Article, video and photos by Josue Mendez
“By the grace of God, we are here to feed the people,” a bald man wearing a tight pink shirt and khaki pants yelled into a megaphone. He addressed a long line of people, including energetic children and the hungry homeless, who patiently waited their turn to take a plate of salad, a sandwich and bag of chips.
The outdoor ministry was set up in Virginia Park, a gritty triangle of green sandwiched between the Cross Bronx Expressway, White Plains Road and Westchester Avenue in the Parkchester section of the Bronx.
Video: Pastor Juan Rivera Gives Service at his Ministry
Passers-by stopped, curious to see what was going on as the preacher stood in the center of it all holding a Bible in his hands.
“We came in because we knew it was time to give back to the community. We just did not expect these results,” said Juan Rivera, pastor of the Iglesia Pentecostal Jesucristo Reina church, a block from the park.
After serving as a leader at another Parkchester church that was faltering, Rivera, 46, decided to start his own ministry in 2010. He said he figured the best thing he could do was to give members of the old church a more dedicated service to God.
Beginning with eight members meeting in his home, the church has flourished and moved to a small storefront church on Leland Avenue with 45 members.
“I’m blessed to have seen this growth happen before my eyes,” Rivera said. “We were in my house for months and I didn’t believe how fast we grew. Now I have my sister with me; I have close friends I’ve known for years in my church.”
Member and Sunday school teacher Maria Cruz spoke with pride when describing Rivera’s journey from an ordinary church member to establishing himself as a pastor. “I’ve known him for over 20 years and no one is more dedicated than he is,” Cruz said. “He cares for each and every single one of us, and I’m proud to call him my pastor.”
Rivera has developed close relationships with parishioners. “I have had members of the church call me at 2 a.m. because they feel they are being attacked spiritually, and I am always there for them and pray for them, even if I have work in the morning,” he said.
This level of care extends beyond the walls of the church to community projects he has started, such as the meal program in Virginia Park.
Consuelo Iglesia, a member for two years, said her first experience with the church happened during a simple stroll to a nearby supermarket, a journey that came to an abrupt halt when she passed through Virginia Park.
“I heard a man preaching from the park with a megaphone,” Iglesia, 72, said. “I wasn’t in a rush so I stopped and listened to what he had to say.”
After that encounter, Iglesia joined Rivera’s church, serving on the Sunday worship team.
Rivera has paved the way for members to get involved in any way he can, offering training programs for members to grow spiritually and serve the community — both in and outside the church.
“People have come up to me asking to be a Sunday school teacher or to be on the worship team,” said Rivera. “If I see a true passion for something and we have a lack in that area, I don’t see why not. Why not help the person grow and get closer to God?”
About 35 of the 45 members are age 50 and over, with Rivera, his sister and children of other members rounding out the younger faction.
Older members, such as Rey De Leon, a Sunday school teacher, said they find comfort in church activities.
“I live for this, planning out my weekly lesson plan and teaching to the church,” De Leon said. “I thank God for the blessing he has given me in finding this church.”
Upon entering the church, members find themselves in an average-sized room with two sets of rows of chairs. Walking down the aisle, members arrive at the altar, where a giant podium stands for Rivera to place his Bible and microphone while preaching. A painting of the Earth is hung behind it all, with the words “Jesucristo Reina,” translated to “Jesus Christ Reigns.”
Services typically start with Sunday school, a brief break, then members come back to the main room, and the entire church is filled with the sounds of scripture and worship songs. Rivera ends the day by preaching a message that he spends the entire week preparing.
While plenty have found solace within the church, outside programs have included outreach to the homeless and partnering with other local churches to start up a summer vacation Bible school.
“People have loved what we have done in just the couple of years since we started here,” Rivera said.
Asked what he plans to do next, Rivera said: “Grow. I’m always looking for how we can grow the church because I’m always thinking of the next step. I would love to eventually move into a bigger church and, God willing, we’ll get to that point sooner than later.”