by Bettina Krause
Paradise Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church was a shrinking inner-city congregation that seemed destined for irrelevance. One day, it dared to ask, “Why are we here? What’s our purpose?” And then everything began to change.
San Diego, California, United States
Every person sitting in the English language school at Paradise Valley Adventist Community Center has a story of loss. They’re refugees—from Congo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and many others places. At the very least, they’ve left behind their language and culture, but many have also lost parents, siblings, or children. Driven by civil war or political violence, they’ve abandoned homes, professions and everything familiar, and now they’re adrift in a world where even the simplest transaction—from enrolling their children in school to dealing with government agencies—can be an exercise in confusion. They’ve come to San Diego with their lives, their dignity, a sense of hope, but little else.
There’s 35-year-old Vanessa Mobole, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was with her father when he was murdered in 2004 by Rwandan rebel forces. She escaped from the house, hiding with friends and eventually making her way to the United States, via Burundi and Uganda.
Or there’s Jean-Marie Katula, a high school mathematics teacher and human rights activist, also from the Congo, whose first wife was murdered by government militia and whose outspokenness has landed him in jail in both Congo and Rwanda.
Then there’s a whole contingent of men and women from countries in Southeast Asia—Bhutan, Laos, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam—many of whom fled ethnic or political violence and spent years in Thai or Nepalese refugee camps before being granted asylum in the United States.
For hundreds of the almost 200,000 refugees living in San Diego, Paradise Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church and its Refugee Assimilation Project has become a lifeline—physically and emotionally—in their effort to restart their interrupted lives.
Almost every weekday, trucks from Paradise Valley church do the rounds of food banks and stores such as Walmart and Target, picking up food donations. Once a week, a truck visits nearby apartment complexes delivering food, along with clothing, diapers and other essentials. And every Tuesday, the church’s Community Services Center hums with activity as some 11,000 pounds of food and hundreds of pieces of clothing are distributed to refugee families.
On weekdays, a church bus also makes its way through the streets of San Diego picking up men and women for English language classes at the church’s community center. As the students arrive, the room fills with a low hum of many different languages—Arabic, French, Nepalese, and Spanish.
A nearby thrift store, operated by Paradise Valley Adventist church, has a constant stream of customers. The store serves a dual purpose—not only does it offer refugee families low cost clothes and household goods, but students from the language school can also gain valuable work experience.
In terraced gardens near the church, men and women chat and sing as they work in garden plots. The project provides the chance for families to grow fresh food, and it’s also an antidote to the anxiety and depression experienced by many refugees.
Each Sabbath morning, the three Paradise Valley church buses again move through city streets, picking up worshippers for Sabbath School and church. Families representing some 50 different nationalities and ethnicities sit together in the pews. Sabbath Schools are conducted in French, Laotian, Spanish, Tagalog, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Nepalese, as well as English. During the church service, translation is offered over FM headsets in Arabic, Laotian, Nepalese, French, and Spanish.
A church transformed
Paradise Valley church and its refugee ministry has spawned hundreds of stories of personal transformation—men and women who’ve gained not just a firmer foothold in their new homeland but also a much-needed sense of acceptance and belonging. In many instances, they’ve found a spiritual home as well—as senior pastor Will James says: “Our baptismal font is rarely dry.” In the past seven years, more than 250 people have joined the church through baptism.
But perhaps the most remarkable story of transformation belongs to the congregation itself. Over the past 10 years, Paradise Valley church has experienced nothing less than a revolution in its mission focus and its impact in the community.
To really understand the extraordinary metamorphosis of this congregation, you have to go back more than a century to 1904, when Adventist Church leader Ellen White visited San Diego. She saw a vacant, somewhat dilapidated sanitarium building and became convinced that the Lord wanted the Adventist Church to establish a health work there. But there was just one small problem—there was no water supply. In fact, the sanitarium had fallen into disuse because of a drought in the area and the lack of an artesian well on the property. Nevertheless, Mrs. White personally put $2,000 toward the purchase of the sanitarium.
An Adventist well-digger was employed to find a water source, but after digging to a depth of 80 feet without success, he was discouraged. He went to Ellen White and asked whether she was sure the Lord had led her to the Paradise Valley property. She affirmed that He had. “All right,” he said, “the Lord would not give us an elephant without providing water for it to drink.” He continued on, and at last he struck a stream of water “as large as a man’s arm.” The well he sank in 1904 still gives water today.
The Paradise Valley Sanitarium was an immediate success, and through the decades it continued to expand its services and capacity. By 2004, it was a hospital with 210 patient beds, a 24-hour emergency room, a well-equipped surgery suite, and a range of other health services.
Just down the road, the Paradise Valley Adventist church grew alongside the hospital, drawing its membership and identity largely from its successful next-door neighbor. Will, who came as senior pastor in 2004, describes the church he first encountered as “comfortable, but somewhat complacent.” The ethnic make-up of the congregation was largely Caucasian and Filipino—not a true demographic reflection of its south San Diego location. Nor did the church membership mirror local economic realities. Household incomes in the area around the church are well below the state average.
It was mainly an “observer” church, says Will. The majority of members came each week, sat in the pews, and watched the worship service. They sang hymns and went home—not necessarily because they lacked a heart for mission, but because they were never called on to use their spiritual gifts.
But then came a twist in the story of Paradise Valley church. The nearby hospital had been battling a growing deficit for many years, and by the mid-2000s, its shaky finances had worsened. On March 1, 2007, Adventist Health formally announced the sale of the hospital.
The decision shocked the Adventist community in San Diego and the Paradise Valley congregation in particular. For this proud institutional church, the move seemed to foreshadow the beginning of a long, slow slide into irrelevance. The pews became more sparsely occupied, and the church’s glory days seemed well in the past. The large sanctuary and spacious church facilities—indirect products of the well-digger’s “thirsty elephant”—were fast becoming white elephants.
The Holy Spirit, however, had other plans. In hindsight, Will sees this period of uncertainty as the time when members of his congregation finally began to transition from observers to activists.
More than a social club
When you talk with Will, it’s soon clear that he has an aversion to clubs that masquerade as churches. He believes a club mentality—caring mainly for members’ needs—results in an inward focus that alienates a church from the community in which it’s located.
“Almost every week in my sermon, I try to make the point that the church has to have a reason for being, beyond just looking after ourselves,” he says. “The church isn’t a social club. I tell my congregation that God has called and ordained each one of us as a minister. We’re here for a purpose; we need to find our gifts. And when we find our purpose, we need to fulfill it!”
Even before the sale of Paradise Valley Hospital, Will and his wife, Peggy, had begun an effort to revitalize the church’s community services program. For many years, the church’s community center, a 1,400-square-meter (15,000-square-foot) facility built in the 1960s, had hosted quilting bees and small-scale programs such as distributing clothing and bread. Peggy, who became community services director in 2004, began to look for ways to expand the range of community services the church offered.
Soon afterward, says Will, God started opening doors. It began with a visit from a Laotian man—formerly a Buddhist monk—who had accepted Christ and been baptized as an Adventist church member while living in a Thai refugee camp. He was eventually granted asylum in the United States and settled in San Diego, and before long, he’d started a small home-based outreach ministry to other Laotian refugees.
Will recalls, “He came to me one day and asked, ‘Do you think your church could love and accept us? We need a church home.’ And I said, ‘Of course!’ So this small group of Laotians started attending Paradise Valley church.”
Every week, the former monk delivered food parcels from the church to Laotian refugees in a nearby apartment complex. A group of Bhutanese refugees living in the same building began to notice this man with his bags of food, and one day they asked him to bring them food as well. So he did. Before long, the Bhutanese refugees were curious about the church that provided these packages, and many of them began to attend church each Sabbath.
“We didn’t speak Bhutanese—or Nepalese, which many of them spoke—but we loved them!” says Will. “We borrowed a bus from a Sunday church and began to pick them up on Sabbath morning. We bought them all Nepalese Bibles, and they were delighted to have them, but we immediately notice they held them upside down. They were illiterate, even in their mother tongue.”
This was a turning point for members of the community services team at Paradise Valley Church. They asked, “What can we do to really help these refugees? What would make a significant difference in their lives?” And with that, the idea was born for an English language school for refugees.
A snowballing ministry
Soon a pattern was established. As the members of Paradise Valley church responded to a particular need within the local refugee community, God wasted no time in presenting them with another need to be met; then another and another. And so Paradise Valley church’s refugee ministry began to grow organically.
As God revealed needs, He also led the church to find resources in unexpected places. The recession of 2008 hit hard in inner-city San Diego, and Will realized the church needed to dramatically expand its capacity to store and distribute food. He placed an advertisement on Craigslist explaining the church’s need for a large, walk-in cooler. A company that installed commercial coolers responded, offering to break down, move, and reassemble any cooler for them, free of charge. Soon after, a florist called. The store was going out of business and was happy to give Paradise Valley church its cooler. The church also found money to buy a pickup truck for food deliveries and began a regular Tuesday program at the church for sorting and bagging supplies to be distributed.
Around this time, Ephraim Bendatunguka, an Adventist pastor from Rwanda who had been living and studying in Germany, moved to San Diego with his wife and four children. As they struggled to find their feet in the United States, Paradise Valley church cared for their needs, and before long, Pastor Bendatunguka was spearheading outreach among the many refugees from the Congo, Rwanda, and other African countries. Today, he still serves as director of the church’s Refugee Assimilation Project.
Starting the English language school required a whole new level of coordination and funding. First, the church had to scrape together some $40,000 to purchase 20 laptops and 40 licenses to English language learning software. Next, it set up a school in the community center and sought out volunteer teachers to keep the school professionally staffed for five days a week.
The opening of the school was scheduled for September 1, 2011, but with just days to go, the church encountered a roadblock. “We discovered that for the refugees to receive food stamps, housing allowance, and medical insurance from the government, they needed to spend a minimum of 35 hours a week split between English language classes and work experience,” explains Will. “So if we really wanted to minister to the refugee community, we needed to not only teach English but to provide work experience.”
What first appeared to be a setback actually spurred a new ministry. Within a month, the church had leased a storefront space nearby and opened a thrift store as a means of providing work skills for its English language students. The store was soon thriving.
As the English language school quickly filled to capacity, God continued to prod Paradise Valley church in unexpected directions. Church volunteers working among refugee families discovered that depression was a pervasive and destructive force within this community.
“Sometimes we would see someone sitting in a fetal position, their head in their hands,” says Will. Some refugees were overcome by their loss and their sense of alienation; the feeling of being “strangers in a strange land.”
“Ellen White talks about how healing it can be to get your hands in the soil and work in a garden,” he says. “So we decided to start a community garden for the refugees.”
The new non-Adventist owners of Paradise Valley Hospital leased the church some unused land for just $1, and soon the ground had been transformed into a patchwork of individual garden plots. The garden proved immensely popular. Not only could refugees grow some favorite crops from their homeland but they were also getting out of their often cramped apartments and connecting with other people.
Christ said, “Follow me”
For the past 12 years, Paradise Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church hasn’t conducted any public evangelism campaigns. Instead, it has focused all its energy and resources on building relationships within the immediate community—all within a radius of just a few miles of the church building.
The church’s approach to sharing Christ is low key, but as Will says, “It’s working for us.” Over the past year alone, some 50 people were baptized at the Paradise Valley church.
“We don’t push baptisms,” he says, “but the subject naturally comes up as people get to know us, see the church, and see what’s going on here. They say, ‘I want to be part of this! What do I have to do?’
“We’re constantly rubbing shoulders with people in the community,” adds Will. “Sometimes we’ll ask someone whether they have a church family. If they don’t, we say, ‘We’d like to be your church family!’ ” He says it’s a rare Sabbath morning that there isn't a new family from the community visiting Paradise Valley church.
Today, the church is more crowded than it was before the Adventist hospital was sold. But there are key differences. One of the main changes is that the faces of those in the pews now reflect the demographics of this San Diego neighborhood. Paradise Valley church has become a truly multicultural congregation.
Another change experienced by Paradise Valley church—less visible, perhaps, but just as profound—is the number of those within the congregation who regularly volunteer time to keep the church’s various ministries running. Almost 130 volunteers help coordinate and staff the English language school, the thrift store, the community garden, the food delivery program, as well as the massive twice-yearly rummage sales that raise vital funds. In his many years of ministry, says Will, he has never before seen such a commitment to community involvement as he sees in his current congregation.
For some, volunteering at Paradise Valley church has literally been a life-changing experience. Jocelyn Fay, a veteran communication professional within the Adventist Church in North America, first heard about plans for the Refugee Assimilation Project when her friend, Will, sent her a draft of his ideas to edit.
At the time, Jocelyn was communication director for the Southeastern California Conference, based in Riverside. Immediately, she was captivated by Will’s plan and his vision to make Christ’s compassion real in such practical ways within the Paradise Valley community.
“I edited the document and then sent it to a friend of mine on the east coast—a professional fundraiser—and asked her for ideas,” says Jocelyn. She kept in touch with Will, and later, when Jocelyn retired, she chose to move from Riverside to Paradise Valley so she could volunteer with the project.
“I could have stayed in Riverside, I guess, and gone to the gym and met friends for lunch,” she says, “But that would have been boring after a while. Here, it’s never boring!” Most rewarding for Jocelyn has been the long-term relationships she has built with many of those who’ve participated in one or another of Paradise Valley’s programs.
“We really adopt these people into our church family,” says Jocelyn. “They may finish the language and work skills course, but they still come back to us for food or clothes or other things they need. We don’t just push them out of the nest and say, ‘See you later!’ ”
“This is our purpose”
Looking back, Will believes his congregation took its first step toward radical transformation when it really began to focus on the people who lived in the local community, and their needs.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds, says Will. Too often, he says, it’s easier to provide programs that we think people want. We project our own biases or assumptions, rather than finding out what people really need. According to Will, the only way to find out the needs of a community is to build friendships: to talk with people, to regularly go where people live, and to make an effort to understand them—their challenges and their dreams.
“The Lord convicted us that we needed to minister to our local refugee community,” says Will. “It’s not a ministry for every church, or even for every inner-city church. But it’s our ministry. This is our purpose for being here, in this community.”
He acknowledges that it hasn’t been easy. “Challenging” is an understatement when it comes to describing the never-ending financial and personnel demands of the Refugee Assimilation Project. Keeping everything going is a logistical juggling act—coordinating volunteers, maintaining equipment, ensuring compliance with government regulations, and raising enough funds.
“God is the true center of our resources, though,” says Will. “He will keep providing for our needs, so we can provide for the needs of others.”
And then there are dreams of new ministries as God continues to open doors. In the short term, Paradise Valley church wants to expand its community garden and continue to grow its new childcare center for the children of refugees.
For the volunteers who care for the many different facets of the Refugee Assimilation Project, the work can be difficult and personally demanding. For leaders of the project, it has become an all-absorbing enterprise. So why do they continue? What motivates them? When asked, Will laughs. “That’s easy,” he says. “Love for God, and love for people. That’s it. That’s what drives us.”
Building a Practical, People-Focused Ministry
Lessons from the front lines of urban mission
- Find your purpose. God has placed you where you are for a unique reason—find out what that is.
- Be prepared to change. Allow God to transform the status quo, and trust where He takes you.
- Customize your mission. Don’t simply try to emulate another church’s ministry. Your ministry has to fit both the needs of your local community and the gifts within your congregation.
- Be real. Genuine impact happens when a church strives to meet real community needs—not imagined or assumed needs. Analyze your neighborhood.
- Be practical. Traditional public evangelism doesn’t work in your urban community? Then let the Holy Spirit work through “practical evangelism” as you seek to reveal the character of Christ in your neighborhood.
- Be people focused. Focus on forging authentic, long-term relationships, and offer assistance and friendship without strings attached. And then always keep the door of your church wide open.
- Be prayer focused. There will be challenges and setbacks, but prayer—both corporate and individual—is a powerful antidote to both.
You can find out more about Paradise Valley church’s ever-expanding ministry at www.friendshipsforhope.org.
 Wayne R. Judd and Jonathan M. Butler, eds., Thirsty Elephant: The Story of Paradise Valley Hospital (Riverside, CA: La Sierra University Press, 1994).