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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Colorblind Worship

By John W. Kennedy
Aug. 24, 2014

Three out of every four congregants at Westover Hills Assembly of God in San Antonio are Hispanic. Every week they listen to the preaching of a white middle-aged lead pastor.

“As a kid on the playground in New Mexico, I heard Spanish, Navajo and English spoken,” says Pastor Jim D. Rion. “Multiculturalism wasn’t something I adjusted to; it’s how I grew up. To me, diversity is normal.”

Rion didn’t waste much time heeding the call to ministry as a teenager. He accepted Jesus as his Savior during a Pentecostal youth camp at 14, was filled with the Holy Spirit at 15, preached his first revival service at 16, married wife Denise at 17, entered Bible school at 19, and was ordained at 24.

At the age of 27, Rion planted Westover Hills. As he pioneered the church, he completed his master’s and doctoral degrees from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

The church started in 1986 with a few people gathering in a rented 1,000-square-foot storefront. Two years later, Westover Hills constructed its first church building on three acres of barren space on the city’s undeveloped northwest side.

Periodically during the past 25 years, the church has added adjacent parcels to the point where no more are available in what has become one of the fastest-growing zip codes in the nation.

The main campus of Westover Hills now sits on 44 acres and has gone through 10 building programs, including completion of a new auditorium this year that doubled the seating capacity.

In the past four years, a satellite site has been launched on 15 acres further west in Medina County, plus a Spanish-language congregation has started at the main campus. More than 5,000 people attend the three locations every weekend.

Westover Hills is the only church in a 7,500-acre master plan development. More than a quarter century ago, Westover Hills AG made just the third property purchase in the area, after Sea World and a computer firm. Now the development contains numerous hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Rion planted the church despite conventional wisdom that it would fail because nearly two-thirds of the southern Texas city’s populace is both Latino and Catholic.

“I was told you couldn’t build a large Assemblies of God church in San Antonio because it’s predominantly Catholic,” Rion says. “I was told an Anglo could not build a large church because it’s predominantly Hispanic.”

In addition to three-fourths of the Westover Hills attendees being Hispanic, 40 percent of the congregants used to be Catholic.

Rion decided early to focus on helping people change their lives through Christ.

“When we planted the church we didn’t have a location, a building or even programs,” Rion recalls. “So people had to become number one. Our passion for people remains in our DNA today. We don’t tolerate people; we celebrate people.”

Mark Molina, Westover Hills’ executive pastor, says Rion’s love of and concern for people is genuine.

“Pastor Jim desires to help everyone who comes his way, without ever wanting to receive recognition for it,” says Molina, who started at the church in 1994 as youth pastor. “He would make a horrible politician.”

Molina, who considers the founding pastor his mentor, says Rion’s acceptance of people isn’t filtered through a cultural or racial lens.

“Pastor Jim doesn’t look at anybody’s color,” Molina says. “If you belong to the human race, he is going to hug your neck.”

Evangelism and discipleship have been paramount emphases at Westover Hills since the beginning.

“Just because we didn’t have enough money or space didn’t mean we put the Great Commission on hold,” Rion says. “We had to find innovative ways to do stuff.”

For example, the church operates a separate youth program on Sunday because no more teens could be accommodated on Wednesday nights. The church operates a daycare with more than 200 children. A sports complex being built on-site will be available for community use.

Michael Hernandez, youth pastor at Westover Hills, believes Rion has been blessed with keen foresight to know where the church is headed.

“Pastor Jim has brought us many times to moments when we must rely on God supernaturally,” says Hernandez, who has worked at the church for 13 years. “He has called for times of prayer and fasting for finances, volunteers, infrastructure, and the future of the church.”

Hernandez commends Rion for anticipating the locus of San Antonio’s future growth when he planted the church.

Rion, in turn, credits God with giving him insights regarding not only locating the site in the first place but also the timing of initiating various building expansions.

“The Lord has allowed us to do things that look brilliant in hindsight,” Rion says. “We discovered our strategy — after it worked for a long time.”

Half the staff members are nonwhite, as are a majority of board members.

“Early on I looked for people in leadership who had a heart and a passion,” Rion says. “I chose African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics. Without even realizing it, I created a multicultural atmosphere.”

The Rions’ two daughters both married Hispanic men and all four of them are on staff. Hernandez says Rion embraces the predominantly Hispanic culture of San Antonio as a positive influence for the church.

“Pastor Jim is able to cross culturally connect with people because all people are a huge part of his life,” Hernandez says. “I’ve seen people respond to him in Africa and Asia on mission trips. He has genuine passion for people and it shows.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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