WICHITA, Kan. — Because Byron and Hilda Pellecer “followed the bubbles” of the Holy Spirit, Imelda Samaniego worships on her front lawn.
On Tuesday evenings she joins a small group of adults and children in an outdoor Bible study the Pellecers lead.
Her neighbors, Juanita and Pascual, invited her. The couple and their children had decided to start the front-lawn gathering as part of a church plant, Aposento Alto Iglesia Menonita (Upper Room Mennonite Church).
On an August evening, after the last praise song was sung, Samaniego shared the story of her growing faith as fireflies flickered in the dusk and her daughters — Luz, 11, and Natalie, 7 — played nearby.
“I have been surprised by all the good things God is doing, and I especially am grateful for the relationships Byron and Hilda have developed with my daughters,” said Samaniego, who grew up in Mexico. “My oldest daughter has suffered bullying, and my youngest daughter has some trouble with speaking.”
Building relationships with families like these are what Western District Conference leaders had in mind when they invited the Pellecers to partner with three Mennonite congregations in Wichita to plant an urban Hispanic church.
So far the couple has dedicated their time to following the Spirit in friendship-building, Byron Pellecer said. Through networking with Casa Betania, a Mennonite congregation in Newton, the Pellecers connected with Juanita and Pascual, who introduced them to Samaniego. And by engaging with people in different settings — including washing their clothes at the laundromat instead of at home — they are rubbing shoulders with their neighbors.
The Pellecers may eventually seek to establish a network of house churches. To help discern their ministry’s direction, they receive the guidance of a support group from the three sponsoring congregations — Hope Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church of the Servant and Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church.
“We are decentralizing the need for a church building and are following the bubbles, because that is where the ‘fish’ are,” he said.
The Pellecers do a lot of things one doesn’t normally think of as church planting. Hilda tutors children who struggle with English and with U.S. culture.
“We are encouraging families — often the parents are undocumented and the children are native born — to see the value of a good education,” Byron said.
Welcome the immigrant
The Pellecers are no strangers to immigration challenges. Fleeing a civil war in Central America, they came to the United States separately in the mid-1980s. Byron, of Guatemala, and Hilda, of Nicaragua, met in Texas. Hilda moved to Florida to be near her family. Byron followed so they could get married. They were granted political asylum and became U.S. citizens.
For seven years in the U.S., Byron didn’t attend church. He had fallen away from his faith commitments. He had been baptized in 1982 at Ancla de la Fe (Anchor of Faith) Mennonite Church in Guatemala and even attended SEMILLA, an Anabaptist seminary, for a short time.
Eventually he felt a hunger to reconnect with the Mennonite church.
“Listening to an evangelical Protestant radio station, I heard a Mennonite pastor, Gamaliel Falla, invite people to his church, Encuentro de Renovación,” he said. “I found him and attended the church. We took discipleship classes and began leading a small group in Boca Raton, 70 miles north of Miami.”
Eventually Pellecer became senior pastor. Later he served in pastoral leadership in a multi-cultural community in Homestead, Fla., and in church planting in Harrisonburg, Va., where he graduated from Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
At one point before moving to Virginia, he left the ministry and secured a job in the hospitality industry. But he felt called to return to the ministry.
“I had my ‘aha’ moment when I was playing a keyboard and singing ‘Here I Am, Lord’ in Spanish,” he said. “I got down on my knees and cried like a baby, asking God to give me one more chance.”
Another step forward
God gave Pellecer many more chances, including in Wichita.
“Byron and Hilda are always asking how we can join hands and go out and do the work together,” said Nita Nikkel, part of Pellecer’s support team and an attender of the Tuesday gathering with her husband, Steve.
“Their cooperative spirit allows us all to be on the front lawn together, new believers and longtime believers, all from different backgrounds and socioeconomic groups. It is so comfortable and meaningful. The Spirit is so alive.”
Gilberto Flores, Western District’s associate conference minister in Texas, said: “Byron’s capacity for showing you himself just as he is makes others from many different backgrounds really comfortable with him. He is helping WDC to show the face of Jesus to others.”