From Separatism to Contextual, Spirit-Led Ministry: Pedro Aviles

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Pedro Aviles serves as the pastor of Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church in Berwyn, Ill. He has also served as an assistant professor of church and ministry leadership at Trinity Christian College. He has led the launching of a new congregation and pastored a church in the inner city of Chicago. He has over 25 years pastoral experience, pastoring in the city of Chicago. Aviles earned his master’s degree in Christian leadership from North Park Theological Seminary and has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the PhD program of Intercultural Studies. He and Diana have been married for 34 years and have 3 children: Elizabeth, Mariana, and Peter.

He is grateful for the path God put him on. “My mother was a welfare recipient. My father was a working alcoholic and an avid musician.” This is how he recalls his home life. His dream was to become a famous rock star, so he became a drummer.

“It was not long before I came in contact with gangs and drugs. But one day a cousin invited me to summer youth retreat. It was there that I remember asking God to help me follow him. That prayer came back to me, when I came back home and saw the Swedish-Norwegian congregation a block from my house. Even then I was not sure, but I did want to follow Christ,” he recalls. “It was there that I met Pastor Manual Ortiz. He was born in New York in a Puerto Rican community. This church had the vision to invite Pastor Ortiz to lead the English-speaking department of their congregation. They already had a Spanish leader for their Spanish-speaking department.”

Pastor Ortiz was a theologian but more than anything he was my mentor.

“Pastor Ortiz was a theologian but more than anything he was my mentor,” Pedro says. “He helped me get a job at the church driving the bus. It was a great job. I had a morning route and an afternoon route. That gave me time in the evenings to be trained, to be discipled by Manny as a follower of Christ, and to study and prepare for ministry opportunities. Pastor Manny expected me for breakfast every Wednesday morning at 8:30. He and his wife Blanca spent so much time with me. He taught me that good theologians respect biblical hermeneutics but also know the contextual application for their community. He was passionate about the reign of God over all creation. So he taught me about the need for the church to engage public issues like children’s education, slum lords, and other issues affecting people in the community. He believed that as believers we should be passionate about God and His Word, and to be Spirit-led (but not Pentecostal). He thought it was important to hear the heart of God. Pastor Ortiz led the church to growth and mentored me into leadership in the process. Unfortunately, the Norwegian-Swedish congregation split into two congregations in 1977.”

Later that year, church leaders, mostly new and from the immediate community, helped Pastor Ortiz launch Spirit and Truth Fellowship. Within 5 years they grew to a congregation of 200. The church plant was not the only thing that grew out of the church split. Pastor Ortiz, Bud Ipema (director of Race Relations), and Christian Reformed Home Missions met and began a collaborative relationship. That began a journey that created minority ethnic leadership growth in the CRC and help bridge members of the church into the Christian Reformed Church. Through this relationship Calvin Seminary agreed to provide theological education in Chicago. CRC pastors like Emmett Harris, Reggie Smith, and Ray Maldonado were launched into ministry. There were probably others as well.

He taught me that good theologians respect biblical hermeneutics but also know the contextual application for their community.

Reflecting on his call to pastor, he says, “I was never looking for the limelight. I liked drumming because I knew that I would not have to be in the spotlight like the lead singer or guitarist. But my role was to set the tempo. That is how I recall God using me. I never sought to be a pastor but began sensing the call as I was given more and more opportunities to lead, especially from Pastor Manny. In 1983, I and two other leaders were commissioned to launch Grace & Peace Fellowship, a daughter church of Spirit and Truth Church. One of the leaders declined for family reasons. The other leader took a call to a community congregation. This put me in the position of being the lead pastor of this new congregation. There were about 25 of us. My job was to keep us working together.”

“My most challenging ministry experience came when synodical deputies would not approve my ordination as a minister. I was seeking an ordination based on demonstrated ministry skill and experience as well as the special needs of a congregation that could not be met through the usual means, known as Article 7. This route to ministry allowed for pastors to receive an exception to the requirement of a Masters of Divinity from Calvin seminary. This was used in the early years of the Christian Reformed Church to fill shortages for ministers as the seminary worked to increase the number of graduates. The synodical deputies ruled in opposition to the will of my classis and opposed my ordination through Article 7. It was a sad time but also a time in which local leaders showed solidarity. The next year the classis sent an overture to Synod. I felt the support when Synod ruled that our congregation, led by an ethnic minority pastor, showed enough need for an exception to the normal means.

This has motivated me to participate in decision-making tables to help our church integrate people from all ethnic groups and not insist on unquestioned assimilation.

Pastor Aviles has hope for the CRC. “I am hopeful that the CRC will continue to open its arms to people from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The relationship I have with pastors in the Classis Northern Illinois is one of the reasons I have stayed in the denomination. The other is the priority we give theology. However, I see us as out of step with what we say we believe. Historically our church has been a separatist community. We have education for “our” children. We have a hard time living in community unless it is with “our” people. When we ordained commissioned pastors, we found a way to have them meet “our” values for formal education and now commissioned pastors have added requirements to satisfy “our” criteria. This has motivated me to participate in decision-making tables to help our church integrate people from all ethnic groups and not insist on unquestioned assimilation.”

We're marking Hispanic Heritage Month with a series about Hispanic leaders from diverse Hispanic nations in the CRC. This is the fourth post in the series. We've also celebrated Rev. Edwin Olguin, Rev. Harold Caicido, and Rev. Jose Rayas

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