“I was pretty young when I dropped out of school. I was hanging out with the wrong people, trying to be cool,” said the 22-year-old, who credits the teachings and unconditional love she has received from members of her church with her transformation into a married woman with a job.
The pews at the 500-member Latin American congregation in Prince George’s County are full of people like Zavala, with their testimonies of changed lives. Other parishioners are still struggling in one way or another. Pastor Heber D. Paredes preaches at three services on Sundays, and another on Friday evenings, to accommodate the crowds.
“Many of our people have full- and part-time jobs and have to work on Sunday,” Paredes said. “I want to be here for them in the afternoon. Some of them come here from Montgomery County.”
With dozens of ministries and programs, ranging from programs for teens to immigration services, Iglesia Roca de la Eternidad is a big part of the safety net for many parishioners, many of whom are immigrants from Central America and struggle with financial and other problems.
“We don’t judge people,” said Morena Burris, the church’s administrator. “We embrace people just as they are and we try to help. ”
Unfortunately, said Burris and Paredes, not everyone who comes asking for money plans to use it to good purpose.
“If we put a sign up saying we feed the hungry, we are never going to finish,” said Paredes, 48, who has been pastor of the church since its founding in 1992 in a member’s house. The building that now houses the sanctuary was purchased in 2005.
“People come for help for rent, for this and for that, and sometimes they are not real [needs]. They are fake needs,” he said. “They want money for drugs.
“We need the Holy Spirit for that, to help us and guide us to find out who really is in need.”
Edgar Garcia, who is from Honduras, was on the receiving end of some of the church’s tough love.
“I was homeless and using drugs, and a church member gave me a cup of coffee,” Garcia said through an interpreter. “I wanted bread and they gave me a [religious] tract. I didn’t want the tract, but he said, ‘You need to read this.’ ”
Garcia, 49, is an active member of the church today. He said even though he is still looking for a permanent job, he gets temporary work as a painter and shares a Silver Spring apartment with other church members.
“It was time for me not to be homeless anymore,” Garcia said. “The most important thing for me is to have Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”
Paredes empathizes with members for whom life is full of hardships.
He immigrated to this country from Guatemala when he was 21. “I spoke no English. I started by cleaning bathrooms,” he said. “I learned English. I never went to school. Sometimes people laugh at your English, but you do what you have to do to survive, and with God’s help things changed.”
Zavala also believes that her toughest days are behind her because of the grace of God.
“Each time we make mistakes, each time we need the Lord to help us,” Garcia said. “I changed. I grew up. I started acting like a grownup. Now I am taking my class to get baptized.”
Of her marriage in June, she said: “With the help of God, we are going to make it.”