Kissimmee — Johnson University Florida will be making its property available to the church plant Encounter Church beginning next March.
JUFL faculty and staff have been praying for an increased connection to the Kissimmee community. This past summer, Pastor Gonzalo Venegas and his family moved to Florida from Western Michigan with plans for a multi-cultural church.
Before they found the JUFL campus, Venegas and his family had just eaten at Melao Bakery. In preparation of coming to Kissimmee, they had picked out a zip code for their church location and they were sitting in it. They prayed for a location and took off for a possible church location, pulling out from the parking lot a different way than they had entered, and saw the Johnson University Florida campus sign. Venegas had initiated connections with Johnson University Tennessee, but had never heard of the location in Florida across the street from them.
Venegas did not grow up in the church. He grew up in what he called “the hood” of Palatine, Illinois where his brother became involved in gang activity. When his family became targeted by a gang because of his brother’s witness of a homicide, they were forced to leave for Western Michigan, where Venegas said he became empty.
“I became so bitter and so angry, I justified my next decisions,” Venegas said. “I joined a gang myself.”
After becoming the leader of his gang, Venegas said he was eventually imprisoned for the crimes it had committed. In prison he continued to “put work in,” acting in violence towards others in response to his situation.
He said he realized then that he had become what he swore he would never be — he became miserable and tired until, he said, suicide was his only way out.
“I remember going to the shower and just broke down crying,” Venegas said. “And I said ‘God, I’m so tired. I’m so sorry for what I’ve done. Forgive me for what I’ve done. I believe you and I love you. Forgive me. I want more of you in my heart.’”
He told God he would do 10 more years in prison to be changed by Him. And then he went back to his cell, feeling defeated, and sat down.
“And it was like a mint started melting around my heart,” Venegas said. “And that feeling was God’s love. And no alcohol, no drug, no pleasure I have experienced, nothing in my life came near to the moment I was experiencing..”
He said he remembers crying and saying, “I’m so far from you; I don’t deserve you.”
“And in that moment,” he said “I heard the words ‘my children, my children. Take care of my children’.”
Venegas said that when he gave his life to Christ, he began to be more like Christ at heart, causing others to challenge him.
He said members of his gang plotted against his life due to his new faith. But by God’s hand, he said, he finished his time.
Upon release Venegas became involved in the church, House of My Father. He said church leaders envisioned the congregation as a multicultural, multi-lingual and multi-generational group.
Venegas became a part of the church family, and he said the congregation walked with him and discipled his family until years later when he became their lead pastor.
“People were coming to the faith, marriages were restored and I was able to bring rival ex-rival gang members and gang members and addicts [to church],” Venegas said. “We had the court system sending me people on probation and they were working at the church doing community service hours, serving in different ways and I was able to feed into them.”
Venegas picked up the name Pastor G. and did everything from pastoral child’s care to administration. But as God worked in the church, Venegas felt unsatisfied, feeling a call to start a different ministry.
“I knew that God was calling me to dive into the urban culture,” Venegas said. “Because in Western Michigan, there wasn’t that much diversity, even though my church was multicultural.”
After praying with a friend at a 2018 North American Christian Convention, Venegas built a launch team and began looking for a location.
“What we want to do with Encounter Church is [to have] no manmade tradition in the way,” Venegas said. “We don’t need all that to get in the way of building and creating relationships.
“In that we look to have devoted worship and to be a multicultural, multigenerational family,” he said.
Venegas traveled to Kissimmee several times during the past years, but he had an initial vision of moving to urban areas in California or Chicago. Kissimmee became the primary option as hindrances to starting in California or Chicago became evident. The launch team did research on church attendance and diversity in the city and picked out several zip-codes.
For the past eight years of Venegas’ journey, JUFL faculty had been praying for a multi-cultural connection with their approximately 70 percent Latino community.
When Kendi Howells Douglas, assistant dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at JU, was hired at JUFL, she was charged with gaining momentum in local student recruiting so that the campus would be more involved in the community. She visited 150 Hispanic churches her first year in Kissimmee and attended several Hispanic pastor association meetings.
“We should reflect our town; that way they can see that we have resources here,” Howells Douglas said. “We can train pastors in their congregations and we understand their culture and they’d be welcome here. There’s really only so much that I can do to advocate Johnson to the community and vice-versa.”
Mindy Marengo-Sardinas was hired as the school’s Latino Community Liaison and several changes took place over the next four years to make the JUFL more accessible to the community. Campus signs and financial aid resources have been posted in English, as well as in Spanish.
And this past Spring, Venegas cancelled their trip to another possible church location and drove across the road to JUFL.
“We went into Johnson and we asked for a tour,” Venegas said. “We walk into the gym and I literally hear the words, ‘you’re home.’”
Several meetings were arranged between church plant networking pastors and JUFL faculty in the School of Congregational Ministry and the School of Intercultural Studies. Venegas shared with them his vision for Encounter Church.
“My main mission is to make disciples of different nations,” Venegas said. “And while they’re students, then [for them] to make a difference in the community. But as they leave to whatever church they are working at or their ministry or secular job, I want to be faithful and equip them and give the experience of multi-ethnic, cultural and generational ministry.”
Encounter Church will not be built on programs, but in life groups that are on campus and in the community. Life groups will be based on community interest and needs, such as through work in parks and with commissioners. Life groups will vary by certain interests or hobbies.
Life groups will meet several times a month and a church service will take place twice a month in which all the life groups will meet together for worship and a message focused on Encounter Church’s values and mission.
Venegas and his wife have been praying for God to bring people to the church who can do children’s, youth and worship ministry. He has set a vision casting meeting from 12-2 p.m., Sept. 23, in the JUFL cafe for anyone who feels God’s calling or is interested in Encounter Church. This meeting will be an opportunity for people to sign up to help in these ministries.
Venegas hopes to have 10 life group leaders by the end of 2019. Seven people are currently involved to lead life groups, which hopefully, he said, will start late October.
The church’s first preview service will be in March, 2020. A “soft” launch will take place in August, where services will take place every Sunday, and the official launch will start next September.
Venegas will be a JUFL chapel speaker Oct. 1. He is the treasurer of Church and Community Development in Kissimmee and is currently planning for church events from this month to next year, often in the JUFL cafe. Find more information about the church plant, its history and values at Encounter Church.