Converted Drug Addict Pastors Chicago CRC
Reprinted from the November 28, 1988 issue of The Banner.
Several years ago a drug addict in Chicago attended the funeral of his cousin — a 20-year-old girl who died during an epileptic seizure. There he heard her minister talk about how God, using the gospel, germinates a spiritual seed in his elect.
He also noticed that it wasn’t the usual funeral where everyone was sad and in mourning. Members of the church who knew his cousin were rejoicing. They celebrated her deliverance. A trumpeter played triumphal music. And several members of the church spoke with the addict, who had occasionally attended Roman Catholic mass as a boy but had drifted away from organized religion. “Jesus loves you, and so do we,” they said. The love they showed him and the sermon he heard that day had a profound effect upon Juan Flores. “Right then and there my craving for heroin disappeared,” Flores said in a recent interview. “The Lord knew my needs, and he met them.”
The funeral was at Spirit and Truth Fellowship, a small, largely Hispanic Christian Reformed church in Chicago. Because of what he heard and saw there on that day, Flores has kicked drugs. And he’s gone on to become a Christian Reformed pastor. Flores’ church, Christ’s Vineyard Christian Reformed Church, is a small, unorganized congregation that worships in a former auto- parts store on Chicago’s West Side. It’s one of four branches of Spirit and Truth Fellowship, which joined the Christian Reformed Church in 1983.
Degradation. Flores traveled a rough road before becoming a Christian Reformed pastor. He was a teenager in inner-city Chicago in the turbulent 1960s. He and other fellow Puerto Ricans, along with several blacks, were given scholarships to a parochial high school. The money came from affluent Anglo-Saxons who wanted the school to have a winning football team. Flores played fullback and middle linebacker. He heard cheers when he ripped through the opposing team’s line to gain great yardage or when he made jarring tackles.
But life in the classroom was a different story. There Flores and other minority students encountered bigotry and racism. “Every day I was humiliated, belittled, and embarrassed because I couldn’t keep up with the white students,” he recalled. He felt degraded and resentful. After four years he “graduated,” but it meant nothing. Flores was illiterate-he couldn’t even read his diploma.
Unable to read a job application, Flores became one of Chicago’s host of unemployed young people. And, like many of his peers, he got drawn into a youth gang. “I learned how to hustle drugs with other gang members, and I became a heroin junk,” he said.
Neutral Ground. When he was 28, Flores finally learned to read from a volunteer at Humboldt Community Christian School. Later, after his conversion, leaders at Spirit and Truth saw his potential as a leader. They steered Flores into The Apprenticeship School for Urban Ministry, a pastor’s school created by Spirit and Truth. There he was trained to pastor in an urban setting. At church he met and later married Debbie Telkamp. They have a son, Jason, 6, and a daughter, Nickie, 2.
Flores said his background qualifies him to minister in the inner city. “I’ve experienced many of the same problems these people face,” he said. In a reference to teen-gang “turf wars,” Flores said his church is located on “neutral ground.” Christ’s Vineyard is non-threatening. “It’s a place of refuge where people who are empty can come to find fulfillment,” he said.
Christ’s Vineyard sponsors swimming parties, breakfasts, and picnics for its members. Flores has set up the church building to meet various needs–the store is used for worship services, prayer meetings, and Bible studies; a food pantry fills a back room; and the blacktop area in back is a basketball-volleyball court. Alongside the church is a narrow, open area that Flores has transformed into a tiny park. It contains a tree, flowers, shrubbery, and a sandbox. A cyclone fence encloses this area, and every member of the church has a key to unlock the gate. “People come here to relax,” he said.
Opened in February 1987, Christ’s Vineyard CRC has grown to a congregation of 30 people. Half its members are Puerto Rican; the rest are Anglo-Saxon. Flores’ ministry is supported by a three-year grant from Christian Reformed Home Missions.
The 37-year-old Flores said he brings a message of hope. “I’m here to spread the gospel that will germinate the seed in God’s elect. I see the fruit of that germination in my own life. I’m a living miracle,” he said.