Pastor connects East Side through music and gospel

The bilingual, multicultural church is growing.
YOUNGSTOWN -- A pastor left the Wizard of Oz behind to bring a message of love to La La Land.
Now, the Rev. Mr. Rolando Rojas is helping people find a new kingdom.
Consider that 400 people filled the sanctuary of Spanish Evangelical Church last Sunday evening to listen to Latin and hip-hop songs.
"Everybody loves music," said the pastor.
But instead of secular lyrics, the popular contemporary music has a Christian message. That's playing well at the church that has been growing since Mr. Rojas took over 18 months ago.
Sunday's concert brought in the largest crowd to date. It also typifies the pastor's desire to shake things up in creating programs and ministries. Those moves have been drawing people from the neighborhood and the community at large, Mr. Rojas said.
Neighborhood: What's unusual is that the church, at 1408 Rigby St., is in La La Land, an nickname drug dealers gave the area around Ayers Street on the East Side.
Increased patrols by the Mahoning County Sheriff's Office, a gang indictment and anti-gang graffiti efforts made headlines earlier this year.
Mr. Rojas said the church is focusing on its vision statement: "Building the Kingdom of God one soul at a time."
The 48-year-old church outgrew its former building and moved to the roomy former Roosevelt School six years ago.
"They saw a lot of potential and growth," Mr. Rojas said.
The church is a member of the Assembly of God's Spanish Eastern District, one of four districts in the United States. Spanish Evangelical Church is one of 14 such churches in Ohio.
When the church was looking for a new leader, the pastor heard about it while he was working in the Bronx, N.Y. He earlier lived in Ohio and has relatives near Lorain but had grown up in Kansas.
"I left Dorothy and Toto and the Wizard of Oz behind," the pastor said with a laugh.
Dynamic demographics: Mr. Rojas said he's still working on long-range plans for the church.
"I've been able to establish a bilingual, multicultural church," he said. "We are a multicultural bilingual church out of need. We have interracial marriages here, so it forces us to go bilingual in order to keep them in membership."
About 85 percent of the church is Puerto Rican-Americans. Similar churches stayed all Spanish but lost young people who weren't fluent in the language.
"We haven't had the exodus we've had in other years, and we've been growing because of that," the pastor said.
The church had 109 members and averaged about 125 in attendance.
Now, said the pastor, "We average from 175 to 200 people a Sunday."
Last Sunday morning, the church added 20 new members, bringing the rolls up to about 140 people.
"Many of the members are from the neighborhood, he said. "So they know how the community basically runs. We have the advantage, or the blessing, to have many of the members from the neighborhood, and many of those are in leadership at the church."
Helping others: The church offers seniors and singles groups, as well as the Royal Rangers and Missionettes, the equivalent of Boy or Girl Scouts. It also has a rec room ministry, with a pool table, stereo, TV and accessories for youth activities, such as Super Bowl parties.
The church has taken part in toy, turkey and food distributions and has a free clothing ministry.
"We're a small church with a big church mentality," said Mr. Rojas, who estimates that 85 percent of the congregation is involved in the ministries.
Music is also a key to growth.
"I'm a lover of all types of music," Mr. Rojas said. Baby boomers and young people, who are the driving force in the leadership at Spanish Evangelical, and members of the community, also love hip-hop, rap, R & amp;B, salsa and meringue music. Music festivals will be an annual event.
Traditional music is played during worship Tuesday nights, and some upbeat traditional songs are played Sundays with the modern music. That draws more boomers and young people to the church.
"There's a saying that says, 'Don't tell me who you are, show me it,'" said Mr. Rojas. "I think that's a good philosophy to go by in the church. If we say we love the community, it's not enough just to say it. We have to show it. We've tried to do that."
People in the neighborhood are speaking with more optimism about the area, and local clergy and others plan more cooperative efforts, said the pastor, adding, "I believe there is a positive change coming on the East Side."
XSunday worship is from 11:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Sunday school starts at 10 a.m. Family night is at 7 p.m. Thursday with informal worship. Bible study and prayer is at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Worship, music and Bible study are all bilingual.

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