Pastor Ivan Montenegro stood inside the Iglesia Hispana, a plain wooden cross leaned against a wall behind him as he talked about the community spirit that was helping turn a place to mourn the dead into a house of worship.
“We can make the change from crying to joy, from death to life,” the 55-year-old Montenegro said of remodeling the former funeral home at 1907 Front St. in Lynden.
The renovations on what is also known as the Hispanic Church are coming along. Constructed in 1907, the building is getting a makeover that includes a new roof, floors, bathrooms, siding and showers for worshipers who come straight from their jobs in the fields and dairies.
In January, the old Moles funeral home is expected to reopen as a church to serve a growing Hispanic population, thanks to the assistance of 10 to 15 church groups that have sent volunteers – as many as 50 have helped – money and encouragement.
“The community is very involved with this, and I love this,” said Montenegro, adding that the project has shown unity at a time of division and conflict.
Prayers, faith, community
Montenegro became a missionary because of a pivotal moment in his life.
He was 6 years old when a missionary and his wife came from California to Montenegro’s small village in El Salvador.
“His testimony changed my life,” Montenegro said.
That man fed him, gave him his first pair of shoes, taught him English and encouraged the boy to go to school.
Over the years, Montenegro would go on to work as a lawyer and a social worker, and to start other churches.
He learned about Lynden while undergoing cancer treatment in Vancouver, B.C., nearly 10 years ago. There, he met a family from Lynden who invited him to do Bible studies. Eventually, those sessions drew more people until Montenegro found himself leading a congregation in need of a permanent home in Lynden.
Montenegro lives in Lynden with wife Lavi and their five children.
As Montenegro tells it, the Hispanic Church has been made possible through prayers, faith, a community of worshipers and generous acts.
That included the Moles family dropping the price significantly when the church bought the Front Street building in 2016, a church in Taiwan donating $100,000 and one in Texas sending $100,000. Volunteers and businesses also have helped with the renovations, and even dropped off coffee.
“I am overwhelmed,” Montenegro said, adding that “beautiful” things were happening.
A place to grow
Al Kussat, a friend of Montenegro’s and member of Faith Community Church in Lynden, has been among those helping.
“People see that Ivan has a genuine heart for helping this community,”said Kussat, who has helped manage the renovations. “It’s infectious. I think churches realize there’s a real need in the Hispanic community.”
Pastor Ryan Bajema, of First Reformed Church in Lynden, said churches have been drawn to the project because they want to reach out to a growing Hispanic population, adding that Montenegro, a friend, was a conduit for that effort.
“Everyone sees him as a great link to Hispanic ministry here in Whatcom County,” Bajema said. “He’s a very humble man who loves the Lord, who lives by faith.”
The church community has helped support the Hispanic Church in other ways.
After the church bought the property – and before renovations started – a small group came to the church and yelled at the congregation to leave. Montenegro told the congregation to stay quiet, to keep the door closed and to pray for the people outside.
It was during the presidential campaign and a sensitive time, Montenegro recalled.
When the other churches heard about the incident, Bajema said, there was an “incredible holy anger.”
In October 2016, the pastors and their congregations came to the Hispanic Church. There were hundreds of people there, Montenegro said, surrounding the church and singing “How Great Thou Art.”
“This church needs to know they’re loved, they’re supported, they’re one of us,” Bajema said of the show of support.
Montenegro’s congregation numbers 60 to 80, although that number swells seasonally when migrant workers come to Whatcom County. But his goal is to keep the church in Lynden small, train leaders for other churches, and spawn churches elsewhere as he has in Nooksack, Bellingham, Yakima, Maple Falls, B.C. and Mexico.
He wants to reach the elders of the community who don’t speak English but want to be a part of the Christian community, and the young to encourage them to reach beyond their families’ lives working in the fields.
“This is America. This is the place for opportunities. So if you want to be a doctor, you can be a doctor. If you want to be a nurse, you can be a nurse,” Montenegro said. “Of course, you have to work hard.”
In that way, the church becomes more than a place to pray.
“It’s a place to grow,” Montenegro said.