Finding faith and community in the margins with Comunidad Limen

“Have you seen the movie Luca?”

Rev. Pedro Ramos Goycolea

Rev. Pedro Ramos Goycolea, the pastor of Comunidad Limen Christian Church, was trying to find the right words that would describe the ministry of his emerging community of faith. As the organizer of the first official Latinx, Spanish-speaking, open and affirming congregation in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he’s often felt compelled to “justify” his theology in the past. And as a father of two young boys, he’s also compelled to watch various animated films. 

“Luca is a young merman who can turn into a human. His parents are concerned about him entering the human world because they believe humans will reject their son and fail to understand who he is,” Rev. Pedro continues. “It turns out that his grandmother has been sneaking around and doing this all of her life.”

Without going into too many spoilers, Luca’s grandma assuages his parents’ fear by saying that some humans will accept him, and some won’t, but either way, Luca will just have to live with that reality.

While that’s not your typical source material for organizing a new church, Rev. Pedro describes watching the film as an ah-ha moment. 

I was just blown away when I watched it,” he recalls. “I’m choosing to work with the reality that our younger generations are building, accepting, and creating.”

This reality is one of affirming the identity of young LGBTQ Latinos. Instead of spending his time trying to explain what his faith community is doing for these individuals and their families, he has decided to work with the two or three generations that are waiting for these communities to happen.

“Younger generations are deconstructed already. TikTok has done the job for us,” laughs Rev. Pedro. “There’s just so much information out there, folks can just listen to Martin Luther King instead of me!”

For this Tucson, AZ place of worship, creating a safe space is a piece of deconstruction. While this term, which essentially refers to the process of re-evaluating and interrogating Christian practices, history, and institutions, has recently been mired in controversy, Rev. Pedro views it not as a reductive vision of Christianity, but an amplifying one.

“It’s about understanding different dimensions to faith through deconstructing the limits that place it in boxes,” he goes on to say, “as opposed to open roads to it.”

The roads in his own spiritual journey took Rev. Pedro from Mexico to the United States in 2006, where he launched a Hispanic church in Arizona, then received his M.Div from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. After working in New Mexico, Rev. Pedro returned to Arizona, 10 years after he had left.

“I went to a very progressive seminary so when I came back, I was all fired up,” remembers Rev. Pedro, “not knowing what had been happening with those families that were at the first church I started.”

One of those families had two daughters that were eight and 10-years-old when he went away for school. Now as teenagers, they are navigating all that comes with young adulthood – including their sexual orientations. While Rev. Pedro acknowledges that he is a cis-gender, heterosexual man, he can empathize with the experiences of rejection that many queer youths face in religious spaces.

“When my parents separated, I basically became the son of a single mom, and we didn’t contribute much financially to the church,” he reveals. “Because I was so passionate about church, I tried to bring my talents and gifts, but it didn’t matter to the leadership, they still rejected me. I was deeply hurt. I don’t want people to connect with God in that way because God is the total opposite of that.”

That’s why Rev. Pedro thinks of Comunidad Limen CC as a movement, and not as an institutionalized spirituality. According to him, it’s not a church for everybody: the good news that’s going to come out of that space is going to be good news for those who need to hear it. He’s aware that a lot of folks are just going to stick to existing structures – Comunidad Limen needs to be a movement that’s accessible outside of those structures. 

Comunidad Limen’s first meeting

So in January 2020, Rev. Pedro and his core team had their first official meeting, determined to start this movement. And like so many faith communities at that time, they had to stop their in-person meetings the following month. Yet they were unfazed – the movement would simply take place online. They soon reached out to the Arizona region, which enthusiastically welcomed Comunidad Limen and connected it with New Church Ministry, a general ministry that has provided Rev. Pedro with educational opportunities such as Leadership Academy.

For a while, congregants worshiped together on Zoom, but these meetings became unreliable due to a combination of factors, zoom exhaustion, poor connection speeds and/or lack of access to a laptop. So Comunidad Limen started uploading content to different social media platforms (YouTubeTikTokFacebookInstagram), where viewers could watch videos or review posts on their own time. The Comunidad Limen podcast has been one of its most successful ventures. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, Comunidad Limen began meeting in person again, but it doesn’t occupy a permanent building. Instead, it uses the facilities of local church communities at different times on different days.

“When we talk about essential workers, that’s the Latino community – folks that don’t stop working, no matter if there is a pandemic. We are the ones who don’t stop cleaning, cooking food, and making deliveries because society needs to keep going,” says Rev. Pedro. “So when you ask folks to come and meet you at a time and place, it’s a burden for them.”

After all, Comunidad Limen was started out of a need from the bilingual Latino community to connect during the pandemic because its members were isolated in their homes. They no longer had access to the spaces where Spanish language Bible studies were held, that taught theologies that spoke to them. In fact, Comunidad Limen’s name refers to the fact that it always stays in liminal space, in what Rev. Pedro calls the “in between-ness of being.”

“What if the in between-ness is actually the place where you need to be?” Rev. Pedro asks. “We’re always experiencing faith and culture in this in between-ness, in this liminal space. So we’re going to claim that as the place where you experience God’s presence. There are hundreds of Biblical references of God meeting people in the in between-ness of life. Peter was literally walking on water when Jesus grabbed his hand. Liminality can’t be more real than that.”

Comunidad Limen was also created to provide safe spaces of affirmation and welcoming for a community that is oftentimes marginalized – progressive Christian Latinos. 

“There’s a desire for a graceful faith that welcomes all the diversity within the community. When I asked my core group of leaders to join me in starting this church, they responded, ‘we thought you would never ask,’” Rev. Pedro says, “because people love to gather in community, to celebrate it, and to worship a God that gives you freedom, that liberates you.”

Despite this, he has found that when many LGBTQ families in the Latino community attend worship, they hear something judgmental about people that they love, such as their children, grandchildren, and even themselves. Comunidad Limen is a place where they are safe from experiencing any of that and can hear about a God of love, a God of welcome.

That is certainly true for the families that attended Rev. Pedro’s Sahuarita congregation 15 years ago, who are the same families that are attending his Tucson one. It’s true for folks in Mexico or in California who are now having intimate conversations about their faith, or for the grandparents who tearfully told Rev. Pedro that Comunidad Limen was the first church they’d heard about where everyone’s identity is valid.

Multiple generations take part in coloring praying mandalas, where each color represents a different prayer need. 

“That’s why we wanted to create a community that wasn’t bound by geographical location,” he shares, “but rather, a community that attends to the needs of people where they are.”

To that end, Comunidad Limen’s leadership is working with Alliance Q to expand its Familias Incluyentes ministry, where LGBTQ families share their stories with one another online, across the U.S.

“We found that a lot of the families in our community have never had a safe space to share their struggles and joys,” Rev. Pedro discloses, “without someone like a family member or friend judging.”

But even though many of the interactions among Comunidad Limen’s members are virtual, the church does conduct its ministry right on the Arizona-Mexico border and Rev. Pedro is keenly aware of what that means for his community, many members of which are immigrants.

“Our bodies never leave this space of liminality. Our faith doesn’t either. Our last names are hyphenated, our identity as Mexican-Americans is always hyphenated,” he muses. “The same thing happens in our faith journeys.”

While he describes this latest destination on his own journey as “practicing bold faith,” Rev. Pedro is also simply providing something that has been denied to so many queer Latino families – a place of worship where they and their children are welcomed with open arms, where their faith and orientations aren’t viewed as incongruous, and where they can feel liberated and loved.

“Creating a community based on love and grace takes longer, but it’s harder to break apart,” finishes Rev. Pedro. “And that’s what we’re experiencing here.”

To support congregations like Comunidad Limen, contribute to the Pentecost Offering, which is received in most congregations on May 29 and June 5. Half of the gifts made go to regional new church development and the other half goes to New Church Ministry, which trains, equips, assists, and multiplies emerging faith communities and their leaders. 

Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly together in Des Moines

The New Church Ministry team met Rev. Debbie Griffin, the Senior Minister of Downtown Disciples, last summer at General Assembly (GA). Since the pastor’s congregation is based in Des Moines, IA, it offered worship services, hosted pre-assembly activities for general ministries, prepared a meal for regional ministers, and chaired the local GA mission committee.

All of that as a new church planted in 2015.

To celebrate the culmination of the 2020 Vision goal to form 1,000 congregations within the first two decades of the 21st Century, we spoke with Rev. Debbie about Downtown Disciples. 

How do you describe Downtown Disciples?

It’s a progressive faith community. We are LGBTQ+-affirming, and we proclaim Black Lives Matter. We say that every time we gather, because it matters to us. We are a new church formed by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Upper Midwest Region.

Why did you plant Downtown Disciples?

I was about to give up on the Church. I love many things about it. I was raised in the Disciples Church. I love the faith. I love the stories of Jesus. But I was really frustrated that some folks within the Church were really challenging progressive theology. I just felt like the Church wasn’t being the inclusive, boundary-breaking, justice-loving presence of Christ in the world. I thought I would just go work in the nonprofit sector. I secured a position with the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa when I was called by the Region to consider a small congregation that needed a short-term interim minister. I started serving that church full of beautiful people and they really changed me. They were doing such great ministry, in western Iowa of all places, which is very conservative. This small church of faithful people was doing amazing work in the love of Christ. They had two queer women in leadership positions. They were serving a home-cooked meal to more than 100 people every Wednesday night, no questions asked, opening their doors and not pressuring people to be church in a certain way. A diverse group of people came for many reasons. Relationships were built. It was just organic, and it was ministry. They gave me hope for the Church. I thought to myself, “If this can happen in western Iowa, it can certainly happen in downtown Des Moines.” I thought, “there must be more people like me, who love Jesus and miss faith community, but whose theology is too progressive for most people.” So, I laid out a vision of starting as an LGBTQ+-affirming book club. We started with a book called Saving Jesus From the Church by Robin Myers, who’s a UCC pastor. People came! We read one book, and then we read another book. Then we started serving meals at the homeless shelter down the street. Then we walked in the Pride Parade. Then we started doing a variety of other activities, going to our city council about policing and racial profiling. Pretty soon someone said, “When are we going to worship?” That’s when I knew we had a church. 

The Pentecost Offering allows local Disciples to support new church plants like yours, across the United States and Canada. What does the Pentecost Offering mean to you as a church planter?

We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Pentecost Offering. Downtown Disciples wouldn’t have had a place to worship that worked for us. We needed to be in a neutral place, because we’re reaching out to people who’ve been wounded and excluded from church. Also, we wanted to be in an urban setting. That costs money. Plus, we needed a full-time pastor to make this work. The Upper Midwest Region has been exceptionally supportive of us. Ultimately, they set out a three-year plan of sustainability for us. And the other people in our Region have been just as supportive of this amazing ministry.

The 2020 Vision prioritized forming 1,000 congregations in 1,000 different ways. What is the “way” your faith community demonstrates that diversity?

We didn’t start with worship. When we did decide to start worshiping, we were clear that we didn’t want to do so in a typical church building. At Pentecost, we’ll be five years old, and we’ve had three worship locations: a community center, a loft-type space above a music venue, and now a bakery. We also started out with worship on Sunday nights. Then as we grew, we added a Sunday morning worship.  We also have a podcast called Like Micah, because our mission is Micah 6:8 – “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” We tell stories of our faith. We like to say we’re nimble, and we respond to the needs of the community. Most of our people were not coming to us through worship. They were coming to us at the wine bar when we were having Word Up Wednesdays. They were coming to us for Bible Geeks on Tuesday mornings at the local hip coffee shop. We were meeting up at a laundromat where we would just do random acts of kindness and hang out and be there with children’s books and food and quarters. People found us at other places that were easier entry points, and then once they could trust us, they would move to worship. 

Senior Minister Debbie Griffin leads worship at La Mie, the bakery that serves as the church’s worship location. (All services are now online.)

How would you define the progressive Christianity you promote?

We spell it out in our website. People who have been wounded or excluded by the church, need to know who you are. I’m specifically referring to LGBTQ+ people. They have gone to churches that say they’re welcoming, until you want to marry your beloved; or you want to be a leader in the church; or you want to attend seminary. So, when we say progressive, we mean LGBTQ+-affirming; we proclaim Black Lives Matter; we are curious about other faiths. We do not condemn or judge others, because Jesus calls us not to do that. And we are passionate about social justice.

What role do new faith communities have in the church?

They are the heartbeat of the church right now. I know that in the Upper Midwest Region, other Disciples churches that identify as traditional look to us. Oftentimes people worry the new churches are going to “replace” the traditional churches. I don’t see it that way. I see that we can be an outreach for traditional churches who see in us something that they love, but they can’t be right now. So, we become an outreach of their ministry. We currently have one church in the Upper Midwest Region that supports us financially. They send us part of their outreach budget. They send us a check every quarter because they can identify that we can do some things that they can’t do right now. I think we’re the hope for, not only people who have been excluded and wounded by church, but for traditional church people who see in us an opportunity to partner and extend their ministry.

Do you have any advice for people looking to plant a church?

What God is doing in new church is different in every single place. What worked for Downtown Disciples was unique to what God was doing here and is doing here in our time and our place. New church planting here is not the cookie-cutter for other new churches anywhere else. Still, some things are true for all church plants. I would say, don’t do it alone; listen to the Spirit and to the people who you’ve gathered. We wouldn’t be who we are without the people who gathered with us, allowing the Spirit to work through them.

How is your congregation responding to the coronavirus?

We worship and gather virtually. We share what type of bread we are breaking together in our homes during communion. We raised $1,000 for PPE, donating those funds to our local hospitals that need life-saving equipment. We continue to deliver supplies to our homeless neighbors, wearing face masks, gloves, and staying at a safe distance. We write cards to our friends who are isolated. We cook and deliver meals, flowers, and groceries to members who are quarantined or at high risk. In summary, we are still a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world. The Spirit still calls and empowers us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly together.”

Downtown Disciples holds a worship service over Zoom.

New faith communities like Downtown Disciples are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Half of the offering supports New Church Ministry to coach and train new church leaders. Half supports local Regions to sustain new churches. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift through your congregation or the DMF website. This Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.