This month marks a year since José Portillo, pastor of Vive Charlotte Church, took over the position of Executive Director of HLI. For Pastor José, expanding his pastoral role to help care for and raise up Hispanic leaders throughout the nation has been an incredible privilege and blessing. While pastoring a small congregation and leading a non-profit organization may seem like two distinct roles, the heart of the work is the same: caring for people, hearing their needs, encouraging them with the Gospel message. Seeing God’s faithfulness in doing His work, in reaching the diversity of the community in East Charlotte, and raising up Hispanic leaders to multiply the work across the nation (and even internationally) provides incredible encouragement to keep going.
THE FOUNDATIONS FOR A PASTORAL CALLING
Asked when he first felt called to pastoral ministry, Pastor José hesitates: has there ever been a time he has not felt this calling? Ingrained in him from early on was the idea that “we are Portillo men; this is who we are by God’s grace, and how God has called us to serve.” Growing up, José had the opportunity to witness firsthand the challenges - but also the impact - of pastoral ministry, even in some of the most adverse settings. His father, Pastor William, was a church planting pastor in El Salvador in the midst of civil war, and throughout much of Central America, as it suffered political and economic instability. José often accompanied his father on pastoral visits and as he spoke at conferences. By 9th grade, he had become the official translator for all of Pastor William’s growing ministry.
This front-row seat to pastoral work helped confirm in a young boy the desire to serve. It also helped him see two essentials for ministry demonstrated by his father: a willing spirit, and a firm trust in the fact that transformation can only happen en el nombre de Jesús (“in the name of Jesus”): by the power of His name. It was a willing spirit for God to use him however He might choose that helped Pastor William enter innumerable impossible situations and engage those whom others might see as hopeless causes. José recalls the impact of watching his father repeatedly stopping to feed, clothe, and even bathe a homeless drug addict whom everyone else had left to die in the streets. Pastor José observed from early on that pastoral ministry requires a willing spirit to enter the most broken places to bring Jesus’ message of healing.
Left: Pastor William & his wife, MartaAlicia; center: Pastor José and his mother, MartaAlicia serving together in ministry; right: Pastor William representing Vive Charlotte at an outreach event
At the same time, José saw that an utter dependence on the Lord – for even the most basics of food, protection, security, healing – was absolutely necessary to maintain such a willing spirit. José watched his father continue in ministry with a willing spirit even when held up at gunpoint (on numerous occasions), while suffering alongside his congregation through devastating earthquakes, and all with zero guaranteed income. In each of these scenarios, José repeatedly heard Pastor William out, “en el nombre de Jesús!” These words came as a profoundly dependent prayer from the depths of the soul in times of deepest need: only Jesus can intervene! Though serving in a less turbulent, more stable environment, Pastor José knows that these principles are still every bit as important. Praying for a willing spirit and learning to trust everything into el nombre de Jesús has become the footing of his own life and ministry as well.
MINISTRY IN THE UNITED STATES
At the end of high school, after a difficult period of two devastating earthquakes, José and his family came to seek a much-needed sabbath in the United States. Yet, as is often the case with immigrants, the reality of life in the US came with its own challenges. The Portillo family had to trust en el nombre de Jesús to see the Lord’s new direction in their lives. While working odd jobs to support the family, both Pastor William and José discovered that even in a new country where they felt out of place and often disdained, the Lord had ingrained pastoral work in them. José found himself again helping his father in new ministry opportunities: this time with outreach in the immigrant community, and pastoring several small house-churches that grew out of caring for the needs of this hurting group. When the opportunity finally came for José to go to seminary several years later, he and his family trusted the Lord to provide the way, with the desire to further and better care for the needs of the growing US Hispanic immigrant population.
At its core, the United States is a nation of immigrants. But while many nationalities have had many decades and even centuries to settle, the United States Hispanic community is primarily a new immigrant community. This means (as Pastor José experienced personally, but also has witnessed in years of ministry in the US) that the Hispanic community is in the midst of the immigrant experience of loss, change, and new discoveries. The greatest need and desire of this community is thus a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging may be difficult to find in a new land, but it is something the Gospel is uniquely equipped to provide. This is Pastor José’s heart: to invite lost, hungry people to find a new sense of belonging and joy that only life in Jesus can provide.
And truly, regardless of seminary training, financial support, and even the backing of many individuals and churches, in spite more stable politics and seemingly easier situations, Pastor José knows that this ministry happens only en el nombre de Jesús. It means trusting the Lord to be at work where others and common sense might say to give up.
Certainly the process to planting Vive Charlotte Church in the heart of the immigrant community in East Charlotte has not always been simple, and there have been many times when majority-culture church-planting metrics, and even common sense, would say it is time to give up. But, as Pastor José explains, if this is the Lord’s work, if we are confident that He has called us to serve the community and that, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, “I am not my own,” but that the Lord is at work, then the cost is worth it.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in church planting in this context is the amount of time it takes to build and establish trust within the community. While Hispanics tend to be a community-centered culture, breaking into that community is a lengthy, energy-consuming process. Immigrants have often left behind a difficult past, but one filled with friends and family. In a new country, they are confronted with new language, systems, and cultures that leave them feeling misunderstood, uncared for, and cast out. The natural response is to turn inward, to become despondent or hardened, and to distrust strangers. The need for belonging is great, but the Gospel offers the greatest fulfillment.
Photos: some of the life, community, fellowship, and ministry of Vive Charlotte church - from Sunday mornings, to ESL classes, to outreach events, to commissioning interns, to training the newest Portillo men in the pulpit!
To this end, Pastor José has been walking his neighborhoods for the past four years now, handing out pan dulce, praying for neighbors, helping care for their physical and material needs, and caring for them as un pastor: not as the pastor of Vive Charlotte Church, per say, but as an undershepherd of el Buen Pastor, Jesus Christ. While the majority of these individuals have still never darkened the door of Vive Charlotte for Sunday morning worship, some are beginning to find a new, gospel-centered community through small-group Bible studies, and intentional one-on-one time. By God’s grace, some have found this small church in the heart of East Charlotte to offer a safe community, where they can come in their brokenness, loved by others who are also broken, but who have experienced and are sharing the joy of healing and community rooted in something deeper than heritage: in Jesus Christ.
THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF GOSPEL TRANSFORMATION
Indeed, en el nombre de Jesús, transformation is happening, though it often feels slow. Seeing God’s hand at work is the encouragement to keep going, to keep entering messy, difficult spaces with a willingness to serve in whatever capacity the situation may take. For Pastor José, seeing God allow his own family (including his parents, wife, and four children) to put down roots and thrive within their neighborhood and Vive Charlotte is a confirmation of their calling to this community in East Charlotte. The name “Vive” means “life;” it also means “He lives.” The prayer for Vive Charlotte is that people would know that because He lives, we live, and call Charlotte to life. By God’s grace, Vive Charlotte has been a place of life for the Portillo family and for its staff. And the Lord is allowing His life to overflow into the community.
Currently, a year and a half after officially launching, Vive Charlotte is a bilingual, multiethnic and multigenerational community. It may look small by majority-church culture metrics; it often looks strange at first glance. Yet the Lord is allowing people to find greater community, sojourning together through the trials and temptations of this life, knowing the greatest citizenship is not American, Mexican, Salvadorian, or Colombian, but Heavenly. There is a temptation to become discouraged as people come and go (a common theme in a transient immigrant environment), or as some days the work of caring for sheep seems messier than others, or as the fields ripe for harvest seem too many. But here, it is necessary to constantly be reminded that this is the Lord’s work and that we are but His servants. We must rely upon His transformation of this community, as the Lord draws them not because of any one pastor or church member, but porque del y a través del nombre de Jesús.
As the Gospel transforms their narrative, the Lord is using the unique giftings of the Hispanic community to thrive in the midst of hardship to help the church thrive and flourish in spite of and through the challenges. As immigrants, the Hispanic community tends to be thrifty, creative, and able to believe they can start something out of nothing, including relationships, friendship, and community. When the Gospel redeems the broken stories and broken hearts, He transforms these individuals with their innate, God-given gifts into incredible servants of His Kingdom. This is a reality Pastor José has witnessed in his own family, as his parents have served countless others out of nothing; now it has become a reality at Vive Charlotte, as families transformed by God’s grace in their lives are inviting others to share the little that they have, caring for others out of the love they have received in Jesus. Donde come uno, comen dos; donde comen dos, comen tres… Siempre hay más agua para la sopita (“Where there is sufficient for one to eat, there is enough for two or three… You can always add more water to the soup”). Where the Gospel brings life and redemption, there is life to overflow into the community. This is Pastor José’s prayer, the prayer for Vive Charlotte, and for all whom the Lord allows them to impact, within or outside of the church building.
SERVING BEYOND THE COMMUNITY
Certainly, Pastor José can understand and relate to the weariness of pastors and church planters, particularly those serving the Hispanic community. The work is hard, it is messy, it is slow, it often fails to meet the metrics of majority-church culture expectations; it comes at the cost of giving up all for the sake of Christ. There is a need for encouragement, connection, and new leaders who are willing to take the time and resources to engage the Hispanic community for Christ. In his almost year of serving as the Executive Director of HLI, Pastor José is learning more of the stories of pastors cansados del camino and in need of renewal. His heart and desire is to help pastors and their communities find connection and renewal, while raising up and encouraging new workers to go into this field rich for harvest. If the Lord is doing this in little pockets of the community, like in East Charlotte, then, en el nombre de Jesús, He has the power to multiply this effort, and to do it on a grand scale as well. For Pastor José, it is a privilege to be able to use his time, energy, and resources to serve with HLI, helping people find renewal, and that in renewal, multiplying and developing new leaders to serve the growing Hispanic community. May the Lord continue to bring His life and His renewal into the Hispanic community, and to peoples of every nation, language and tongue!
¡A Dios sea la gloria!
WAYS TO PRAY FOR PASTOR JOSÉ, FOR VIVE CHARLOTTE, FOR HLI, & FOR THE HISPANIC COMMUNITY:
Pray for the PCA and other reformed denominations within the United States to have a greater awareness of the need for the emergence and multiplication of healthy, Hispanic leaders who are able to serve their own people within their own contexts.
Pray that the Lord would continue to multiply the efforts of HLI, through raising up more prayer partners, financial partners, and ministry workers.
Pray for the renewal of wearied Hispanic leaders: that they would find community and Gospel renewal to be able to continue investing in their communities and potential new leaders.
Pray for the many supported workers of HLI: that the Lord would continue equipping them with the heart, wisdom, and strength for serving in the contexts to which He is calling them. (You can read more of their stories on this blog.)
Pray that God would continue to bless the ministry of Vive Charlotte Church in East Charlotte, for the impact of the Gospel in a needy community, and beyond.
Pastor José, his wife Anna, and their four children (Daniela , Benjamín , and Felipe & Ibrahím [21 months]) live in Charlotte, NC, where Pastor José is the church planting pastor of Vive Charlotte Church, and serves as the Executive Director of HLI. Pastor José has also started and helps run a non-profit organization for immigrants in Charlotte, Cities of Refuge.
Please consider giving to HLI so that we can continue supporting Hispanic ministries, ministry workers, and multiplication of Hispanic leaders and congregations.