Ministering through the arts
By Peter K. Johnson
Hope Center for the Visual and Performing Arts (HCVPA), a
ministry of Hope Center Tabernacle in Jersey City, N.J., breaks new ground to
reach non-Christians with the gospel.
Senior Pastors Mario and Leigh Gonzalez direct the
inner-city Assemblies of God church, art gallery, playhouse, preschool program,
café, outreach ministry and arts academy. Nationally appointed U.S.
missionaries, the Gonzalezes leverage the arts in a multitude of forms: music,
drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, writing and dance. They see themselves as
God-worshipping artists who preach a strong salvation message about the cost of
People clap, dance and sing with joyous abandon, praising
the Lord during three scheduled Sunday services that attract a combined
attendance of more than 500. Mostly under 40, those who come represent a rich
mix of ethnic backgrounds. In a typical service, Sam Cintrón, pastor of worship
and arts, plays lead guitar as he directs the worship team in one of the many
songs he has written.
Renny Jagdeo, a financial adviser from Trinidad, stretches
his arms in reverent worship. A client invited him to a service nearly five
years ago. He felt his life at that time was wrapped up in making money and
serving himself. Sensing the presence of the Lord, he returned and made a
salvation commitment to Christ the following week during an altar call. Now he
is an active men’s life group leader at Hope Center.
“The essence of this church is to save the lost, heal the
saved, train the healed and send the trained,” Jagdeo says.
“We love the creativity that Hope Center brings to the
gospel,” says Don James, assistant superintendent of the AG New Jersey
District. “It is quite a unique ministry through the arts that has tapped into
the heartbeat of the city. There is a different mentality here based on our
state’s highly ethnic diversity.”
Located on the west bank of the Hudson River across from
Manhattan, Jersey City is sometimes called New York City’s sixth borough. An
estimated 242,000 residents are shoehorned into 15 square miles, making it one
of the most densely populated cities in the United States. A growing number of
artists and young professionals are transforming the city into an upscale
Mario and Leigh Gonzalez bring unusual backgrounds to Hope
Center. Before becoming a full-time pastor in 1996, Mario was vice president of
a multi-million-dollar company focusing on retail design and manufacturing.
Leigh enjoyed a career in finance working for an interior-decorating firm that
had prominent clients. Both are accomplished musicians. He is a trained
classical guitarist; she, a trained pianist and clarinetist.
Raised in Spanish Pentecostal churches, they began formal
ministry as part-time associate pastors in Harlem, N.Y. They established
ministries to AIDS patients in four hospitals and were appointed Protestant
chaplains at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Medical Center, a long-term care
facility for the critically and chronically ill.
In 1996 they took over the pastorate of Calvary Assembly of
God in Jersey City, now The Hope Center Tabernacle. In a leap of faith they
traded careers with six-figure incomes for a church with only 25 members.
“We were no longer satisfied working in secular jobs,” Leigh
A decade ago, the couple says, God began impressing upon
them to use the arts for evangelism outreach, which resulted in the Hope Center
model for ministry.
“Prophets in the Old Testament sang songs and acted things
out to get attention,” Leigh Gonzalez says. “Our focus is primarily not on the
arts, but making real committed disciples who know the truth and live it. The
arts are just our tools to do it.”
Five months ago, HCVPA moved into a renovated
10,000-square-foot former warehouse designed by Mario Gonzalez. Facing a tidal
wave of obstacles, the project ate up two and a half years and cost $3.2
million. Initially, city officials were against the church and demanded parking
spaces for about 50 cars, until relenting by allowing free parking in the
adjacent municipal lot. Funds were scarce, but God provided. Corporations
donated furniture and equipment, and volunteer labor did the rest.
Sam Cintrón, a professional artist, sculptor, musician and
songwriter, is also a co-founder of HCVPA, joining the ministry in 1999. Active
in the local arts scene, he owned a successful art gallery for 10 years.
“I was looking for a church to express myself artistically,”
Cintrón says. “I sensed the Lord sending me to the generation that hears
through their eyes.”
Besides his music ministry, Cintrón organizes art shows at
the center and displays his paintings and sculptures.
“We are looking for Christian artists to show their work,”
Committed to evangelism, last year he created a mannequin on
wheels dressed in a wedding gown depicting the Bride of Christ. He caused a
stir by rolling the mannequin throughout the city.
Lisa Travis, a scientist with a pharmaceutical firm and a
graduate of Vanguard University, runs the innovative kids’ church program in the
nearby original Hope Center Tabernacle building. In addition to high-impact
Bible lessons and stories, the program includes painting, music, drama and
“Our kids are being baptized in the Holy Spirit, speaking in
tongues and sharing their faith on the streets,” Travis says.
Neighborhood people are frequent visitors at the center’s
art gallery and new café.
“The Hope Center family is committed to living out their
passion for Christ by bringing a message of hope and thus transforming both
their community and ultimately their world for Christ through art in its many
forms,” says Mario Gonzalez, Northeast Sectional presbyter for the N.J.
PETER K. JOHNSON is a freelance writer living in Saranac
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