WILDWOOD – “Lord, I’m broke,” Pastor Carlos de la Cruz said Sept. 20, recounting his journey from pre-med student to a pastor. Student loans and questions about life are not uncommon to millennials, and de la Cruz is no stranger to them.
As a young pastor born to immigrants, de la Cruz brings enthusiasm tempered with previous experience in church planting and reaching the Spanish community. Pastoring three congregations and bridging cultural barriers are the canvas of his life and ministry.
“I’m a Jersey boy,” the Puerto Rican Passaic native said. De La Cruz’s childhood roots run in Wildwood, as well. Every summer, his family vacationed there, and he is glad to be back in the area.
For many congregations, most of them smiling, albeit masked, faces resemble each other. De la Cruz; however, seeks to bring those of like faith together, regardless of background.
“I was born in the church,” de la Cruz said. His parents left the Seventh-day Adventist Church for a time but returned and were baptized in 2011.
The Spanish congregation, in Wildwood, is part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and occupies the former Orthodox Presbyterian Church building, on Rio Grande Avenue.
According to de la Cruz, approximately 50 people attend regularly. De la Cruz arrived, in 2018, as an intern and associate pastor, gaining first-hand experience “in the trenches.”
In July 2019, de la Cruz became the full-time pastor. His ministry also extends to Hammonton, Swedesboro and Vineland.
The congregation in Vineland, de la Cruz said, is “younger” and a mixture of Hispanic, Guatemalan, El Salvadorian, and English. In Wildwood, the congregation is predominately Hispanic, with first and second-generation Americans.
When asked about the differences between Spanish and English-speaking ministries, de la Cruz said, “It’s not an issue of connecting,” explaining the congregation’s love and openness.
Connecting to the “setting” of a place and culture poses challenges, which can be overcome. To de la Cruz, “people are people,” each with a story and past.
Balancing life and worship are also a factor on a tourism-dependent island. Members often work long hours during the summer and can't attend services as often as they do in the “offseason.”
De la Cruz shared his ministry’s top challenges: traditions, generational differences, and cultural nuances. Second-generation members are more “American” in their outlook and approach to life. Spanish-speaking immigrants deal with stereotypes, trying to assimilate while holding onto family traditions.
The blessings outweigh the challenges, as members love one another, unifying with those whose backgrounds compose the map of South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
“We share the message with the world,” de la Cruz said. Spanish Seventh-day Adventists hold to the same beliefs as other Seventh-day Adventist churches, seeking to help and impact their communities and beyond (https://bit.ly/3519dkv).
The first Spanish Seventh-day Adventist congregation was formed in Sánchez, Arizona, in 1899. Facing persecution from their family, Abel and Adiel Sánchez were baptized and observed the Sabbath (Saturday) as the day for corporate worship.
The little adobe church grew and, in time, established a school. Since then, Spanish-speaking congregations have spread nationally, as well as globally (https://bit.ly/3k1V8Y7).
De la Cruz’s journey from pre-med student to auto technician to pastor demonstrates resilience and persistence.
“I felt like the Lord was calling me to get more involved,” de la Cruz explained. Despite financial pressures and physical setbacks, he obtained a degree in theology at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee. De La Cruz suffered from severe digestive issues and said he struggles with his thyroid.
De la Cruz and his wife, Wendy, along with their infant daughter, are committed to their ministry, in Wildwood, and reaching out to those around them.
Faith Matters is an ongoing series exploring the connection between individuals and their faith, impacting their families, community, and beyond. Those with a story of faith to share should contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.