Echo Park United Methodist Church, a multicultural and multilingual congregation of about 30 people, is relaunching its social work by faithfully serving as a refuge for communities in Los Angeles, CA.
A Legacy of Refuge
United Methodist Communications met with Rev. Frank Wulf, Echo Park UMC’s Senior Pastor, to talk about their legacy of caring for the stranger.
“We’re a scrappy little church of faithful people, living in a challenging neighborhood,” stated Rev. Wulf.
Originally a historically Mexican settlement, the Echo Park community was nicknamed “Little Central America” in the 1980s. “At the time a large number of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, known as the “desaparecidos,” were immigrating to the United States in response to civil war happening in their countries. Because of the community’s Hispanic density, it made sense for folks from Central America to settle in Echo Park.”
Under the leadership of Rev. David Farley in 80s, Echo Park UMC became a sanctuary church that took in families, primarily from El Salvador. The church provided protection, a palace to stay and a place to be cared for until they were able to normalize their situation. The church basement quickly became a place where the community could come together, organize, host events, and live out their cultures.
The United Methodist Church believes God has endowed us with dignity and freedom and has summoned us to responsibility for our lives and the life of the world. So, when the “Remain in Mexico” policy went into effect in January 2019, Echo Park UMC lived into its legacy and provided refuge for unaccompanied minors. “We wanted to support. We wanted to provide resources,” stated Wulf. Though Echo Park did establish an immigration clinic, Wulf says COVID changed everything and pushed the work of the clinic online.
It is estimated that 33% of Los Angeles’ population consists of immigrants. Compelled by social holiness and community engagement, the congregation sought to support a new chapter by relaunching its responsibility to social work post-COVID through EPIC, a new ministry program. Through its faithfulness in serving the marginalized, this small congregation has had a significant impact on the lives of hundreds.
Reshaping Echo Park through EPIC
Launched in 2021, EPIC, which stands for Echo Park Immigration Center, is a program that caters to the needs of youth, young people, and their families to help them navigate intricacies of life such as the education system, the immigration system, friendships, community, sharing resources and food. “[And] most importantly to help the community become self-sufficient as possible. That’s where the work with young people is happening to [help them] thrive in the USA,” said Rev. Wulf.
They accomplish this by providing mentoring, a safe space and arranging opportunities for immigrant youth and children of immigrants to get hands-on experience in these processes.
“The worst part is when people come here, they are treated like criminals. That’s why it’s a faith issue. It’s not just social work. These are people made in God’s image,” said Josh Lopez-Reyes, EPIC’s executive director. He believes that the diversity in cultures is what makes Echo Park beautiful. “We know it isn’t appreciated or valued. Undocumented people are exploited,” said Lopez-Reyes.
Although he recognized that immigrant children and children of immigrants live in an “in-between” context, Lopez-Reyes emphasized they are the key players in cultivating a self-sustainable society. He said, “At the end of the day, what we invest in these youth will have a ripple effect on their families, their communities.”
This year, EPIC partnered with James Kang from Dreamday, an immigrant business initiator, on a mentoring initiative that looks at entrepreneurship and financial literacy. However, EPIC realized that the youth’s needs transcended financial stability. Lopez-Reyes said, “As immigrants, we have the pressure of pursuing our parents' dreams and not following our dreams. What are the youth’s dreams? What is their vocation? How is God calling them and how can we sharpen their skills?”
EPIC stays true to their faith. Lopez-Reyes said, “We are a spiritual collective through Echo Park UMC. Not only [is Echo Park UMC] our physical sponsor but they have been the mother birthing us in our faith and call to build social justice.” This spiritual collective called Refuge gathers community both in person and online.
The first area of focus for Refuge is a monthly in-person gatherings called Community & Comida (food). During these gatherings they gather together to break bread, fellowship and have conversations about life and spirituality. Second is their BIPOC Theologies Group where they gather monthly to read and learn from BIPOC theologians and practitioners. Third, is a podcast called The Refuge Pod for and by BIPOC, QTBIPOC and allies where they share our stories of spirituality, solidarity and struggle. Finally, the fourth aspect of Refuge is a story-sharing collective called Radix. The focus of this story-sharing collective is about weaving together stories of resistance and resilience in the struggle for environmental justice in cities, pueblos, and villages across the globe to reveal the kinship and sacredness between plants, humans, animals, and land.
Throughout the years, Echo Park UMC’s leadership has learned a lot about serving the community and tackling big dreams. Rev. Wulf said, “It has to be a big dream. How could we not have big dreams if you’re paying attention to the gospel?” He has provided five tips for small churches to have a big impact.
Tips for small churches to have a big impact:
1. Dream big together
“One of the things we did when we were first starting EPIC was go to the San Fernando Valley Children's Immigration Center. Because they were doing the work that we wanted to do. We saw what they did. The mistakes. And the successes,” said Rev. Wulf.
It was important for the local congregation to see their legacy, the dreams they shared as a congregation and to see other organizations with similar dreams. Through this, they were able to see their role in the overall picture.
2. Support your “champions”
According to Rev. Wulf, every faith community has a champion - someone that can carry out the vision of the congregation. It is important to support the person that has a clear vision of where the congregation can grow. “Someone who can take this dream that you have and run with it,” he said. Sometimes supporting this person can mean praying for them or facilitating details so they can be focused on the bigger community tasks.
3. Create a group to carry that vision
Rev. Wulf emphasized that you can’t do it alone. EPIC currently staffs Josh Lopez-Reyes as Executive Director and Daisy Cuellar as Youth and Family Coordinator. The local church members and methodist connection also provide their time and gifts to carry out the church’s vision.
4. Seek resources available
Once you have a team and a sense of direction, it is important to know what resources are available through the national church, through districts and conferences. EPIC has received funding from The California-Pacific Annual Conference, UMCOR’s Mustard Seed Grant, other organizations and fundraising.
5. Dismantle the “us vs. them” mentality
Congregations that are doing new ministries can feel threatened by the changes or think new ministries are epic and beyond their church. However, Rev. Wulf explains “One of the ways we can overcome [this mentality] is really to get the congregation involved.” One way Echo Park UMC and EPIC have been dismantling this approach has been through the monthly Community Comida. “The goal is that by breaking bread together, they break through the boundaries. As a result both the local church and the families of EPIC have embraced each other as part of their own… That is something we can all do within the context of the church,” says Rev. Wulf.
EPIC hopes to serve more than two hundred people this year, continuing to help immigrant youth and young adults find the belonging place where they can thrive. These are not just numbers; they are children made in God’s image. As for Rev. Wulf’s leadership and Echo Park UMC, they will continue to meet every Sunday and carry out their unique legacy to help all people find refugio.
Rev. Frank Wulf encourages other congregations interested in community programs by stating, “Don’t let the limited resources limit your dreams… If we are doing the work that God is calling us to do, the resources are going to come.”
*This is part of the three-part series Our Gente: Stories of belonging, resilience, and liberation in the people of The UMC.
Keren Rodriguez is the lead pastor at Aloha United Methodist Church in Aloha, OR of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. She has been a Methodist her whole life and believes the Wesleyan value of social holiness is essential to her life and ministry. She is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity at Claremont School of Theology. She enjoys spending time with her daughter and family.