“I didn’t stay for 30 years,” says pastor Felix Villanueva of his career as a Navy chaplain. “I only stayed for 21.” Because of Iraq. “That conflict was what prompted me to retire. I was against the war from the beginning. I was always raising my hand and pointing out issues of justice, issues of understanding the enemy. Marine generals don’t think that way. I saw myself as a missionary to the troops — these kids, 18 to 22, away from home, in a system that teaches them to kill, kill, kill. I thought that somebody had to be the voice of humanity: ‘Yes, you’ve been ordered to kill, but remember, you are still killing a human being.’ Some commanders had a problem with it, others didn’t. There are a lot of people with consciences in the military.”
Before he left, he served as the head chaplain for the First Marine Division, “leading the charge” toward Baghdad. “I was in charge of 27 chaplains — Catholic priests, a Buddhist, an imam, a rabbi, Protestants of every flavor. We worked together, which was the most amazing thing. I wish the world outside could be like that. We were a team providing faith ministry to people, and we could care less what your background was.”
So it was probably not accidental that the choir sang “Come, just as you are to worship/ Come, just as you are before your God” at the outset of the folksy contemporary service, held in the church hall instead of the sanctuary. Diaconate chair Joyce Gillespie explained that the “third Sunday contemporary service” was “the best format to fill the space between now and when the church is able to make decisions about what direction we want to follow in the future.” She asked the congregation to fill out a survey, which would eventually result in a recommendation by the diaconate to the church council, “and then the congregation will be involved. It’s not a process that is singled out by certain people.”
“Come, just as you are...” Associate pastor Mary Sue Brookshire began the prayers of petition and thanksgiving by saying, “One of the gifts of our community is that we can come and bring all we are before God. It seems that in so many parts of our lives, we feel like we have to wear masks. We have to pretend that we’re not hurting, or we have to put on some kind of other person. Here, we can be honest with each other and with God. There’s a basket of rocks in the back, and if something feels particularly important to you, I want you to walk back and pick up one of those rocks and just pause for a moment” before placing the rock into a bowl that would be borne to the altar at the front of the church. “God...we give You particular thanks this morning for those fellow travelers with whom we walk. The path is not always easy, and we thank You for the strength they provide.” After she prayed, many rocks plinked into the bowl.
“Come, just as you are...” Villanueva’s sermon focused on the relation between Christ’s promise that the first would be last with His declaration that “whoever welcomes a child...welcomes Me, and...the One who sent Me.”
“Children...were considered property. He implies that in order to see God, we need to welcome those who have been devalued and rejected by society.... There are plenty of people outside the church who think that what we do is laughable...that the church’s entire history is one of self-serving self-delusion. At the same time, there are plenty of people within the wider church who say that what we do here is not just laughable but outright dangerous. That by preaching God’s extravagant love for all persons, no matter who they are...we are leading others into error and sin. To their way of thinking, we are fools indeed — and worse. But that’s okay. I’m fine with that. I’m willing to be a fool, and I invite you to join me in becoming holy fools for the sake of the Gospel. There are too many people starving for a place that can welcome them as they are...looking for a community that can embrace them and love them and walk with them.... Amen.”
Then he threw it back on the congregation: “What do you think?” And the congregation answered.
What happens when we die?
“After I retired,” said Villanueva, “I became a hospice chaplain. I have witnessed people make the transition. I have witnessed the peace that comes, the assurance that there’s something waiting for us. I believe there is an afterlife, and I believe we all go to the same place — in that regard, I don’t believe in hell. But I have no clue what it’s like.”
5940 Kelton Avenue, La Mesa
Denomination: United Church of Christ
Address: 5940 Kelton Avenue, La Mesa, 619-464-1519
Founded locally: 1964
Senior pastor: Felix Villanueva
Congregation size: 225
Staff size: 5
Sunday school enrollment: around 30
Annual budget: $350,000
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to formal (tending toward casual)
Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes