Norma and Luis Amescua quit a second job they truly needed because God wanted to use them to give people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, something even more valuable.
The Amescuas sacrificed guaranteed income available at an afternoon job. They needed the money, of course. But, instead, they’re working so others can meet, know and follow Jesus through Iglesia Emanuel, a new Converge church in Kenosha. Iglesia Emanuel held its first worship service October 3.
When pastors Lupe Vargas and Jessy Padilla of Iglesia Emanuel in Waukegan, Illinois, spoke with the Amescuas, the couple’s heart was clear. “We’re trusting the Lord,” they told the pastors.
Vargas spent over 10 years at Iglesia Emanuel in Waukegan, learning from and growing in faith under Padilla’s leadership. The same heart of the Amescuas and Vargas motivates all 38 people on the launch team.
“They are taking their commitment to a different level and exercising many things that, without this decision, there wouldn’t be a church,” Padilla said of the team sent from Iglesia Emanuel in Waukegan. “That’s really impressive, even though I know these people. What they’re experiencing right now, it gives me joy in the Lord and I rejoice that I have the opportunity to see them go from one place to a better place in their relationship with God.”
Who’s sharing the gospel with nearby Hispanics?
In recent years, the Illinois church learned many Hispanics just over the Wisconsin border needed the gospel. Kenosha has nearly 100,000 people, including tens of thousands who are Hispanic.
“They decided because they heard God’s voice to be part of this,” Padilla said about the team.
God sent the team starting Iglesia Emanuel for people like Miguel Angel Cisneros. He grew up going to Catholic churches, but a cocaine addiction ravaged his life for the last 24 years. Cisneros dreamed two months ago that his cousin, Rico, said, ‘Come with me. We can help you.’
That ‘we’ who can help is Iglesia Emmanuel in Kenosha. Cisneros grows through a men’s group on Tuesdays, worships on Sundays and participates in other growth opportunities.
“It’s been helping me a lot because my brothers in the group give me the strength.” Cisneros said. Iglesia Emmanuel believers tell him, “Jesus is with you. God is with you.”
Despite Roman Catholic influences, Vargas said very few Hispanics know Jesus or experience the gospel’s hope. The families of most Hispanics, especially from Mexico, enforce a view that Protestant churches brainwash people or make them easy to manipulate.
Moreover, some families reinforce conformity to Catholic spirituality through pressure tactics like shame and rejection. That family pressure is something Vargas personally experienced when he came to Christ. Members of his family, including his mother, became so angry they quit speaking with him.
“My mom felt betrayed by me,” Vargas said.
A journey toward life
Although Vargas’ father didn’t follow Christ, Vargas’ mom sought to influence her son toward faith through the Roman Catholic church in central Mexico, where he grew up. She told Vargas at 9 years old that he should pray a particular prayer every day for 40 years to secure his life and future.
So, he prayed every day as she taught him, even after moving to the United States at the age of 15. He had $50 in cash and a change of clothes when he arrived in a small town near Waukegan, Illinois.
He worked 72 hours a week at his first job. Sometimes 90 hours. He bought his mom her first house when he was 18 years old. He owned a second house by the time he was 25.
However, he was filled with rage throughout these years because his father abandoned the family years before. That pain and anger came out all the time as Vargas would get in fight after fight after fight.
“I have had hundreds of fights,” he said. “I’m alive because of the grace and mercy of God.”
At one time, Vargas said he couldn’t go into Waukegan for months, which he often visited to meet Mexican girls and hang out with Hispanics. He once fought with gang members and the group of men later wanted to kill him.
And Vargas had never found grace for his moments, even with praying every day for a future hope.
“I never heard of the gospel until I came to the United States,” he said.
Vargas’ anger explodes against a Christian friend
Boxing and basketball are two sports Vargas loves. He had a friend, Ranuolfo, who always played basketball with Vargas and others. Then, suddenly, nobody saw Ranuolfo anymore.
After six months of silence and disconnection from basketball, Ranuolfo suddenly appeared one day on the court.
“When Ranuolfo came back, he was different,” Vargas said. “He started sharing the gospel with me.”
Vargas responded by making fun of Ranuolfo since Vargas grew up praying the rosary, as his mom taught him. Finally, he’d had enough hearing about the gospel and Jesus.
“Stop talking about your Jesus,” he told Ranuolfo. “If you don’t stop talking about your Jesus, I’m going to punch you in your face.”
‘I’ll show you, you are wrong’
Instead of a fight, Ranuolfo said Vargas could read the Bible for himself. Vargas, eager for any challenge to prove someone wrong, devoted himself to reading the Bible.
“I truly said in my head I’m going to read it and show you that you are wrong and the Pope is right,” Vargas said. “So, I started reading the Bible and realizing that I was wrong.”
Vargas thought all the good deeds he was doing ― a house for his mom, hard work and saying one prayer a day ― would get him into heaven.
“The Bible was saying, especially in [John] chapter 14, ‘I am the way. I’m going to prepare a place for you,’” Vargas said. Thus, in Scripture, he learned Jesus, not religious activities, made salvation possible.
Still, Vargas had a couple of challenges. His girlfriend he was living with wasn’t a Christian. And his family was sure to get angry with him. He remembered his mother’s criticisms and warnings about Protestants in León, where he grew up.
Eventually, the moment came when he had to talk with his girlfriend. She had joined him in saying his daily prayer for all these years. Maybe she would be OK with more spirituality in their lives, he thought.
“One day, I came to the conclusion that I need to follow this Jesus,” Vargas realized. “I also had this woman I truly loved. I had this battle inside of me. What if she doesn’t want to do it? Am I willing to follow Christ?”
He worked up the courage to tell her he wanted to accept Jesus as his Savior based on the Scripture’s evidence.
“She started crying and she said, ‘I want to do the same thing but I didn’t have the guts to tell you,’” Vargas remembered. “I got all excited, hugged her, lifted her up, [and said,] ‘Let’s do it.’”
Faith usually comes through someone else’s help
A couple of days later, Ranuolfo came over to see Vargas and Marisa, who’s now his wife. They have two adult sons, Michael and Daniel.
Ranuolfo stayed until midnight, talking for hours and answering questions and sharing Bible verses with the couple. This time, Vargas didn’t threaten punches. Instead, there were plenty of unanswered questions, and Vargas didn’t want him to leave.
However, Ranuolfo needed to go. He said Vargas must accept Christ to understand the spiritual things he was trying to grasp. So, Vargas and Marisa prayed together with Ranuolfo’s help to become followers of Christ.
From there, Ranuolfo supported Vargas as he grew in the faith and helped him find a church. Vargas fell in love with reading God’s word and hearing it preached. Eighteen years ago, he found his way to Iglesia Emanuel and Pastor Jessy Padilla where Vargas’ spiritual growth continued.
Ignite worship and church life heal a man’s heart, direct his steps
Over the years, Converge activities such as the former Ignite conference have helped Vargas deepen his love for God and heal his wounds.
“Ignite truly renewed the call to ministry that I have,” he said. “I knew I had to go in that direction.”
At 30 years old, Vargas had a full-time job and owned two houses. He had already been an elder in another church earlier in his 20s. Now God was confirming a call to ministry.
So, Vargas reached out to Padilla and Vargas began helping with the youth group. In 2017, Vargas quit his job and became full-time at Iglesia Emanuel in Waukegan. A year ago, Vargas and Padilla shared with the congregation that Vargas would be leading a new church over the Wisconsin border.
What is waiting for them in Wisconsin?
Starting a church in Wisconsin, even with a common culture among Hispanics and 38 committed teammates, began with learning. Vargas said he has to get to know Kenosha and the people there. It’s not the same as Illinois.
Plus, the church is already multi-ethnic with worshipers whose heritage reflects more than a dozen Hispanic countries.
There are micro-cultural differences among people from Central America, compared to South America or Mexico. For example, some countries create a little more familiarity with Christianity. Other countries emphasize academic achievements and higher levels of education.
One challenging difference has been some racism toward Hispanics in Wisconsin that wasn’t present in Illinois.
Another challenge continues to be the rejection and disrespect some Catholic Hispanics show toward Protestants. Families pressure their siblings and children to remain in the Catholic faith.
“We are criticized, we are put down, we are a shame of the family,” explained Padilla. “They’d prefer for you to be a drug addict rather than a Protestant.”
A food truck and boxing with the Bible
No matter the sacrifice or pain, Vargas and his core team are resolute to serve Christ and make him known among Hispanics in southeast Wisconsin.
They have a food truck with signature smoothie recipes, including a creamy mix of blackberries, almond milk, strawberries and bananas. Another smoothie recipe they perfected includes coffee.
The food truck also serves up taco salads and chicken. The aim of all of the food and relationships is to help Hispanic people have better lives. Vargas’ philosophy in serving others is to walk alongside them and help them grow.
“Our people, they always think we’re judging them,” he explained. “We want to love them, we want to empathize with them, we want to teach them.”
Vargas also puts his boxing skills to use, now without his anger. He trains young boys in boxing skills. But he requires them to memorize Bible verses like Psalm 1.
Vargas has befriended Emiliano and teaches the 13-year-old boxing.
“It’s the way you pay me,” he told Emiliano. “Memorize the Bible.”
He doesn’t mind joking around with the boys either.
“I always tell them boxing is the most Biblical sport,” he quipped. “It’s always better to give than to receive.”
Whether in the ring or on the road in the food truck, the core team starting Iglesia Emanuel in Kenosha is making sacrifices and building relationships for the gospel.
“I still have my heart for my people. That’s one of the main reasons I want to reach out to my people,” Vargas said. “They’re broken like me, and I have to teach them.”
After two months of worshiping at the new Converge church, Cisneros is glad for the emphasis on teaching. He said the discipleship opportunities there through a men’s group and a theology study help him know God and follow Christ.
“When I go to church on Sundays at Emanuel, I feel so good. When I go home, I feel a lot of energy. I feel so peaceful,” Cisneros said. “Everybody in church is important. It’s like our family, we’re a family at Emanuel.”
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.