Unlikely Pairing Seeks to Reach Third and Fourth Generation Hispanics
by UBA Guest Editor, Karen Campbell
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/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/Rick-Vasquez-profile-prison.jpgThis match had to be made in heaven.

Who else would have thought reaching Hispanic young professionals in Houston would come in the form of an ex-offender who spent six years in solitary confinement because he was considered a "threat to security staff"?

Yet that is a part of Rick Vasquez' story, and he really does have a vision that the newly formed Vision Church will make missionaries and role models out of Latinos currently more motivated by position and power.

One conversation with Rick is all it takes to let go of assumptions usually formed when terms like "possession," "prison", and "parole" are part of a biography. "Articulate, passionate, and motivated to make disciples" are much more accurate descriptors of the now 41-year-old pastor who used his confinement to launch his bible and discipleship studies.

Certified as an adult at 16 years of age, Rick served his first jail term in 1994. He was in his third prison stint when a song by the heavy metal group Metallic served as his "road to Damascus" experience, causing him to question all that he knew, and he soon committed his future to Christ. Solitary confinement became his "seminary" as he read and studied and eventually was paroled. He then spent time in more conventional classrooms obtaining an Associate degree in Theology from Instituto Teologico Hispano Americano in Dallas and a Pastoral Counseling diploma from Grace Bible College.  He has also completed volunteer Chaplin training offered by Texas Department of Criminal Justice and has studied Christian Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/New-Beginning.jpgRick acknowledges the severe contrast between his past and his present ministry focus on young professionals. But as he speaks to audiences across the state and chats with his potential new congregation in coffeehouses, he has been met with acceptance. 

"I made bad choices before I met Christ and that experience is helping me reach a generation who have either made bad choices or whose parents made those bad choices," Rick said.

While Rick is positive, upbeat and future-focused, he also acknowledges that his past has had plenty of repercussions -- including a now 25-year-old daughter that he fathered when he was 16 but that he did not come to know until she was an adult.

Still, he sounds very paternal when he speaks of their now almost daily interaction, "She's on fire for Jesus," he said. "God did a better job at raising her than I could have."

Recounting a recent experience in a college classroom, Rick said an impromptu survey of the group revealed that many had a relational connect of some kind to the criminal justice system. Though they were pursuing advanced degrees, family members and friends were or had been behind bars.

Perhaps that explains the generational interest in justice.

"Justice is important to this generation," Rick said. "But it's justice from God's perspective - transformational, not punitive. We are called to be restorative."

Restoration is also important when looking at the family systems from which many second and third generational Hispanics are coming - single-family homes. And in many ways, Rick sees his role as helping to restore a sense of worship which was missing in the lives of the young adults who often grew up going to church but didn't invest their lives there.

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/Vision-Church-Music.jpgSingle and bivocational, Rick has spent a great deal of time studying his potential congregation. "The world tends to evangelize them better than the church does. They've been bored with the traditional church. They want an Xbox evangelism experience."

As a result, worship at Vision Church utilizes graphics, energized music, and interactive opportunities for the entire congregation to connect. The website at www.visionchurchhouston.com reflects this same emphasis on communicating in a culturally and generationally sensitive manner. The website even includes a link to www.lifechurch.tv which offers users the opportunity to take part in a global community of believers online for worship and biblical discussions.

"Grabbing attention of professionals is the hardest part," acknowledged Rick. "The best way is to engage them in events or in tragedy when you are there and pray with them. I've been introducing myself to the community surrounding us, introducing myself as a friend in times of tragedy or triumph."

Rick has found that the young adults he wants to reach are familiar with church because the culture tends to be highly religious. But by the ages 18 or 19, post-high school and while in college "they shake off those traditions."

"If they are not active in a church community and excited by being a disciple of Christ, other things become attractive," he said. "They get busy really quickly and their attention and passion turns away from the church and what it means to be the body of Christ."

He notes that they are willing to listen, but not to commit. They may have experienced church as either a place teaching acceptance of suffering without question or heard a prosperity teaching that suggested that anything they imagined could be theirs. They also approach life and church with "an instant gratification mindset."

No matter the history or past experience, the results are often disillusionment.

"What has moved me," he reveals, "Is that you see a lot of young professionals, who seem like they have it all together but when you talk to them they are a mess. They have all this potential being funneled into the world rather than God's kingdom. They really want help but where it's comfortable for them. They want to ask deep questions."

/files/Photos/PagesStorageBin/Front Page News/2011/Beginning.jpgAfter less than two months of regular worship opportunities, the group walking alongside Rick is small but growing. They are drawn to an environment comfortable for Latinos, where Spanish is spoken but the primary language is English and where an understanding of familiar cultural nuances - food, traditional beliefs, family structure - are connection points.

Usually, when "targeting" a particular audience for a new church plant, location centers around going to where the people are. With that in mind, Rick admits that his first choice would have been the Midtown area of Houston.

"But God hasn't provided space there, so we're starting at our Jerusalem," he said.

The group currently meets at Hillcroft and Bissonnet, an area populated primarily by first generation Central Americans, many of whom are day laborers or unemployed. As a result, Rick sees a ready-made mission field once the young professionals he's attracting are growing in discipleship.

"In two to three years they will be in leadership positions that will influence businesses and our culture. If we can captivate the young professionals, help them assess their gifts and guide them, they will inspire the young people surrounding us. They can become stable role models for the first generation."

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Vision Church: A New Beginning