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'Pink Church' Gets Permanent Pastor

Yolanda Moreno's 'radical hospitality' and financial savvy have saved what is probably the most open and affirming place of worship in Watsonville.

Watsonville Patch first brought readers . At the time, Moreno was fighting to save one of Watsonville's historic churches from being disbanded. Here is an update on her efforts.

On Jan. 22, a beautiful, tall blonde will be formally installed as the permanent pastor of the Pink Church at the corner of Madison and E. Lake. "Pink Church" is easier on the memory than First Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.

Hired as transitional pastor three years ago, Rev. Yolanda Moreno was charged with helping the congregation "live or let go" after more than 150 years in Watsonville.

By renting space for education, sports and community events, the soon to be permanent pastor has tripled the church's annual income and acquired massive good will.

The community outreach benefits the still-small congregation. On a recent Sunday, church members listen intently to Moreno's Sunday sermons—no hell fire and damnation here.

“The light shines at Advent and our role as humans is to be carriers of God's love,” she said during a December service, the statement a reflection of the church's role in the neighborhood.

The list of groups that utlize the Pink Church is long.

  • The Police Activities League (PAL) runs an after-school program where officers teach sports to neigborhood kids. You can hear the happy echoes of basket and soccer balls bouncing off the walls most weekday afternoons.
  • Granite Construction Vice President Dave Grazian literally begged Moreno for space to house his Youth N.O.W., his brainchild after retiring from Granite. Seeking a place where youth could have a desirable after-school destination and get homework help, Moreno designated three classrooms for their use. Youth N.O.W. fills in curriculum holes with music and fine arts, according to Moreno. While sports are underway in the gym, art, guitar and creative arts projects happen in the classrooms.

    "Letting Youth N.O.W. have space at a little over cost is our outreach to the community," said Moreno. "We're still too small a congregation to do the service and outreach we want, so instead we host groups that minister to the community in ways we can't. It's called radical hospitality in the Christian tradition, opening doors to groups that would otherwise have to meet in a garage or store front."
  • The church rents a sweet downstairs chapel to Rev. Francisco Juarez's , which is Anglican. Moreno considered them kindred spirits, “a small congregation that wouldn't just be in the building but also do events with us. Rev. Juarez and I connect on outreach and social mission,” Moreno said.

The church also hosts neighborhood spaghetti feeds, rummage sales and other community events that draw neighbors to the landmark building.

Three Churches in One

The real name of the Pink Church is First Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. “The name is a compromise in an argument between the founding fathers, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone," Moreno . "The First Christian Church was literally the first founded on American soil. The Puritans brought their religion, but the FCC/DOC were born here. Disciples were among the first abolitionists and America's first “liberation theologists.”

Already home to Rev. Juarez's Iglesia, a third denomination plans to maximize use of the beautiful sanctuary. Moreno relates the story of how the third congregation found the church:

“The Disciples of Christ Region will do a new start here," Moreno said. "The Iglesia Primera Cristiana fulfills our desire to have a Spanish-speaking Disciples congregation. Pastor Pedro graduates from seminary in May and the DOC Region has agreed to provide support. The new congregation will have the sanctuary on Saturday nights for family and worship events. We are looking forward to having them.

Pedro said to her “Any non-Catholic church that worships on Saturday night is a renegade.”

“Perfect!” said Moreno. “Because that's who we are.”

Adding Education

Two alternative education programs also are housed at the Pink Church. Success Academy's and Esperanza Middle School's students are hard at work and play five days a week.

Teacher Sarah Prescher's six years with Success Academy makes her very relaxed with sometimes over-energized students.

“We're really here for students to catch up on credits. We want kids to go to college or at least return to comprehensive school with bigger classes.”

She cited three students when asked for success stories: “Julio is in Digital Bridge Academy. Juan is at Cabrillo, studying to be an accountant. Josefa is in Digital Bridge and Cabrillo. She came back last year to give a pep talk about college.”

Prescher's youth and soft beauty may not give the impression she's a teacher in the school of hard knocks, but she candidly states, “The other success stories are all the kids who aren't locked up. Kids who have jobs and are productive citizens. Secondary school isn't for everyone, but if they can take care of themselves and be proud, then they're a success.”

, in addition to regular curricula. On the topic of funding McGuire said, “More and more people are leaving mainline education, so alternative ed is growing.” Proof: Just recently a facilities manager from the County Office of Education came by to ask for more classroom space.

Prescher's students were easy to interview at lunchtime in the gym. Ricky “Bruhh” Rodríguez said, “My skills are improved; my reading comprehension is better because I can read code words (breaking down big vocabulary) better. As individuals we've all grown here. And by the way, I'm good at basketball.” It was clear that Rodríguez provides entertainment and may have a career as a TV personality.

“Princess” Vivi Mejía said, “This school is better than regular school. Sarah is a nice teacher and has helped me understand math, fractions and decimals. She helps me if I have a wrong answer so I don't get frustrated.”

Any public school teacher would love to have Prescher's and McGuire's small class size and be able to pay attention one-on-one. Mejía, Rodríguez, Jaime Torres and Eusebio all agreed that their teachers take the time to explain to lessons to them an work with students one-on-one.

Gloria Moreno has been a Teaching Assistant for 16 years. “We are never bored! I really enjoy being here. As a T.A. I'm a teacher, secretary, mom, grandma, nurse, counselor. And cook! I once taught a group of kids to make 200 tamales from scratch.”

Fly The Rainbow Flag

Soy Libertad, a weekly group by and for for the local Latino LGBT community, also meets at the church.

"I consider it an absolute honor and blessing to have this group meet here. You have no idea what it does for my heart,” Moreno said.

In a statement, group Soy Libertad shared that "it is an honor for us to meet in a place where we feel completely at home. We know we are safe and respected here. This feeling is priceless and our spirits are enlightened.”

Heterosexual herself, Moreno risked her career in the early 1990s by her solidarity with the LGBT members urging the 33-church Region to become "open and affirming."

"When I met the members of Soy Libertad at their first meeting here I told them, 'This makes it all worthwhile.' I was raised in an artistic L.A. family. Gays and lesbians were part of our social circle. I never got the message there was anything wrong about these friends.

"When I came to the church and heard some people call the LGBT orientation evil, I knew I had to take a stand. The vitriol that spewed from some mouths at annual meetings was in contrast to LGBT members and allies, who spoke with such grace.

“It was a fight—you should have seen it. It took two years of education before the formal vote, where the majority chose in favor of becoming open and affirming. There was a price, however. Some members and even churches left the denomination.”

On Advent Moreno told the story of her call to the ministry. “The day God came to me I was standing on an L. A. sidewalk in the pouring rain, switchblade in hand, ready to kill myself.

“Yolanda, don't do it, came a soft voice. It will all be over soon and you will be a better person for it. Before that day I knew nothing of a God, but since that moment I've never not known God.

“The love of God can fill us gently over years, as well as take us by storm.”

The Big Event

Disciples of Christ Regional ministers will be on hand at 11 a.m. on Jan. 22 for Moreno's permanent installation. The event is open to the public.

"We're serving a buffet lunch after the service—free and open to the public—of course," said Moreno, adding, "we do food well."

Christina Kukuk January 04, 2012 at 12:53 PM
What does "beautiful, tall blonde" have to do with anything? It's a distractingly sexist lede on an otherwise interesting story.
Barbara S F Davis January 04, 2012 at 03:22 PM
I hear you. The pastor attracts and nurtures a community that defies all stereotypes of age, race, culture, education, religion or sexual orientation. Her Mexican father and Caucasian mother produced a daughter whose appearance is part of the diversity at the Pink Church. I think it's charming that she is beautiful and tall and blonde. Fair enough?
Christina Kukuk January 05, 2012 at 04:56 AM
Helps to know what you were thinking. I do think that if that paragraph of explanation had been in the story, the first sentence wouldn't have irked me as much. Still not sure it's justified (we female clergy get plenty of irrelevant comment about our appearance as it is). But positive story.
Barbara S F Davis January 05, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Dear Christina, thanks for being gracious. Next time we're in Ohio, we're coming to your First Congo/United Church of Christ!
Barbara S F Davis January 20, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Sunday the 22nd at 11:00 am Yolanda Moreno is installed as permanent pastor during the service. This is a good time to get to know the Pink Church and its wonderful pastor.

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