at Fort Polk, First Church’s clerk of session, Elder Carolyn Applewhite – a Louisiana native who joined the congregation with her husband Ron nine years ago upon returning there from Texas – recalled that "word got out that there was a new chaplain on the army base and that he was a Presbyterian." In a spirit of evangelistic outreach, Ron Applewhite, who is retired from the military but still works for the Army as a civilian, knocked on Rivera’s door to invite him to worship and also to ask if he would like to preach sometime at First Church.
"We were a church in decline who wanted to grow," Carolyn Applewhite said. "We had a core of about ten dedicated people who wanted to remain active and Presbyterian, but because we had a series of many different ministers filling the pulpit, visitors came but didn’t stay. We were stagnant but didn't want to stay that way. We didn't want to pull people in from off the street, but thought it might come to that."
The first Sunday that Rivera visited the church in March 2008, there were three people in worship. Filling the pulpit that day was the Rev. Nancy Hendrix, a hospital chaplain and a member of the Presbytery of South Louisiana, who was excited to find a visitor there who was not from DeRidder. After worship, Carolyn and Ron Applewhite introduced her to Rivera.
"That's when things really began to unfold," recalled the Rev. Fred Seay, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Lake Charles, La., and First Church’s moderator since 2007. "It was a very intense time for the church, looking as if closure was inevitable when Chaplain Rivera appeared on the scene, almost as a kind of miracle. Within a short period of time, the church moved from possible closure to the real chance that the church had some life and ministry left to it."
In fact, the same Sunday that Rivera first visited, the bulletin contained an announcement about an upcoming visit from the general presbyter of South Louisiana Presbytery for the purpose of discussing "options" with the congregation, more specifically to ask if they wanted to close the church. "We never wanted to close the church," Applewhite said. "We went through some rough times, but we had a service every Sunday."
Rivera, upon seeing the bulletin announcement, found himself praying, "Please God, don't close the church." He was soon to discover that he would be the means by which his own prayer would be answered.
After approaching his commanding officer at Fort Polk and learning that he would be given maximum flexibility in his Sunday schedule in order to help a church in need, Rivera returned to First Church two weeks later. Presenting himself to Applewhite after worship, Rivera said that he would love to help the church if they were open to his leadership.
Although he sensed God's call, Rivera still found himself wondering whether the congregation would accept him as "someone with an accent whose color was different from theirs." But because the congregation had previous experience with guest speakers from other countries, they embraced him immediately.
"That is the way I knew the direction of God," Rivera said. "I knew that I could work with them and that I had come to the right place. My prayer was to help the congregation to open to new people who are different."
Less than a month after Rivera was authorized by the Presbytery of South Louisiana in May 2008 to work with First Church, a Korean family visited and later joined, bringing the church its first children in many years. Soon several Hispanic/Latino families also joined. With the help of his army colleague, Chaplain Henry Son, who is Korean, Rivera has made great progress in growing the church in diversity. Son, who is also an ordained PC(USA) minister, is a member of the Presbytery of Midwest Hanmi.
According to Elder Jamie White – an automotive business executive who is currently in the process of becoming a Commissioned Lay Pastor – the church looks nothing today like it did ten or even three years ago.
"We have Chaplain Rivera to thank for a lot of this," said White. "His day job keeps him busy enough, but the charismatic way in which he approaches interested parties is the cause of a lot of this growth."
According to the Rev. Ed Brogan, director of the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel (PCCMP), Presbyterian military chaplains like Rivera are making significant contributions toward the church-wide initiative to Grow Christ's Church Deep and Wide by being a blessing to PC(USA) congregations near the bases where they serve. The PCCMP – the agency that recruits, interviews, and endorses clergy from four Presbyterian denominations for active and reserve duty in all branches of the military – is resourced and supported by the PC(USA)'s Office of Vocation, a shared ministry of the General Assembly Mission Council and the Office of the General Assembly.
"Our military chaplains contact the presbyteries in which they serve and offer what assistance their own mission permits," Brogan said. "Chaplain Pablo Rivera and Chaplain Henry Son have made a very special effort to assist a congregation that has languished without an installed pastor. Chaplain Rivera is so glad to be their functioning 'pastor' and to help bring in new members, new mission, and new life to historic First Church."
Since Rivera's arrival, the church has more than one new challenge. "It's getting so crowded for the children’s sermon that we're running out of steps," Applewhite said. "I am not unhappy; I am ecstatic!"
Church programming has also increased under Rivera's leadership, including a successful Vacation Bible School – the church's first in many years – and a well-attended concert, which was open to the community.
"My passion is to see churches growing," Rivera said, "not just in numbers, but in knowledge."
Toward that goal, Rivera challenged White to come forward each Sunday to spend a minute educating the congregation about Presbyterian history, beliefs, governance and worship, a part of the service which has been especially meaningful to White's wife, Mae Ann, who is new to the Presbyterian Church. The Whites were married at the church by Rivera in May.
"They started the Presbyterian minute for people like me," said Mae Ann White. "Although I am a very spiritual person, I knew nothing about the Presbyterian Church and initially hesitated joining because of that. I quickly learned though that what is happening in this church is absolutely amazing. It is God-driven. It is Holy Spirit-powered.
When I saw how everybody here wants to pitch in, and everybody here is about service to God, community, and love for each other, I asked myself, 'Why have I not been here?' 'Why have I not known about this?'"
Perhaps the most important gift that Rivera has brought to the church, however, is a long-range plan, a plan that will soon be needed as Rivera recently received orders to transfer in December to an army base in Michigan.
"I am working with the church and its leaders to ensure the stability and growing of the church after my departure," Rivera said. "The church is committed to keep working for the glory of God and for the community."
Mae Ann White said that although the church will miss Rivera, the members of the congregation will continue to carry out the plans that he – and God – have set in motion. She is also reassured by Rivera’s offer to make himself available by telephone whenever anyone in the church needs him. “Besides,” she said, "I'm certain God has a major plan for him up there."
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The annual observance of Veterans Day on November 11 – which celebrates our veterans’ service to our country – is also a fitting time to honor, pray for and support our PC(USA) military chaplains, who – like the Rev. Pablo Rivera Madera – provide a vital ministry to and with those who currently serve in the military and beyond. Please encourage generous giving to the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel (PCCMP), which offers assistance and critical support to military chaplains, personnel and their families. Read a related feature in the October 2010 issue of Presbyterians Today.