Close to Paradise: Assimilating People into the Kingdom of God

Editor’s Note: On September 13, 2013, Pastor C.J. Cousins, recent seminary graduate, visited Will James, Senior Pastor of the Paradise Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church.  While much of the story of the community services and assimilation program is told in the accompanying video there are other important elements in the story that are included in this transcript of the interview.

The story of the Paradise Valley, California and their welcoming
ministries for immigrants and refugees

C.J: How long have you been a pastor here at Paradise Valley Church?

Will: I’ve been here eleven wonderful years.  Out of my 38 years of pastoring, this has been the most rewarding, partly because of the length of time.  I’ve been able to be here long enough to really see ministry grow and produce.

C.J: Right now, what is the size of the church currently?

Will: We have 800 members, and a typical Sabbath attendance is close to 500, sometimes as much as 600.  On any given Sabbath, there are a minimum of 15 nonmembers in attendance, sometimes as much as 100.  We don’t go out looking for them.  God is bringing them to us.  We’re just faithfully loving them, and it’s exciting to see that when you try to be a loving, caring community and you show that you’re a safe place, God brings the people that need you.  There is not a week that goes by that we don’t have a new family or two or three that walk through our door on Sabbath morning.

C.J: Rumor has it that baptisms are a regular occurrence here at Paradise Valley. 

Will: We keep the tub wet.  It’s full of water right now.  It’s ready to go.  We have not had a public evangelistic series since I’ve been here in eleven years, but in the last two years, we baptized over 100 and just steadily keep baptizing them.  No pressure.  I don’t go and ask people if they wanna be baptized.  They come to me and say ‘we want to join your church.’  What do we have to do?  And we just love them and accept them and it’s an exciting ministry to be part of.

C.J: What would you say has been the greatest challenge for you here at Paradise Valley Church?

Will: Keeping up with God has been a horrendous challenge because every time we think we’re doing what God wants us to do, He opens another door. And when we walk through that door He opens another door, and another door and it’s just a constant moving forward in faith with God.  If someone had told me when I first came here that we would be supporting about six staff members locally, and would be doing the kind of ministry we’re doing, I’d say I don’t know how you could do that.  I don’t know where the budget would come from, but God has just opened the doors for us and has provided the resources as He’s promised.

C.J: How did your church catch the vision? Did it take awhile?

Will:  No church changes rapidly.  It takes time, particularly when you have been a typical Laodicean church, doing nothing but coming to church.  It takes a while to begin to cast the vision and have people catch the vision. 

My wife, Peggy, working in the community services, started out with only a handful of volunteers.  They’d have eight or ten people that’d come over and work on making quilts and giving out day-old bread, but as the need increased, so did the participation.  We now have over 125 volunteers working nearly every week in some form of outreach ministry.  That’s not including the volunteers who run Sabbath school and church and Pathfinders and Adventurers and all of these things, but in actual ministry to the community.

You know, I have challenged my members that they’re all ministers.  I’m not the only minister of this church by any means.  And if they will just faithfully, each morning, give themselves to God, He will use them, and He’s doing it.  I don’t do all the Bible studies, I don’t reach all the people by any means.  God is using the members of this church, and they have caught the vision.  They have caught the fact that they are ordained of God, chosen of God, used of God, and it’s a beautiful opportunity.

C.J: So Pastor James, you’ve noticed some changes in the demographics of your members.  Can you talk a little bit about that transition to what it is today?

Will: Well, Paradise Valley, way back, was the hospital church.  It was the church of the doctors, the nurses, the professionals.  That day is long gone.  Before I came, it was gone. It was becoming an inner-city church.  As the demographics of the community changed, the professionals were no longer coming to church here.  When I arrived here, there basically were three groups of people meeting here.  There was a good group of Filipinos, there were 25 to 30 Hispanics, and then the remainder were a spattering of Caucasians.  But because we have started touching the community, we have brought in many, many more ethnicities into the church.  Today we see a very, very different face to Paradise Valley than it was, even eleven years ago. 

Some people would say if you start encouraging different ethnicities to come in, you’re going to push other ones out.  I have not found that to be the case.  As I have just encouraged them to be open and loving and accepting in that we are all God’s children, and that we are all precious to God, I haven’t seen any people fleeing the church for it, but rather embracing it. 

C.J: Clearly the Community Services and Refugee Assimilation Program have been a large source of your growth.  I understand that one of your hobbies turned into an integral part of Community Services. Can you tell me about it?

Will: My wife and I had a hobby on our day off of going out to the high-end estate sales and just seeing what was there. We would give them our business card and say, you know, if you’d like to make a donation of items afterwards, we’d be happy to come pick up. It has grown to where we have about seven or eight estate sale companies that donate to us regularly.  We never know for sure when or where. Sometimes it’s one a week, sometimes two a week.  The refugees and volunteers go out with us to make the pickup.  It’s a big job ‘cause we have to pack everything up, have to load the truck, bring it back, unload the truck, and then we have teams here that sort through the stuff, sorting it for either the thrift store or for our rummage sales.  We have two rummage sales a year, and so anything that is not good enough for the thrift store goes to the rummage sale.  It’s a full-time job just keeping all those things going.

The thrift store is a work training site for refugees, and after they have learned enough English to be able to communicate a little bit, we’re able to take them there.  We have a program through the San Diego City College where they take a night class at the college and then they’re qualified to be on a work-study program.  And so we’re able to pay them to work in the thrift store, but we get rebated from the government 75 percent of their salary.  So it costs us $2 an hour to hire a student to work in the thrift store instead of $8 an hour, and so we will have three or four students working in the thrifts store. 

C.J: There is an interesting history of this church and how it was started and a special lady that was a part of that beginning.  Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Will: This hospital – Paradise Valley Hospital – which is next to us, was shown to Ellen White in vision by God.  When she came, it was a bankrupt tuberculosis sanitarium because there was no water.  They were in a drought and had no water to irrigate or even run the sanitarium.  God told her to buy it.  She went to the Conference; they said “no, we can’t buy it.  We don’t have the money and we don’t want it.”  She went to another lady and borrowed some money and between the two of them bought it.  And God showed her where to drill the well.  The well driller came out of the well one day after digging 125 feet by hand and finding no water and said“you’re sure God told you to drill this here?” She said “oh, yes.”  So he went back down to the well, and just a few minutes later, his shovel broke through and water gushed in so quickly that he had to leave his tools behind.  And that well is still running today.  They still do all the irrigation of the hospital with it, and it’s irrigating our garden. 

C.J: Tell us the story of the garden.

Will:  As we got the language school going, we found a lot of the refugees just struggling with deep depression, and when you get close to them you find out that they’ve left their family behind. Some are hearing stories of fathers and brothers and family being killed back home. And because they’re here, they can do nothing about it.  They’re lonely and they don’t have a support system.  So we’ve become family to them.  But how could we help them work through this depression?  That’s when the thought came to us, Ellen White says that gardening is very therapeutic.  It’s healing to get your hands in the dirt and in the soil and get involved in growing things.  So we actually found a gardening club here in town that came and said we’ll teach gardening to your students.  Can you find a place to do a garden?  Well, we scratched our heads ‘cause there’s not a whole lot of land available, but then we saw some ice plant over there on a hillside. “Let’s just pull the ice plant out and let’s terrace this little hillside.”  As they got out there and started working in the soil, watering it with Ellen White’s water and growing things. They’d start singing songs from back home, and they’d start chattering together with each other and they were smiling and they were happy, and they were growing things that they enjoyed having from home and the depression just lifted.

I got a grant from North American Division Health Department for $2,500 to get some retaining wall material for the garden and the hospital has leased us 12,000 square foot of a hillside for $1 for three years to expand our community garden. 

C.J: Can grant writing play a role in the ministry of a church?

Will: We do a lot of grant writing.  God has truly provided for us.  We never know for sure where it’s going to come from but we have raised well over $200,000 in the last two years from various sources, Just yesterday a community person who came into our thrift store, learned about our ministry, said I’ve got a car that I’m not using.  Would you like to have it?  And so there’s a car sitting out here, donated to us, that will go to help one of our families.  We had an anonymous donor who left us $85,000 in her will.  That was an unasked for, unexpected gift to us from God.  Another estate, again, unasked for, unexpected, brought in $33,000.  I don’t know where it came from.  I’ve told my members enough times that if God asks you to do something, He’ll provide the resources, and He’s just showing us that He does that.  Do we need more money?  Of course.  So you want to give some money?  Of course we’ll be happy to accept it.  I’m looking for $30,000 right now to cover these refugee children at our academy.  I’m convinced it’ll be there somewhere.  God knows who it is, God knows where they are and God will bring it to us. 

C.J:  Pastor James, do you have any closing words of encouragement for a young pastor that you could share from your experience here at Paradise Valley?

Will: Ask God what He wants you to do and then be willing to do it.  God will show you, and if you’re willing to step out in faith and begin to do what God shows you, He’ll open doors for you.  He wants nothing more than for you to be willing to do something for Him.  Ellen White wrote that ‘God desires nothing more than to see people willing to be open and used by Him, and the world needs nothing more than people who are used by God to share His love in the world.’  That’s paraphrased, but that’s part of what has motivated us here.

At the time of this interview, C.J. Cousins was a recent seminary graduate and Will James was the senior pastor of the Paradise Valley Church in California. 

Reprinted from the third quarter issue of CALLED