Street-level worship | Finding church in unlikely places
Robert Cortes spent hours roaming the streets of downtown San Diego as he handed out fliers for a weekly outdoor worship service on the loading dock of a discount grocery store. So he wasn’t surprised to see Samantha, one of the regular parishioners, panhandling on a busy intersection hours before the start of service.
After chatting a minute, he continued on with the flier distribution. Hours later he spotted Samantha camped out in the folding chairs as he watched the worship service from the back.
“She did not see me watch as she dropped all the coins she begged for into the tithe envelope,” he said. “On my way home, driving, I was in tears having just witnessed the story of the widow’s two mites right out of Luke.”
The following week, after a technical glitch left them with extra time in the service, Cortes recounted the widow’s parable with the congregation. Without naming Samantha, he shared the act of generosity he witnessed the previous week.
“Tears began to roll down her cheeks,” Cortes said, adding that Samantha had never heard the parable before that morning.
About 20 people surrounded her under the shade tent, their make-shift sanctuary, and prayed that she would find housing. Within months she was accepted into a housing program.
Such stories are not uncommon for the Even Here Movement, a ministry of Rock Church. Through the ministry, worship services are held at a variety of unlikely microsites around the county: gymnasiums, Laundromats, parks, a retirement home, military housing, hotels, auto repair shop and a workplace co-op. Beyond San Diego, other microsite locations include El Centro, Antioch, Fullerton, Illinois, Hawaii and the Philippines.
“I can tell you that God is on the move and it is a common occurrence to witness miracles of restoration,” Cortes said. “When you can fill the gap between the church and the street—not only with outreach but a gathering, a place that people can come that would never come to a church—you start to claim ground for the Kingdom one block at a time.”
Until recently, Cortes has worked with four different downtown sites but has been tapped to expand the ministry into the North County, where Rock Church has a satellite campus.
The concept of the microsites ministry emerged two years ago when Mingo Palacios, then the young adult pastor, wanted to use streaming technology to host an Easter Sunday for those not able or willing to attend a traditional service.
The service was held at a local shelter and drew more than 70 people, 15 of those converting to Christianity. Subsequent services were held in the basement of a bar and a local college.
Palacios now overseas the Even Here Movement, which uses nearly 150 volunteers at more than 25 sites. The program serves more than 600 people weekly, many of them homeless or disenfranchised.
“I was that guy that did not want to touch a homeless person,” Cortes said. “They were aliens to me. Just picture me in a hazmat suit serving the homeless a bottle of water at a distant or not getting too close for a hug, but then God broke my heart for this group that’s either homeless or poor, on the fringes of our communities.”
Cortes’ heart for street ministry emerged from his own conversion from a prosperity chaser to Christ follower.
“All I knew is I wanted to be wealthy and own a business,” he said. “So I found an investor and opened some cell phone and pager stores.”
He eventually sold those to follow his passion for cooking. He moved to Hawaii to open Jackie’s Kitchen, named for its famous owner Jackie Chan. He worked 75-plus hours a week for five years before leaving the company.
“I was really burned out and I broke up with my fiancée due to infidelity,” he said. “My life was in ruins. I sold everything. Heartbroken, I backpacked over a month in a rural part of Japan visiting over 100 temples. While I was in Japan something was pulling on my heart, guiding me protecting me.”
He moved back to his native Miami, where he gave his life to Jesus.
“My encounter with God was clear,” Cortes said. “He was alive and at work in my life. I only remember saying, “God do with me what you will.’”
After moving to San Diego for a job, he plugged in at Rock, taking advantage of its school of ministry. That led to his ministry work with microsites.
“I just felt at home,” he said of the ministry he refers to as the “Tip of the Spear.”
“Out in the street, there are times I feel like God is using us to literally pull people out of Hell,” Cortes said. “His nature and character are far and wider then anyone can ever imagine. His measure of grace over others, and me, is far bigger then anyone or anything. I serve a God that knows me intimately.”
Serving in community
The beauty of such ministries, he said, is that people are rarely serving alone. The support and camaraderie that comes with serving side-by-side helps to strengthen everyone involved.
“When you’re part of a bigger family and your core team, you do it together, you’re never really alone, which was a big support for me when I was so new, having never done any ministry,” he said.
“When God uses broken and rebellious people to be his hands and feet, it always blows my mind because, really, for God to use me, who was He kidding?” Cortes said. “If you would have told me, ‘Hey Robert, I’m going to have you go to this crazy on-fire-for-Jesus school, then I’m going to break your heart for the people that disgust you, then I’m going to use you to launch and then help lead a ministry on the front lines on the streets and in the darkest areas of San Diego’… well I would have told you are 100 percent insane.”
Cortes, who owns an online marketing agency, said his story proves that anyone can serve in ministry.
“Start somewhere, do something, find out how God designed you and find a ministry that nurtures those gifts and watch God use you,” he said. “I feel like I got front row center concert tickets to the biggest concert on the planet.”
Learn more at www.evenheremovement.com.
— by Lori Arnold
Click here for Microsite locations across San Diego County