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For Immigrants the Church is a Sanctuary of Protection and Refuge

an interview with pastor Melvin Valiente

This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated below in English. 

Committed to his community for over a decade, pastor Melvin Valiente runs the First Baptist Church in Maywood, California, an affiliate of the American Baptist churches.

His interest in promoting education and helping the homeless and needy has allowed him to transcend the boundaries of his temple and engage with the city.

The First Baptist Church of Maywood has an average attendance of 300 people and maintains a strong activity with its members and neighborhood.

In our conversation, Valiente made statements that I wish to highlight:

• Melvin Valiente advises people to be cautious of travelling worshipers that bring quick solutions to problems. These worshipers aren’t bad, but there is a problem with overemphasizing a culture that does not know much doctrine. Should pastors evaluate the lyrics and theology of worshipers before inviting them to their churches?

• Valiente thinks that many people seek God out of fear. They think something bad happened to them and they think God is punishing them. Should worshipers and pastors pay attention to this argument and teach about grace rather than condemnation?

• An undocumented immigrant—states the pastor—looks at the church as a sanctuary of protection and refuge; it is a place where they can leave their loads, and leave with faith that God will answer their prayers. Could this be the reason behind the commitment of members in many churches?

Below is the complete interview:

Why do you think that worship is important within the services?

I think that human beings carry music in their blood. This is seen when a child hears music and begins to move. As people grow older, music tends to relax individuals or make them feel certain emotions. When one has to drive a long distance, they search for music. I think music is a strong motivator and entertainer in human life because it is a part of us. It is as if God put a musical component into our DNA, because we were created to worship him.

Do you think that music is God’s?

Yes, God is the creator of music. People tend to think that music is mundane, but that is merely a result of a deviation that has occurred; God is the creator. In fact, the first worshiper was Satan, who distorted everything when he was expelled, but originally, God created music.

By observing the evolution of Christian music over the last 30 years, do you think that the lyrics of contemporary songs are better than that of the old ones?

I can’t generalize, but in terms of lyrics, I’ve heard many people say that hymns have better lyrics because people thought more deeply as they wrote and were also more doctrinal. If you listen to a hymn, you will find doctrine. They speak of the blood of Christ and serving God. Therefore, hymns have certain doctrinal aspects contained in three to four stanzas that are written artistically. In contemporary songs, we find many lyrics that are not well thought out. Some write a very rhythmic melody and then add lyrics, but not much thought is put into it. But there are others that have put a lot of thought into the lyrics. There are a large number of people that have written good songs and others whose were not as thoughtful. Perhaps they were carried away by emotions rather than thought.  

Do you think that the lyrics of hymns were better written than contemporary lyrics?

I think they had more content.

Do you mean to say that hymns had more doctrinal content, and contemporary songs have more emotional content?

That’s right, as I perceive it. They have more emotional content; but I must clarify that this is not the case in all contemporary music. There are many modern songs that were well thought out, and one can easily identify those. For example, when I listen to Marcos Vidal, I can recognize the deeper thought out lyrics and say that those were truly inspired. But sometimes, I find other songs that simply repeat two or three phrases. The only things that vary in these types of songs are the keys in which they are sung, and the tempo.

Is it possible to affect a congregation by inviting a worshiper who sings this type of songs?

That could happen, because many of those songs tend to give a temporary sense of peace. They speak of healing. They say “God can heal you in this moment” or “Jesus Christ is your warrior and he will fight for you.” This isn’t bad, but if it is overemphasized and is not balanced with more elaborate lyrics, we run the risk of bringing up a generation of people that doesn’t know doctrine. We cannot assume that we can teach solely through music, but rather through systematic teaching, although music is a good instrument for doing so.

Are you careful with the songs that are sung in your church?

Yes, and having Eddie Soto as a worship leader allows for our songs to also be filtered for having biblical content. That is another problem: there are many songs that are not biblical. On the other hand, it is difficult to only play music that teaches, because people desire music that appeals to emotions. So, there should be a transition from one emotion to another, which creates a balance. 

Speaking of emotions, are they important during the time of worship in the temple?

I believe so. In fact, it used to be said, “I dance in the Spirit,” and many people would say that it was not a dance of the body, but rather a dance in the Spirit. That is why it was accepted. The reality is that one cannot sing solely in body or in the Spirit; rather, worship is comprehensive. One must worship in a way that keeps you connected with your body and with the Spirit at the same time. It cannot be too spiritual, as to cause you to disconnect from your emotions. I think that worship needs to be emotional, spiritual, and well thought out. It is a combination of these things. It cannot just be one of them. There is a psalm that says, “I will sing to the Lord in my flesh,” which emphasizes the importance of praising God with your entire being. One cannot disconnect himself or herself, as a Latin American theologian once said. There are times in which we focus so much on the spiritual aspect that we forget our souls have bodies. There needs to be a balance between spirit and body, and that is called comprehensive worship. You do not neglect one thing for another.

Speaking of comprehension, it is complicated because there are churches that are focused on worship alone, and others that are focused only on evangelism....

Right before we began recording this interview, I was sharing with you that I have been in “A Church With a Purpose” training, where we discuss the importance of finding a balance between worship, evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, and missions. Those five aspects need to be balanced. Worship functions as a vehicle and is a part of everything. Evangelism cannot exist without worship; discipleship cannot exist without worship, because you must be a worshiper in everything that you do. The other four things function as the four wheels on a vehicle. If you remove one, the vehicle cannot move properly. I am trying to balance it all in order to reach what is considered to be a healthy church that can encompass the five purposes of the church: worship, discipleship, evangelism, fellowship, and missions.

If we understand that worship should embody all of these purposes and be a lifestyle, how can you help people understand that?

It is a process of discipleship that is divided into three levels. One by one, the leader contacts each person in his or her area, and if they see that someone is failing in some area, they advise them personally. Then, we have discipleship in small groups where we teach the word of God. These small groups must achieve the five purposes, and then they go to the school of discipleship, where we systematically teach them how to read the Bible, do devotionals, evangelize, etc. Everything promotes growth. We then teach them the doctrine of the church, the vision, and the mission. We are constantly with them so that they can learn to transfer everything that they are taught into a practical lifestyle. We are currently studying this in my doctoral program at Fuller. The church is not functioning as a transforming agent in its community. For example, in Guatemala half the population is Christian, and yet it is one of the most violent countries on earth. Why is the gospel not impacting societies? The problem is that there has not been transformational discipleship. These are issues that we are beginning to discuss in small groups. How can we become individuals who not only worship in church, but are also worshipers everywhere we go?

With persecution! (laughs)

Yes, with persecution. It can be achieved with follow-ups, and what is called verification of results.  

How do you think Latinos picture God when they worship?

In a teaching called “Continued Education of Baptist Pastors,” one of the themes was based on the perception that a person has of God and of leadership. It was mentioned that colonization brought this upon us. The Spanish came as conquerors, and then tyrants took positions of power and took control of the nations. So, a new leader arises and unites the people and takes control.  But over time, this new leader also becomes a tyrant, a dictator. The problem with this is that one tends to think of God as a chief or a tyrant. If you do not obey him, you will go to hell. God is seen as a punisher due to this background we have. We must rethink our theology, put aside our cultures, go to the Bible, and obtain a correct image of God. The Bible describes God as a father, but we must see the image of the biblical father, not the one we grew up with, which could be sexist and abusive. It is rare for people to see God as a friend or someone who is always there for us. We see God from afar, and believe that God is busy and only seeks us out when we have done something bad.

Is that why we come to his feet with feelings of guilt?

Yes, we come hitting ourselves and saying, “Forgive me, I am bad; do not punish me.” We come with this idea which is deeply rooted within us.

Do you think that many people come to worship due to fear?

Yes, and in fact, many people seek God because of fear. Perhaps something bad has happened to them and they think that God is punishing them, instead of thinking that God is a God of grace who gives us things we don’t always deserve, and will reach out to us in his infinite glory regardless of where we are, because God loves us.

Do people come to church to gain God’s favor?

Yes, which is a reflection of the idea that if a foreman or leader sees that I am here, then he will give me my salary; he will give me what I deserve.

Do you think we come to receive or to give?

Mainly, I think it is to receive. There has been a corruption of faith.

Do we carry a lot from the original religious tradition that we came from?

Yes we do. For example, thinking that we cannot worship God outside of Sundays is a solid Catholic tradition. There are people who attend services on Saturdays due to work commitments, and they feel like something is missing because they weren’t there on Sunday. Latinos don’t give the same value to both services; however, the white community feels no guilt in attending a Saturday service instead of the one on Sunday.

It is a cultural inheritance, because many of the people feeling this way never even attended Sunday mass in their native countries, right?

Yeah, perhaps saying ‘cultural inheritance’ is most appropriate. The problem is we carry traces of our traditional religion, such as feelings of guilt and the very act of confession of sins or intercession. There are many people who constantly approach the pastor and ask him to pray for their problems; they trust more in the pastor’s prayer than their own. There are some people that say, “It’s because you are closer to God.” This is a result of viewing a pastor as a saint or priest, because we have not realized that pastors are not priests.

Do you think that the sexist culture among Latinos prevents brokenness during the time of worship?

It does so for men. This comes from colonial times, when the Spanish or Arabs arrived; when Christopher Columbus came, he brought a few Arabs who were in prison. They got here and had relations with the indigenous women and the Mestizo was born. The Mestizos were confused because their mothers were indigenous women who had been used by Spanish fathers who hardly considered them to be women. These Mestizos began to grow up believing that women were worthless, and were also confused because the indigenous or the Spaniards did not accept them. But the Mestizos were more influenced by the Spaniards due to their power. When given a choice, they preferred to be Spanish. And since they grew up seeing their fathers mistreat and abuse their mothers, they went on to transmit the same ideas to their children.

In turn, they brought the teaching of a little black book (the Bible) that also speaks of patriarchy and the mistreatment of women.

That is why we tend to be sexist.

Do you think that we accidentally continue to teach sexism in the church?

Yes, when we speak of roles in the home, when we say that the man is the head of the house and women must submit to them, we are feeding the tradition of sexism. Even though we deny this, it is obvious that it does happen because there are still many churches saying that women belong in the kitchen, cooking. They say that women must submit to her husbands, and that he has the final say in what is to be done. They cite the Bible in a way that is convenient to their sexist beliefs. For example, they’ll quote Paul when he said, “Submit to one another.”

But Paul said that because he was single. (laughs)

Yes, because he didn’t have that problem. (laughs) I think that this problem is a result of the culture that we carry with us. It becomes difficult to teach people that women have the same worth as men in the home.

Why do you think that Latinos are a little bit more passionate about how we worship the Lord?

I think it is because of the kind of music that arrived in Latin America. The music that arrived in the United States is more classical and designed to be listened to and enjoyed, while Latin American music involves guitars, drums, and other rhythmic instruments. From an early age, they were exposed to that kind of music. I think this difference has a lot to do with the music that was brought to us. Furthermore, music became an instrument of expression in Latin America. The North American arrived and struggled for the first year, but then became established and quickly prospered. The Anglo remained Anglo upon arrival. On the contrary, Spaniards landed in Latin America and gave rise to a new group called Mestizos that suffered through poverty because their riches were stolen from them. They had to begin anew. In this process of suffering, they wrote songs that talked about their stories and pain. And so we formed this emotional connection to music. For example, this is seen in Mexican corridos, where they share stories of drug trafficking. In Nicaragua, music was used during the revolution as a form of protest. We carry a history of using music to express our pain and suffering. Later, when we come to the Gospel, we transfer the same ideas. That is why Latinos struggle to identify themselves with classic hymns when they come from a traditional religion.

How do you think Latinos experience the presence of God? Does God come down, or is he among them all along?

Both, because the majority of songs ask God to come down and touch us. It has to do with the history we have, in which the music describes what we are living. In those moments, we are hopeless and need words of encouragement. The churches that express this type of worship are the ones that grow the most.

Does legal status of an immigrant influence the passion with which they worship?

Yes, because undocumented immigrants view the church as a sanctuary of protection and refuge where they can bring their heavy loads and trust that God will answer their prayers and liberate them. That is why the stories of the freed people of Israel are very common in Christian music, because they talk about liberation and experiencing a new standard of living. Not only here, but in our Latin American countries, there is a lot of discrimination between the rich and the poor.

This does not exist as much in “white” culture, right?

It is simply more concealed in white culture. In Latin America, this discrimination is more public because there are not as many laws.

When I worship, is it my heart that changes, or the heart of God?

My own heart changes; what changes in God are his answer and attention towards us. The Bible says, “If you come to me and do this, I will do this for you.” There is a promise of blessing; it is not that God changes his heart because that is already determined, and you are the one who truly changes.

So, I am the biggest benefiter in this situation?

Yes, this is something that I constantly repeat in church. I tell them, “Understand that when you come to church, you are not doing God any favors, you are doing yourself a favor. You are the ones who are benefitting from the grace of God.” God in all of his mercy allows us to come worship him, and that is a privilege.