Rival drug cartels battled to rule Juárez, Mexico, about 15 years ago when a pastor’s daughter, Damaris, was kidnapped.
Her family started a church in the dense, growing city across the border from their El Paso, Texas home. They visited Juárez to do justice and love mercy while cartels loved money and destroyed lives. Damaris’ father and uncle, who shared the preaching duties, visited at unpredictable intervals to increase their safety.
Even so, kidnappers managed to snatch Damaris, holding her for three days. They demanded $100,000 from her family because of their U.S. connections.
While authorities negotiated her release, she shared the gospel with her kidnappers and another kidnapping victim.
Meanwhile, Avi Nuñez knew nothing of the kidnapping. He was leading a band that played in bars and various places around Juárez. Nuñez had begun to believe the band would find sustainable success, viewing the band as his ticket out of Juárez, his crime-infested hometown. He remembers playing soccer as a child and hearing the shots of automatic weapons.
Nuñez was eager for success, but suddenly, the band’s drummer wanted to quit. The drummer’s family was connected to a new church in Juárez that was struggling because of cartel violence. Because of the dangers of the city, Texan volunteers had stopped coming to help at the church. More local hands were needed to help with church services, and the band’s drummer wanted to allocate more of his time helping the church.
“If you guys don’t help, I’m leaving the band,” the drummer told the band, according to Nuñez.
“Bro, we really need you,” Nuñez replied. “Please don’t do that to me.”
Surprise, you’re a worship leader
The bar band started helping the church, even though they weren’t sure of what they were doing.
As the band’s leader, Nuñez was used to having an audience in bars, giving him all their attention. But leading worship deepened his faith: the people were seeking and honoring God, clapping and praising the Lord.
“God ministered to me while I was leading other people into worship. Worship was really changing my heart, changing what I was thinking,” Nuñez said. “God led us into real worship as I was seeing the people’s love and faith.”
Now Nuñez is leading other people into faith, love and worship by starting a Latino church in Reedley, California. Known as Redeemer’s Latino, the new Converge church results from a partnership of Nuñez and Redeemer’s Church’s pastor, Nick Jones.
Redeemer’s Latino aims to serve many needs
Nuñez was hired at Redeemer’s Church to be a production director and ultimately start a church for Latinos. However, the pandemic unexpectedly changed his strategy to meeting people in small groups and getting to know them as best he could.
The church launched April 11, emphasizing serving people in need and offering more spiritual vitality to Latinos coming out of a Roman Catholic experience.
“It’s in our church’s DNA to serve people,” he said.
Nuñez explained the church wants to help people who are hungry and homeless. People who come to the farming community to support their families fill the area. But these hardworking people struggle through medical needs, legal issues and finding insurance.
“Our job is to focus on what’s important,” Nuñez said. “We have to be the hands and feet [of Christ] and be there for the people.”
His childhood experiences in a dangerous, poor community helped him develop empathy and understand the needs of Latinos and the mission of a local church.
While leading worship in the Juárez church, Nuñez found a mentor, Doña Lupe Montoya.
“She liked me for some odd reason,” he humbly said. “She would take a lot of time to talk with me about faith and questions.” Of course, Nuñez had many debating points from reading the Bible so much as a child and teenager.
“After one of these debates, I realized I never received Jesus as my only savior and Lord,” he said. “So, I wanted to do that. Later I got baptized.”
A ministry grows among young people
After his salvation, Nuñez was asked to be a leader for young people in the church.
“I volunteered in areas I knew well so I could not mess up,” he joked.
So, he organized the worship team and concerts, set up plays and Friday night events for youth.
Then the pastors surprised him.
“The pastors gave me an opportunity to preach on Sunday. They shouldn’t have done that,” he says with humor and humility. “I was too young.”
For his first sermon, he chose the parable of the two sons, found in Matthew 21. He did a lot of research, including listening to other preachers. The result surprised him.
“I realized God had given [me] some sort of ability to [preach]. I really enjoyed it, and I started wondering what God’s plan was for me,” he said.
The next opportunity surprised him as well.
His spiritual mentor, Montoya, who moved to El Paso to help plant the church in Juárez, retired. Her family was all back in California, so she wanted to return.
But she had a strong pull in El Paso. Nuñez now had a wife and the two had become like family to Montoya. Three years before, Montoya guided Nuñez and the young woman as they dated and married. Montoya was like a mother to both of them. So it was only natural that Montoya would invite Nuñez and his bride to move to California with her.
This young lady who married Nuñez, it turns out, was the pastor’s daughter once kidnapped in Juárez, Mexico. It was Damaris’ kidnapping that drew Avi into the church as a worship leader thinking like a band leader. Their connection in the church, with Montoya’s nurturing, led the two of them into love and ministry.
The 27-year-old Nuñez has been married to Damaris for nine years and they have two daughters. His wife’s kidnapping and his experiences with drugs, alcohol and family conflict are all part of God’s plan, he says.
God keeps inviting the Nuñez family into ministry
The Nuñez family moved to Winton, California, with Montoya, where they taught others to play worship music. Nuñez was preaching on Wednesdays. He yearned to start a church, but he needed support and training.
Without the ability to go to college, Nuñez attended churches with a strong teaching ministry to learn all he could.
Next, Nuñez and his wife moved to Merced, California, and went to Yosemite Church.
Over the next year, pastor Angel Barragan, who translated the senior pastor’s messages into Spanish, was giving Nuñez leadership opportunities and nurturing the young man. Nuñez was also one of the worship musicians on Sunday.
Barragan slowly shared more and more pastoral roles with Nuñez, such as congregational care, leading small groups, worship leadership and preaching.
“That was when I realized I really wanted to [start a church],” he said. “God was calling me, calling me, calling me.”
Finally, when Nuñez met Pastor Nick Jones, he had the opportunity to start a new church alongside Jones. After the blessing of his church in Merced and the leaders there, Nuñez and his family moved to Reedley.
Who will offer worship in Spanish for Reedley people?
Misael Lopez walked through the doors of Redeemer’s Church a few years ago to join Celebrate Recovery. A friend encouraged him to come as Lopez battled addictions to methamphetamine and alcohol.
While at Celebrate Recovery, a man named Matt invited Lopez to Redeemer’s Church’s worship service in English. That’s how he met Redeemer’s Church’s then associate pastor, Nuñez.
“I don’t know any Christian church in Reedley that has services in Spanish,” Lopez said. “It’s something I would have never thought would come true.”
Going to Celebrate Recovery and attending Redeemer’s Church stimulated a significant shift in Lopez’s spiritual values. Like Nuñez, the Catholic church benefited Lopez to know more about Christ, gain knowledge of God’s character and serve the Lord. But God had more grace yet for Lopez.
“That [church] is how I was introduced to Jesus and to God and having that one-on-one relationship with him that so many people don’t know about,” he said.
At first, coming back to church in his hometown was hard. People who knew him might remember his drug addictions and gang lifestyle. But now, Lopez is serving others and valuing his deep connections in his hometown.
“I invite everybody to Redeemer’s Latino, Redeemer’s in English,” he said. “I can see when people are hurt sometimes, when they’re going through it, and I just throw [an invite] out there.”
From a desire to a new church
The vision to serve and help Latinos, both practically and spiritually, was an excellent opportunity for Nuñez. There was no Spanish-language worship available in any church in the Reedley area.
Pastor Nick Jones and Redeemer’s Church share their building, budget and some staff to help the new church. Also, they support more training for Nuñez, which he welcomes.
Redeemer’s Latino will receive a Converge grant to fund reaching out to the community. Converge PacWest director of Church Planting Chris Lovelace will present the grant during an August 8 worship service.
“The idea is to plant a Spanish-speaking service so you can invite your parents and aunts who speak Spanish, so they have somewhere to go,” Nuñez said. “We’re very excited about coming here because this town is about 70 percent Latino. [Currently] we’re serving a community, and we don’t even offer something in the native language for the immigrant.”
That’s a great opportunity because he said Latinos leave space for faith in their lives, even while working hard as farmers and first-generation residents in the agricultural valley. Part of the ministry to Latinos includes navigating the contributions and complexities of Roman Catholic discipleship and worship among Latinos.
Latinos as a people group are moving away from cultural beliefs tied to the Roman Catholic church. Nuñez said a significant percentage are not finding God after they leave the Roman Catholic Church.
For many Latinos, Nuñez believes finding forgiveness is “a holy bureaucracy. There’s no way they understand Jesus in the middle of that.”
“They just stop believing, and that is the biggest challenge,” he said. “Latinos tend to reject salvation because [they believe] if you’re bad, you go to hell, and if you do good, you go to heaven.”
However, Nuñez is confident in the clarity and simplicity of the gospel for the new church.
“The little we know is a whole lot for the person that has never heard these words,” he said. “The gospel is something the neighbor needs to hear. The better we communicate these basics, the more we can impact people who don’t know Jesus.”
When she was kidnapped 15 years ago, Damaris Nuñez shared the gospel as a hostage because there is an even worse captivity to spiritual powers. But, by God’s grace, she knew of Christ’s power, rooted in love, to set the captives free. That’s why her father started a church and why she and Avi Nuñez started one too.
“My people need to be free,” he said. “People can go to heaven because Jesus died for us, because of what he did. Because of him, we can be saved.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.