Living the dream

Award-winning congregation approaches goal of dedicating 50 percent of budget to mission

June 30, 2014

LOUISVILLE

Mission is a passion for University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in El Paso, Texas. In fact, the congregation has long pursued a dream of operating on a 50/50 budget — one in which 50 percent goes to operations and the other 50 directly to mission.

The dream started with the Rev. Gordon Bowie, who served as pastor of UPC for 31 years. “Over the years, our mission budget has teetered between 30 and 45 percent, and I believe we are very close to reaching our 50 percent goal,” said current UPC pastor the Rev. John Nelsen.

Nelsen, who came to UPC in 2008, sees a link between the spiritual life of the congregation and its ministry in the community. “Worship is the cornerstone of our faith from which comes a warm fellowship and enthusiastic service to others beyond the walls of the church,” he said.

UPC is committed to honoring God by touching lives through worship, fellowship and addressing unmet needs through local advocacy as well as hands-on service. At the 221st General Assembly (2014), UPC received the Community Transformation Award from the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) in recognition of its history of living out the gospel through creative and effective community engagement.

Mission for UPC means more than supporting projects financially. Its 170 weekly worshipers are encouraged to become personally involved, and at any given time no fewer than two dozen mission projects are in full swing.

The El Paso congregation is active in Presbyterian Border Region Outreach, which has a site just across the border in Juárez, Mexico. The downtown areas of the two cities are within easy walking distance. With a combined population of nearly 3 million, the two cities form the second-largest international community on earth.

Most people know of Juárez in relation to crime. Violence from rival drug cartels has plagued the city for years but reached horrendous proportions between 2008 and 2013.

Nelsen is quick to point out that UPC’s mission crosses the border. “We don’t get bothered by those things called fences — we’re family,” he said. “Our church is located near the second-poorest ZIP code in the nation. There’s a tsunami of need in this area. While there were active drug wars and lives were lost in Juárez, we’ve remained in the forefront of helping transform communities and reaching out to our brothers and sisters across the border.”

The congregation’s approach to mission exemplifies the new churchwide Living Missionally initiative,which was unanimously adopted as part of the consent agenda of the 221st General Assembly.

“The Living Missionally initiative seeks to inspire Presbyterian congregations to reach out to their communities through intentional acts of service in Christ’s name, which many of our churches are already naturally doing,” said Roger Dermody, deputy executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “It’s in our DNA.”

Presbyterians have been mission-centered from the beginning and have a strong, unwavering belief that there is no other way to truly be the church, Dermody said.

“This initiative calls us to reaffirm our historic commitment and reclaim our identity to be ministers to the immediate needs and hurts of the people in our neighborhoods and communities,” he said.

Among UPC’s numerous outreach efforts is a partnership with a shelter for women who are homeless. Women from UPC build relationships with women at the shelter through making crafts and spending time with another. Recently, women who had made table centerpieces for UPC were invited to the church to share a meal around tables graced by their handiwork.

Another outreach involves a partnership between UPC and Casas por Cristo (Homes for Christ), a Texas nonprofit. Driven by a desire to provide tangible expressions of God’s love and provision, Casas por Cristo began building homes on the Mexican side of the border in 1993. Since then, Casas por Cristo, with help from UPC and many others, has provided more than 4,200 families across Latin America with modest homes that provide safe and secure shelter as well as a sense of pride.

UPC also participates in a community transformation ministry called Project Vida, which has for 25 years improved housing, education, job prospects and medical care in the neighborhood it serves. The Revs. Bill and Carol Schlesinger, co-directors of Project Vida, nominated UPC for the PHEWA award.

These are just a few of the ways that the people of University Presbyterian Church in El Paso are living missionally through intentional acts of transformational service in Christ’s name.

“My vision is that every Presbyterian church would be a 10/50 church — meaning every Presbyterian would tithe 10 percent and every church would give half its budget to mission,” Nelsen said.

In addition to the remarkable amount of time, labor and money the congregation invests in mission, the UPC building itself has a unique feature: its cross is not located in the sanctuary but outside.

“The cross is on the outside because the cross is for the world,” Nelsen said. “We don’t keep Jesus confined in these four walls.”

Now that’s living missionally.

Check out the Living Missionally PowerPoint presentation from the 221st General Assembly.

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