Taking the church to the community

Pastors Sam and Melba Montoya at the podium in their church Sinai Pentecostal Church. Sam Montoya has served as pastor to the congregation for 46 years. DAILY RECORD PHOTOS BY DENISE CATHEY

Sinai Pentecostal Church

Samuel, or “Sam” Montoya has been the pastor at Sinai Pentecostal Church, 208 Laredo Street, here in San Marcos for the past 46 years – that is not a typo. Soft-spoken and a gentle man, the first words he uttered after I asked him to, “Tell me about yourself,” were “Thank you for coming.”

When we speak of putting others ahead of self, visualize Sam Montoya’s considerable frame and soft smile, as he provides food to a hungry vagrant; hear his understanding voice as he deals with a couple in a troubled marriage; note the determined look in his eyes as he seeks shelter for a homeless family. I have not heard him preach – in English or Spanish, which he does every Sunday – but it seems to me, the foregoing ministering defines Sam Montoya more clearly than the pulpit ever could. But, I could be wrong.

Montoya begins his story with an explanation of his 46-year tenure at Sinai Pentecostal.

“When I got out of seminary, Berea, a Bible college, located at the time in McAllen, Texas, I was offered this little church. The church was founded in 1954 by a lady missionary. She was getting up in years and they needed a minister, so I gladly came here.

“I was born and raised in Austin. I would be close to home and my parents were pastors. I am a pastor’s kid.”

At this point, I commented that the majority of pastors I have interviewed up to now come from families of pastors.

He went on to explain that of the eight siblings in his family, five are full-time ministers.

“I was 21 years old when I came here and when I leave this church, I’m going to Memory Lawn.” Montoya’s slightly humorous, slightly macabre way of explaining that Sinai is a lifetime assignment for him.

“So, at 21 years of age, just out of seminary, what made you think you wanted to be a minister?” I asked.

“Growing up in a pastor’s family, I loved to go with my dad as he carried out his responsibilities and I have always been a ‘people person.’ The church has always been a comfortable place for me and so when I was offered the chance to come here, I thought I would give it a try,” he responded.

As a very young man, Montoya was sent to this small church in this small town, so I asked him “Were you ever disgruntled, disappointed, unhappy with your assignment?”

“No. we were involved with so many projects, i.e., the Food Bank, the Red Cross, housing, Community Action,” Montoya said. “I loved working with the people in the community.”

With the mention of Community Action, I mentioned my association with Ophelia Vasquez and her recent passing. From Montoya, it elicited the comment, “Oh, yes, a true icon of this town. I worked alongside her for many years.”

Montoya’s frequent referrals to community prompted me to ask if that was his way of referring to the Hispanic population. His immediate and strident answer was, “No, I mean the whole city – the whole community. There are people that I love all over the city.”

So, what is the ethnic makeup of Sinai Pentecostal membership, I asked. “Of course, it is largely Hispanic, but we have a few Anglos. For instance, we have Anglos marrying Hispanics and that is the source of some of our membership.”

To gain a better understanding of the Pentecostal ministry, I encouraged Sam to explain the principles.

“It began in the early 1900s with a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the basics of the Bible and a charismatic approach to ministry. We believe in the Trinity, one God, that Jesus Christ was divine. He died, he arose, and he sits at the right hand of God and some day he will return for us.

“As for the Old Testament, we recognize the laws and the prophecies, and we believe in the creation and the processes,” Montoya said. “We believe that it all points to the New Testament, including the crucifixion and the resurrection.”

I asked Montoya to explain the difference(s) between the Pentecostal church and some of those considered to be more mainline Christian churches. “First, we are all Christian and very much alike,” Montoya said. “We Pentecostals take a more charismatic approach, we use lots of musical instruments in our services. Perhaps, we are more contemporary than some.

“On Sunday, we have two services. At 8 a.m., we have a service all in Spanish. That service draws some of the older members who are more basic in their worship. Then the second service is all in English and tends to be more contemporary and seems to appeal to a younger group.”

I pointed out that we prefer to attend the service in which we feel more comfortable. Which raised the issue of, “where are you more comfortable?”

“I am more comfortable with the Spanish service,” Montoya replied. “First, it’s all in Spanish and that is my language. Though I was born here, I am more comfortable with my first language. In English, I sometimes get tripped up or can’t bring up a word. My wife (Melba) sits on the very front row and she recognizes my problem, so she will silently mouth the word(s) I need. I should add here that Melba is also an ordained minister.”

Montoya’s 46-year tenure at Sinai Pentecostal means that he came to San Marcos and the church in 1971. The church was housed in a small building – now an office facility – so how did it become a state of the art sanctuary, that will seat 200 easily?

“After I came, we began to grow and soon we needed a newer and bigger place,” Montoya said. “We discussed buying land out of the city, but we found one lot nearby and we bought it. Then we were able to buy a second lot in this area, so after much discussion, we decided we would should stay in the barrio.”

With lots of taco sales, barbecue dinners, garage

sales and volunteer sweat, the present facility was built in 1980, and still has inadequate parking. A new location on Hunter Road between the VFW and the former site of a self-service car wash is under consideration.

One surprising facet of Pastor Montoya’s work at Sinai Pentecostal is the amount of travel he has done. As he describes it: “In the past 20 years, I have traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Africa, Europe, and other places doing missionary work. In the United States, we have about 250 churches – all Hispanic – in our organization. It is called Unified Pentecostal Local Churches, Inc.”

Upon discovering there was a significant Pentecostal governing structure and hierarchy, Montoya’s 46-year tenure at Sinai became even more remarkable.

“Let me tell you how it works,” he volunteered. “When I came here, it was for two years. We are affiliated with the organization, but the congregation is autonomous and after two years, the congregation brings in a Presbyter who conducts a vote on whether they want to keep the pastor. If the vote is for the pastor to stay, he gets another two years. If the pastor is retained for 10 years, he or she is designated a Permanent Pastor and a vote is no longer taken.

“Though a pastor may be named a permanent pastor, most of the options for change are still available to the congregation and to the pastor.”

Considering today’s discussion of our USA-Mexico border issues, I asked about his family’s border crossing and how it was different then and now?

“Well, my grandparents were newlyweds and they came to Kyle, Texas,” Montoya said. “But, they tell the story that there was a tiny bridge across the river and people just walked across – either way – and there was an old man on the bank of the river with a tin cup and you could drop a coin in it or not. And he was the only authority as to who came over.

“My father was born in Kyle and they moved to Austin. I remember my grandmother’s small grocery store when I was growing up.”

Taking the conversation in a little different direction, I pointed out the sizable population of Hispanics in San Marcos, their entrepreneurial contribution, their community leadership and their influence in certain areas, yet they are underrepresented and underappreciated. How do we remedy that?

“That is a significant question,” Montoya responded. “I have seen much change since I came. We have some outstanding Hispanic leadership in San Marcos. Our recent mayor, Guerrero, Augustin Lucio, Ruben Becerra, Hispanics at the university, for example. I see change taking place. We have some excellent young people coming along. I credit education for our change and progress.”

Montoya went on to say that Hispanics must consider themselves a part of the community. In short, they must participate, integrate and understand their part in the community. “We have to understand who we are and what we can contribute,” he said.

Montoya is a preacher, but he does not allow that title to keep him from being a full-fledged player.

“One of the things I like about being a pastor is that I am transparent,” Montoya said. “I like to help people; people know me. I baptized many of my congregation, then I married them, then I baptized their children, then I married them. And I have buried some of them. I have pastored five generations while I have been here.”

Montoya tells me that one of his greatest enjoyments of the job is getting out of the office and going to someone’s house for conversation and coffee. Reiterating that he is a people person and a gentle man, it is easy to visualize him sharing the cup of coffee he has brought to reassure a troubled family, dissipate the concern of a worried mother, open a new understanding of faith to a questioner, discuss the community – one of his favorite words – and emphasize the friend’s importance to this community.

Montoya lives his beliefs. And it is easy to see why he says Memory Lawn Memorial Park will be his retirement home.

San Marcos Daily Record

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P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666