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Jun 09, 2014 | Carol E. Barnwell

Embracing the Neighborhood

[Diolog Magazine] By the 1990s, St. Peter’s Anglo congregation began to grow smaller as members moved to suburbs away from north Pasadena. The area began to reflect a decidedly Hispanic aesthetic as more immigrants moved in. Today, the church’s vicar, the Rev. Pedro Lopez, is filling up the church once again.


The Rev. Ben Skyles, rector of St. Peter’s, Pasadena for 34 years (1964-2000), saw great change as rector.  In the 70s and 80s, “the church was so full on Sundays that we had to add a chapel,” he said. In the midst of building it, he and the congregation became aware that the neighborhood was changing. “The first service we held in the chapel was celebrated in Spanish in 1984.” 


The blue-collar neighborhood that Skyles came to in 1964 rode a “wave of renewal in the Episcopal Church,” Skyles said. St. Peter’s and many other churches enjoyed full attendance on Sunday mornings. “When I arrived, there was a revival of interest for the Episcopal Church and in religion in general,” he said.  By the time Lopez came in 2012, average Sunday attendance had dwindled to around 70 people in two services, one English and one Spanish. Today, more than 300 gather each week to worship in Spanish. The remaining Anglo congregation of 35 worships in English.  Surprisingly, the church’s youth have asked for an additional English-language service. 


Throughout all, St. Peter’s/San Pedro has offered its neighbors a witness of Christian love and outreach, enriching lives and serving the poor. Representative Ken Bentsen recognized Skyles in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999, noting Skyles’ leadership as rector of St. Peter’s in caring for the elderly, educating children and providing aid to those who were ill or living in poverty. The congressional decree specifically noted the church’s after-school program that provided “a safe haven for children” for more than two decades. 


Under Lopez’s leadership, the church has done no less. The church provides meeting space for the North Pasadena Community Outreach Center on its campus in a facility built with a grant from Episcopal Health Charities a number of years ago. More than 500 people from the community gather weekly for classes in nutrition, computer skills and English. Church members often volunteer. San Pedro/St. Peter’s also works with the Houston Food Bank to feed 50-75 families a week, sometimes more. 


“This is the poorest area in Pasadena, and we are right next to the poorest neighborhoods in Houston,” Lopez said.  


The Outreach Center also offers enrichment classes in art, painting and cooking. Lopez said even more people came before a funding cut forced the preschool to close. He tries to check in at the Center regularly, nourishing a ministry of presence for so many potential church members. 


Besides a once again vibrant worshipping congregation, Lopez has 45-50 youth going through confirmation classes, which last 18 months. “It helps families stay engaged long enough to become involved and bond,” Lopez said. In April, a lock-in for more than 50 youth was a huge success. “We have created a place that the kids love to come to, a place where they can bring their questions and concerns,” he added. “This is their church.”


Lopez has to organize his days with great dexterity to manage the website, his worship and teaching schedule, meetings with community leaders and pastoral care of many area residents and still have time for his family. His wife, Estela, helps in the church office part-time, but there is no additional staff.  


“One of the reasons we established a ministry to Hispanics,” Skyles said, “is because immigrants didn’t have an agency they could identify with. Their one anchor was the church and St. Peter’s responded.” He said the congregation helped hundreds of people become U.S. citizens during his tenure. 


Lopez has been training church members to become leaders in the broader community, and the church has been active in educating the neighbors about their rights. Informational events about the Affordable Care Act benefited many in the community, and the church was profiled on national Spanish television for their efforts. 


“With Father Pedro’s emphasis on discipleship, the Hispanic members of the congregation have stepped forward to take on leadership positions,” said Annanelle Hay, a member since 1972 and bishop’s warden for two years.  Hay said she was especially happy to see the “growth and enthusiasm of our youth program.”


Former church members and area business members are always included in the invitation list for events at the church. Many former member who have moved from the area return for the annual fundraiser in October and contribute heavily to the church’s continuing mission. Even though Lopez collaborates extensively with community partners to provide services for the community, lack of funds remains the most pressing challenge to further growth and outreach.


Recently, the church hosted more than 30 different organizations at a health fair where more than 800 people received dental and medical care. Working with area community colleges, Lopez has also helped a number of high school seniors receive grants for college tuition. 


A native of Colombia, Lopez is one of 13 children. He was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church and later received as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He and Estela have two sons: Nathan, 15, and Peter, 10. He previously served a church on the west side of Chicago, growing that dwindling congregation of 15 to 400 people. 


“I think San Pedro can grow to be a strong Hispanic church in the Diocese of Texas,” Lopez said. “It can be a place that reaches out and one that raises up leaders. We have 3-5 families a week come to visit.” 


He dreams of building a large outreach center nearby and partnering with others to provide programs and services to the community. But his primary focus remains the spiritual growth of the people at San Pedro/St. Peter’s and the improvement “of the lives of the people in our community,” he said.