Called to Serve

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First Spanish UMC: The People's Church of El Barrio



Rev. Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé: With all that's happening in our society right now to add the dynamic of the pandemic, we really see our role here, as a church, as being the hands and feet of Jesus. I mean, this is literally how we have envisioned this gospel that we say we believe has been, how do we meet this need of the least of these right here among us?

I'm the Reverend Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé, pastor of the First Spanish United Methodist Church, commonly known as FSUMC/The People's Church in East Harlem, New York.

FSUMC is short for First Spanish United Methodist Church. And it is a church that has been in this community for almost a hundred years and has a political history in this community in that they were occupied by the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panthers in the Civil Rights Movement, right? And this church is part of the freedom struggles in this country.

Part of my work in these last four years, that I've been appointed here, has been to connect the community and the church and reconcile this history but also find commonalities and find the connections between what was going on 50 years ago, what's going on today and how we can actually come together with a similar purpose. On principle, on the similar values of wanting to create a better world for all of us to experience. 

An image of The Young Lords hangs on the side of an elementary school in El Barrio of East Harlem in New York City, across the street from FSUMC/The People's Church. The church recently held a film screening for Takeover, a film highlighting the social activism the Young Lords launched in 1970. You can learn more about The Young Lords by following this link. Photo courtesy of Rev. Lebrón Malavé. 

What we're reminded of is really what is our priority? And so we decided, you know what, worship services is not what people need. Food banks are closing left and right. Food pantries are usually run by our elders and our seniors, who are some of the most vulnerable population in the middle of this pandemic. And so we felt really deeply that we needed to meet that need. And so me and my lay leader, we started thinking to ourselves, “well, we don't have money. We don't have a lot of resources, but what do we do have?” You know, I had a car, he knew people who had a pantry and he was like, “Let me call some folks.” And so he called his friend and she was like, “yeah, come shop or whatever you need.” And what started out to be us just getting groceries for maybe three or four seniors or single moms that we knew in the community ended up becoming this huge feeding program and food distribution project, that has been recognized by the city of New York that has received grants by the city of New York. That, you know, all these things that we never would have thought.

Raymond Perez Jr.: I don't know how everything transpired in between but the pastor found me. She told me, “come” and I came and I know this is where I'm supposed to be and where I'm going, I don't question it.

I was strong out here when I was doing the wrong thing. I was super strong out here. So, I feel that it's my duty to give back the same way, with the strength that I did, but now with a more directed energy for a positive outcome from my community. All it took for me, I believe, was someone to believe in me. Give me the chance to prove that I can be a better person.

Rev. Lebrón Malavé: We applied to a program that New York City is offering called Open Streets. They want to create space for people to social distance, for people to move around, for people to get out of their hot apartments. And so we applied to have our street closed every Saturday in July and August. And we've been trying to curate space, a safe space for the community, for families to come out. Every weekend we have sprinklers. We have a pool for the kids. We have arts and crafts. We have crochet, we have painting workshops. Zumba workshops. We have a DJ. And all of this is because we want to show the community that even though we don't have a lot of resources, we can do the best we can with what we’ve got.

A lot of the musicians that have played for us, the DJs, people who come to lead the workshops, they're community people who want to give back. I always say everybody has something to contribute. You are old, you are young, you are skilled, maybe you're not, maybe you went to school, maybe you didn't go to school. Everybody has something to contribute to the community in aspect of mutual exchange.

And so these Saturdays have been a blessing. They've been a lot of work. Of course, we've had people complain, but for every complaint we've had at least 10 people be like, “Wow! I can't believe this church never did anything like this before.” “Wow. This was so amazing. I had so much fun! My son enjoyed himself so much. He can't wait to come back next week.” “We thought that church was closed this whole time.”

In addition to that, we also created a like health and wellness program as a ministry of our church. We offer community acupuncture. We offer workshops on how to eat healthy. How to eat things that support immune system, how to learn about essential oils and holistic practices that are accessible, regularly accessible to all of us.

Perez: We don't do this by ourselves. We have volunteers, church members, our little mascot, Linda, that's my little doggy, and my fiancée, Tanya. And a few other loyal people that are here. Every time I think we don't have enough for tomorrow, we end up with enough for another couple of days.

Everything that happens here, I'm not only the president, I'm also a client. Like those ramen noodles, the other day, I had them for dinner, you know, because I'm struggling myself. You know? I'm filling out those rental assistance applications because my rent is behind, you understand? I'm here to bring hope to the hopeless because I am the people who they considered hopeless. Like I tell everybody, as long as we show up God will do the rest.

The Rev. Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York. She currently serves as Lead Pastor at the First Spanish United Methodist Church, also known as, “The People’s Church” in East Harlem. Lebrón Malavé holds a Bachelor in Sociology concentrating on Black and Latinx Studies from the City College of New York and a Masters in Divinity with a focus in Liberation Theology and Ethics from Boston University School of Theology. Hear more about her by following this link. Photo courtesy of Rev. Lebrón Malavé. 

Rev. Lebrón Malavé: Scripture says faith without works is dead. And so the Social Principles are a huge guide for us and how we continue to make decisions, how we continue to engage the world, how we continue to talk about this loving and liberating gospel that has captured so many of us, that has transformed us, as individuals. But it takes us using our hands and our feet to not just talk about it, but to actually walk in love and in truth and in hope and in justice in tangible ways for people to see it.

And we give not because we expect anything in return, but we give because it is better to serve than to be served. Right? And we give, because this is our commandment, right? To love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And it's done not in a way of us doing for the people but it's in a way that it's us doing with the people. And so we invite the same participants who come maybe to receive treatment to also offer something. Maybe they know a remedy from their home countries. Maybe they know how to do certain things. This idea of mutual aid and how we support each other, how we create this accessibility and empowerment amongst each other has been crucial to how we continue to resist in the midst of all that we're experiencing right now.

Perez: We will always be up against oppression. And I say this because in the gospels all the way from the time of Moses, there was oppression. There were the oppressed and the oppressors. There was always that need for someone to rise to the occasion to hold that stake up and say, “there is hope. Let’s keep the journey. Let's stick to the path. Let's fight for what's ahead of us.”

Rev. Lebrón Malavé: In the book of Acts, they talk about how we're going to be Christ’s witness when the spirit comes upon us, Christ’s witness in Samaria and in all these places. And I always tell folks, we’re to be Christ’s witnesses right here on Lexington Ave. in East Harlem, in the epicenter of the pandemic in New York City.

This is our opportunity to also be God's witnesses, to also show about the power of the Spirit and the power of the people. And it does not look, necessarily, like on a Sunday morning worship service. It may be a sermon that I preach, it may not. It may just be getting somebody something to eat, who hasn't eaten in two days. It can be all these things and God lives in all these places. And I think that our testimony in this last year has been when you take what you have, when everyone takes what they have, when they bless it and they give it up to God, God shows up every time.

I want people to walk by this church and say, “you know what? When I was hungry, they fed me and you know what? When I didn't have nowhere to go, they hooked me up with a social worker who got me into housing. And when I was in prison, they came to visit me and they wrote me letters. And when I was thirsty, they gave me something to drink. Even though I may not have deserved it.” I want people to see this church on this corner and say, “you know what? They loved a lot of people and they still do. And I don't go to church but I would go to that church. Not because of what they preached about, not because of what they said, but because of what I've seen them do.”

To learn more about this church ministry, you can visit their Facebook or Instagram at @FSUMC.

This video was originally published September 10th, 2021 by United Methodist Communications. Contact: [email protected].