WOONSOCKET – Amid returning but still lower than pre-COVID attendance, leaders from various church denominations in Woonsocket are speaking as one in highlighting their shared responsibility in caring for the city and its residents.
Rev. Valerie Gonzalez and her husband, Bishop Herson Gonzalez, pastors at Vida Church in Woonsocket, started their church in 2003 with the hope that they could bridge the gap between the faith community and the city, which Valerie now helps lead as a city councilor.
“There’s kind of been a disconnect with city government and faith,” said Herson Gonzalez, who said that when they originally started more than 20 years ago, they had showed up to council meetings with the hope they could just have a “seat at the table.”
He was later asked to be the police chaplain and his wife was asked by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to serve on the school board, and she later transitioned to the council.
For the past three years since the start of COVID, churches have seen a decrease in members. Church leaders told The Breeze they have had to come up with new ways to continue to engage their communities in the hope that they can also bring them back to church by doing so.
Gonzalez said that because there are so many churches in the city, an estimated 40, each one has something to offer that might fit a different need.
The Bread of Life Community Meals, which Vida has offered for the past eight years, has helped bring community members together for conversations about issues that matter to people int eh city.
“That’s part of the whole fellowship thing,” said Gonzalez. She added that whether it’s the mayor or another individual living in the community, everyone who walks through the doors at Vida is welcomed.
Vida also now offers parishioners what they call “Growth Track,” where they will be assigned a certain characteristic by discovering their God-given gifts that they can use to serve.
Rev. Daniel Sweet, pastor at Holy Trinity in Woonsocket, said that in addition to traditional partnerships with other churches, they are trying to be involved with other creative ways and solutions when it comes to social injustice. Sweet mentioned The Gabriel Project, a non-profit the church is involved with that helps women who are distressed with an unexpected pregnancy.
“We have to take care of the expectant mothers who might need some help,” he said.
Sweet said the church is seeing increasing attendance since a pandemic low point, and is now looking for fresh ways to address social concerns.
Rev. Boris Kroner, of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, said lately most of their church activities have been dedicated to humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and partnerships have been extremely important and valued, mentioning help from St. Stanislaus Kostka, the Polish church across the street. Kroner said he hopes to continue to get young people involved with services and activities, as most of the work typically falls on a few people.
“They’re not exactly the youngest people, they’re older and they’ve taken the brunt of the work and they’re very dedicated servants of the church and don’t mind, but it gets tiring,” he said.
Church of God Prophecy, where Rev. Angel Javier Luyanda is pastor, offers services in Spanish. According to a recent study, more than 20 percent of the community speaks a different language other than English. Though Luyanda said he’s lived in the community all his life, a recent trip to Florida made him see how church services and activities when it comes to culture are viewed differently across the country.
“Everyone has their own unique thing on how to worship. I don’t think that’s bad, I think it’s something we can celebrate,” he said.
Rev. Jeffrey Mount, of First Assembly of God, said that they have an app enabling them to quickly connect with members. He said they have continued to partner with St. James Baptist for Easter services.
Rev. Jeff Thomas, of St. James, said one can find community connections throughout the church. Thomas serves as a vice chairperson of the board for Community Care Alliance. One of their church members, he says, will become a part of the city’s new task force that will help respond to social justice issues.
Valerie and Herson Gonzalez say their goal is not ultimately to fill their church, but to “fill heaven.” They are one of the many churches that participate in Woonsocket’s Day of Prayer. In 2013, more than 20 Christian churches joined in. He added that people of all denominations come together, and he was even recently called by a Muslim mufti to speak at a mosque after the burning of the Qurans in January.
“That’s solidarity,” he said.
Herson and Valerie Gonzalez said they know their church isn’t for everyone, and that’s why they’re happy to refer people to one of Woonsocket’s other great churches.
Glad to see these fine people highlighted - the work that they do day in and day out make a positive impact in people's lives. Their quiet and dignified doggedness is appreciated by me - God Bless them.
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