A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

Parting words for my Santa Ana family

Parting words for my Santa Ana family

Yesterday, I said "hasta luego" to my Príncipe de Paz family. It wasn't goodbye, because I'll be back to visit in December. I already booked my flight so everyone knew I wasn't just making empty promises. And how could I not come back to visit? This has become a new home for me in many ways. 

Even though it was a "see you later" instead of a "goodbye," leaving the church this morning wasn't easy. But yesterday's service provided the best closure possible. I was blessed with the opportunity to share some words and reflections with the congregation yesterday. One of the high school youth helped me translate my words into Spanish, and I made it through without totally embarrassing myself (outside of choking up and making my voice crack a few times). 

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Since most of you are native English speakers, here are the original words I wrote:

Above everything else I want to share with you today, I need to say thank you. Thank you for making these past six months some of the best months of my life, for welcoming me with open arms, even though you didn’t know me before I came here. Thank you for opening your doors and your hearts to my presence, and for being open to new ideas of being a church and serving the community. You have made my time here nothing short of the ultimate blessing, and I will always carry you, the people of Príncipe de Paz, with me in my heart long after I leave here tomorrow.

My journey here began just over two years ago, when Pastor Richard spoke at a Young Adult Conference I attended in Indiana. He spoke with such passion about this church and the ministries here, and he invited those at the conference to come experience Príncipe de Paz for themselves. I was so inspired by his message, and taking a break from a cold Midwest winter sounded pretty good, too. So I kept this generous invitation in the back of my mind.

As time passed, God found ways to keep nudging me toward making the journey to California. A close friend received a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, reminding me that tomorrow is never promised. While I had been working my dream job of writing for travel magazines for the past six years, I reached a point where it was time to give back more tangibly to the world.

Perhaps most impactful was the 2016 election, which made me feel sick inside. The amount of anger and hate and closed-mindedness that erupted during that time—and that continues to fuel our national conversation today—became too much for me to handle. I needed to find a way to be a part of the solution. To be a bridge instead of a wall. And if I was going to do it, I needed to do it sooner rather than later, while I was still single and didn’t have kids. On January 5, my 29th birthday, I packed up my Honda Civic with clothes, a few mementos of home, and my two cats, Leo and Max (who many of you have come to know quite well), and we made the 5-day journey from Minnesota to Santa Ana. 

Making this leap felt both absolutely terrifying and beautifully freeing. I am someone who likes to plan things out and know what’s going to happen next. But I wasn’t even sure what my room was going to look like when I arrived here. I knew I’d be sleeping somewhere on the church property, but I didn’t know if that meant having a sleeping bag on the floor of the sanctuary. When I arrived the evening of January 9, Pastor Becky opened the gate to the church and showed me my room, which quickly eliminated any anxiety I had about where I’d be sleeping. You provided everything for me: a bed with sheets, a desk, a table and chairs, a fridge and a dresser drawer. And I have to give a special shoutout to Miguel Cabrera for tackling the almost impossible job of turning an old pastor’s office into a comfortable and cozy studio apartment. 

The next day, Richard took me Target shopping to get me everything else I needed and more. The Trejo family brought me tamales for breakfast the following day, and continued to provide a delicious tamale breakfast for me every week. Dear sister Clemencia made me chicken, tostadas and beans, and even bought a bag of cat food for the boys. And my new abuelito Servando has taken me out for a meal every week, either at Oh Wa La tacos down the street or at his favorite Chinese restaurant. Needless to say, I’ve never gone hungry here, for food or for community.

Your boundless generosity and hospitality silenced any doubts I had about coming here. It reminds me of one of my favorite scriptures, Jeremiah 29:11 - “Porque yo sé muy bien los planes que tengo para ustedes—afirma el Señor—planes de bienestar y no de calamidad, a fin de darles un futuro y una esperanza.”

I should have known that this journey to be with you was in God’s hands. He called me here for a reason. God had these plans all perfectly lined up for me before I made the decision to come to Santa Ana; even before I was born. For he knows the plans he has for each and every one of us. And with you working tirelessly as God’s hands, you have given me prosperity, hope and optimism for the future.

Many of us here don’t have a lot of money, but we are prosperous in Christ. I see it in the way you give back so selflessly of your time and resources, serving the homeless three times a month, supporting missions in four Latin American countries, housing a food pantry for those who are hungry, and raising funds for 25 youth and advisors from this church to attend a life-changing conference in Colorado (only two churches in the entire country are sending more youth than this church). You inspire me every day with the amount that you give back in the name of God, to make this world a reflection of His image with your giving hands. For you understand that it is in giving that we receive…that what we give is just a portion of how much the Lord provides for us.

God has given me hope by bringing me to you. It doesn’t take much to feel hopeless these days. All we have to do is turn on the television or scroll through our social media feeds. There is so much hurt in our world these days, but what I experience here is healing. As a community in Christ, you support each other through words of encouragement, prayer and mutual respect. You’ve given me hope in humanity by welcoming me as an outsider and making me feel like I belong to this community. We may look a little different, I may be a little taller, and I know we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but that doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are here to help each other through this roller coaster journey called life. 

Through you, God has also given me hope for the future. I believe that many of us feel hopeless and helpless because of how divided our world has become. I know I certainly felt that way before coming here, and I still feel that way sometimes. But together, we have built a bridge of understanding and mutual respect that can be a model for others. That’s why I have been so eager to share the story of your church and of my time here with others in the Iglesia de los Hermanos denomination around the country.

In May, the official magazine of the Iglesia de los Hermanos, called Messenger, published a five-page story that I wrote about this church. I have been keeping a weekly blog about my experiences here that has been read by hundreds of family and friends as well as people in the church. And the film that you just saw is in the works to be shared on numerous television stations around the country. I pray that through sharing your inspiring story of generosity, faith and hospitality, that others may follow your example of Christ-like love. 

I can’t believe how quickly these six months have flown by, but as I look back, I realize just how many experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned. I’d like to share a few of these lessons and observations before I go:

First of all, to the kids: You have filled my heart with joy, and it’s been a blessing to hang out with you. You never fail to surprise me with the amount of energy you have. And I can’t imagine how tired you make your parents with all of that energy. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a few new songs and taking a couple field trips to the senior home. Those people over there appreciate you more than you know and I hope you continue to visit those folks.

I’ll never forget teaching Sunday School for the Azules, and I’ll specifically remember the first FearBusters class we had together. When I asked all of you to share something that you were afraid of, you gave me the answers I expected like spiders, snakes and heights. But you also surprised me and broke my heart when you gave answers like the government, school shootings and the future. In that moment, I was lost for words and needed guidance. But it was through prayer that I found my answer. When we’re afraid, no matter whether it’s spiders or school shootings, we can pray to God who is our refuge and strength. Never forget that. And never forget the Jeremiah 29:11 scripture I mentioned earlier. I’ll repeat it again: “Porque yo sé muy bien los planes que tengo para ustedes—afirma el Señor—planes de bienestar y no de calamidad, a fin de darles un futuro y una esperanza.”

You have a bright future ahead of you, but you need to work hard to get it. And we don’t get anywhere if all we do is spend our time comparing ourselves to others, or pointing out each others’ problems. Trust me, I’ve made that mistake many times myself. Focus on what you have in common, and how you can work together to be a family, and you will go far.  

To the parents: Bless you for raising such beautiful children and allowing them to be a part of this family. I know many of you have come through incredibly difficult circumstances to get to this point in life, many of which I can’t imagine. Your love for your children shines in the way that you speak about them and interact with them. My prayer for all of you is that you continue to hold your children close but remember to let them breathe. Allow them to make mistakes and learn from them. Allow them to explore and then come back home.

I feel blessed to have parents that kept me on a pretty loose leash, allowing me to make those mistakes and take those leaps so I could grow to understand who I am, and whose I am. All too often, I’ve seen children kept on a tight leash who, once they leave the clutches of their parents for a moment, throw themselves into a spiral of uncontrolled chaos. I’m not a parent, but I know letting go can be hard. So do it gently while continuing your boundless love for your child. And remember that God is in control.   

To those of you who are single or don’t have kids: Enjoy it while you can. While I feel ready to find a partner and commit my life to them, I have learned to embrace the single life and the independence it provides. Traveling has been a lifelong passion of mine, largely thanks to my parents who took me to Germany to visit my mom’s side of the family from a young age. I know that spending six months here would have been virtually impossible if I had a family to support, which is part of the reason I chose to do this now and not later.

So…travel as much as you can, while you can. It’s how we meet new people, broaden our understanding of the world around us, and build bridges in the process. Yes, it can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Start small: By driving to a neighborhood in Orange County that you haven’t visited before. Get to know some new people, listen to their stories, and eventually you may find yourself feeling the same way that I do here: as if my personal walls of understanding had lowered enough that I could see what’s on the other side.

To the youth, especially those attending NYC in two weeks: The church needs your voice. Seriously. Many of you may not be aware that the Iglesia de los Hermanos in the United States is an aging denomination that is getting smaller and smaller. My home church in Iowa recently combined with another church because it was down to just 6 or 7 regular attendees when it used to have over 100 attendees back in the 1960s. There are many reasons for this shrinking of the church, but one of them is the lack of youth and youth involvement.

I hope National Youth Conference provides the same wake-up call that it did for me 12 years ago. You and I are the future of the church, and it’s up to us to make sure that the Good News is shared for many generations to come. We have such an important message to share with the world, with the Iglesia de Los Hermanos standing for peace, justice and community. Many of the Anglo churches have few youth, and as I’ve been sharing the story of this church with them, they are amazed to hear how many of you there are and how many are attending NYC. You are already inspiring other churches just by being present here. Now I pray that you take things a step further and inspire them with your action. 

You don’t have to do anything big to make a difference in the church. My favorite quote of all-time is one I learned at NYC in 2006. It’s by Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” I find that quote to be helpful when I’m overwhelmed with the problems of the world. It reminds me that I can’t change everything, but I can start somewhere. That mindset helped me get here, and it’s motivated me to stay involved in the church in some form, even if I am frustrated or sometimes don’t agree with all of its policies and procedures. Keep your ears and heart open at NYC, and imagine the possibilities of what the church can look like in the future if you are a part of it. In your everyday lives, keep on doing small things with great love and watch the mountains slowly move. 

Finally, to the elders of the church, Hermano Daniel, Hermana Clemencia, Hermano Servando: Thank you for building a solid foundation for us to stand on. This church would not be nearly as successful today if it were not for your commitment to Christ and His body of worshippers. I am moved by your openness to adapt to new ways of doing worship while staying grounded in your faith and your beliefs. It’s a joy to watch you participate in the services with such a youthful spirit, and I’m sure if people didn’t know your age, they would guess that you are at least 10 years younger than you are. You show Christ’s love on your face and in your work every day, and I’m so thankful I’ve gotten to know you. I pray that if I am blessed to reach your age, that I have half of the beautiful Spirit that you radiate among everyone you meet.  

Goodbyes are hard, especially when you have to say goodbye to people you love, so I’m not going to say goodbye. Rather, this is see you later. I will be back to visit—I promise—because I’m going to miss this place and all of you so, so much. I have a lot to look forward to, as I’ll be living with my sister and brother-in-law in Minnesota for the next 9 months to help take care of my 2-year-old niece Claire. I can guarantee that she’s going to be learning some new Spanish phrases and some reggaetón music from her Uncle Jess. And thanks to the grace of God, there is an authentic Mexican taqueria not far from where my sister lives, so I can always go there when I’m feeling homesick for tacos al pastor con Jarritos. 

But of course, nothing can and will replace the blessed time I’ve shared with all of you. Thank you again for all of your love, warmth and generosity. May God bless you and your families today and always. Amen.

Príncipe de Paz: A Journey of Grace

Príncipe de Paz: A Journey of Grace

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