In celebration of the 50 years of the Office of Race Relations (ORR), we are featuring the stories of people in the CRC who have been actively demonstrating a passion for multicultural congregations and a commitment to antiracism. We call people who have been exemplifying these ideals, “Champions of Justice.” These “Champions” are the nominees for the Dante Venegas award that will be presented at Inspire 2022 in Chicago next August.
We are proud to introduce Enrique and Febe Gomez as one of these nominees.
Here’s a little history about the Gomez family:
Hello! My name is Enrique Gomez, I was born and raised in Southern Mexico. I came to Michigan in 1999, and started to work as an assistant pastor at Vida Nueva CRC which disbanded in 2008. After that we joined Faith CRC, where I currently serve as a pastor of Hispanic ministries, but I also enjoy interacting and encouraging and advocating for the other ethnic groups of brothers and sisters we have in our congregation. My wife Febe has been a great support in my ministry and together we have had 3 children Sam, Betsy and Raphie who have also played an important role in our ministry. Sam and Betsy are now married and together with their respective spouses, we are a multiethnic family! Febe was also born in Mexico (Campeche) and is a Spanish teacher that enjoys working, learning and meeting people from different cultures.
Here are some of Enrique and Febe's personal stories and reflections on their antiracism advocacy work:
Our story of advocacy against racism, and on behalf of inclusion and social justice, goes back to our childhood. Perhaps, unconsciously. We probably didn’t know anything about the philosophy and terminology that is used nowadays; however, we were motivated to stand up for others that were marginalized or discriminated against simply because of their differences. Our eagerness to learn and embrace differences became the focus of our ministry.
One of Febe’s experiences facing this issue happened in first grade. This is her story:
“It was the beginning of the school year, and although we were all from the same city and about the same age, we were all new to each other. There was a girl, Martina, who never played with us. Children did not want her to play or invite her to participate in any of the school activities simply because she was black. When I found out about this, I invited Martina to play with us. She was so pretty to me. I loved her curly hair, her skin color, and didn’t understand why she was treated differently because I also had dark skin. There was something bad in the attitude of the other kids that bothered me so much. I wondered why I didn’t have any problems being part of the group, but Martina wasn’t allowed. She was always standing on the outskirts of the playground or playing all alone. A few days after I heard why they did not like her, I decided to invite Martina to play with our group. My friends told me that if she came to play, that I would not be able to play with them either. I fought with my friends and ran to tell the playground supervisor. She called everyone and scolded them for being mean to Martina and from that day on I have done my best to seek out opportunities to advocate for others that are discriminated against because of their race, disability or socio -economic background, whether this happens in the wider community, school or even at church.”
In my own experience [Enrique], this case was even more personal because I was directly affected by the rejection of my peers in elementary school and other people from my community. Growing up, kids called me names and laughed at me because I had a stuttering problem. That made me feel bad and created so much fear in me. I decided to stay away from them and hide at home. There my mother encouraged me to read out loud and practice tongue-twisters because she believed that those exercises could help me improve. Though she had only reached the 3rd grade of elementary school herself, she gave me a lot of encouragement and prayed for me every day.
As I grew older, things became even worse because the girls who usually avoided me, were now bullying and laughing at me. Over that time, I found a couple of boys in my neighborhood that became my friends, and they helped raise my self-esteem and gain confidence in myself. By the time I was in high school I learned about Jesus Christ for the first time and that was a very special experience. I participated in a Christian camp for the first time and was challenged to accept God’s calling to preach the gospel. I was so engaged and excited to learn more about God that I did not even think about my stuttering problem. Soon after I began my career in electrical engineering, I understood that the Lord was calling me to become a Pastor, so later on I pursued seminary. While attending seminary I had a lot of friends from other countries and I loved to learn more about their cultures and traditions. From that experience, I looked for opportunities to meet people from other backgrounds, to start relationships, and introduce them to the gospel.
When Febe and I received my first congregation, we prayed that our ministry would be blessed with diversity, and the Lord started that ministry; right in the heart of our family. He gave us a son with special needs. Our advocacy job for Raphie was even harder than we ever imagined. However, to this day we continue learning and looking for answers knowing that whatever we could get him was going to pave the road for many other children whether this be at school and even at church.
We have kept this inclusive vision throughout the years, especially over the past 12 years since being at a predominately white church. We have seen how difficult this work is, but we have not let the setbacks or disappointments of this work stop us from continuing to move towards inclusion, and acceptance of all people. When we started at this church, we had to push a lot to be included and accepted as a multicultural staff at the whole extent of the word. Then, we had a white male Pastor, an African American woman pastor, and myself a Hispanic one. Together we made a lot of plans, had a vision and were willing to work hard for it and tried our best. The female pastor was barely given the opportunity to preach the word, and the same for me. I had the privilege to administer Communion, but she never had that opportunity.
Throughout the years, so many times at our staff meetings we requested to introduce Spanish songs into Sunday worship but our requests were never acted upon. One year, at my evaluation meeting, the people who talked to me asked me if I had a comment or a question for them and I asked why I was barely given the opportunity to preach the Word? The answer, harsh and direct: “because we as Americans like to be preached in English and you only preach in Spanish.”
As the years went by, we continued there, though the first woman pastor is gone, and our previous senior pastor as well. Febe and I believe that the Lord opened this door for us and, through the struggles and hard moments, we keep the vision.
We initiated cross-cultural conversations and some members from the congregation were interested in this group and came to support the idea of exchanging languages and learning from each other. We expanded this to a Sunday school bilingual multicultural group and tried to introduce the course Racial Reconciliation, unsuccessfully. We also opened a monthly activity to meet people from diverse backgrounds called Multicultural Breakfast where we share breakfast on Saturday mornings and we spent the morning getting to know each other, playing games, praying for each other and inviting others to join the group to learn about each other’s culture. Today, under a new leadership all of these activities are done but starting to implement new activities targeting diversity and inclusivity. We still claim for Spanish songs and readings in worship but preaching has begun to take place on Sunday mornings via Facebook. We’re also trying to educate our congregation about how to be more accepting, welcoming, and inclusive of everyone, at all levels.
We know that racism and discrimination come from a lack of understanding and being tolerant of differences in cultures, backgrounds, worldviews, etc. One of the church-wide activities that we began during the pandemic was breaking up our congregation into small groups that were intergenerational, multicultural, and welcoming to all abilities.
Currently, we are working on a program to learn about each other, giving each member of our congregation the opportunity to share their life story publicly to start listening to each other and understand our cultures and backgrounds in order to break down the barriers of fear and shaping our church’s journey in this vision. In addition to Febe’s efforts on pursuing her passion and vision about Diversity and inclusion, she is working on her Master’s degree in Inclusive Education.
Our passion for an inclusive ministry is not only motivated from our personal experiences, but more importantly comes from God’s word, especially Revelations 7:9-10, Matthew 28:20, Galatians 3:26-29. We do this work because we believe this is the mission of God, and it is our responsibility to continue with this mission on earth because this is what will break away all barriers, ideologies, and ways of thinking that divides us.