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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 following Christ.

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 community.

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 Gonzalez recalls.

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,” he says.

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 dancing.

“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. District Council.

PETER K. JOHNSON is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, N.Y.

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