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WILMINGTON, California — The economic disparities of the United States are perhaps no more apparent than in this Southern California industrial community that hugs the Pacific Ocean via the Port of Los Angeles.

Teenagers with just a high school education can command a six-figure salary working on oil refineries or as unionized longshoremen. Yet outside the front door of Wilmington First Assembly of God are homeless people parked with shopping carts full of their few life possessions.

The church owns valuable real estate on three corners of an intersection in expensive Southern California. A thriving preschool where 75 children are enrolled operates cattycornered from the church. A Christian school for kindergartners through eighth graders is across the street. Enrollment has dipped to 50, as parents struggle to make ends meet, and also because of competition from government-funded charter schools.

Pastor Adam De La Vega, whose grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, has been lead pastor at Wilmington First since 2009. During that time, the Hispanic population of Wilmington has grown even larger, with new arrivals from throughout Central and South America replacing residences vacated by whites who moved to Orange County. Today, an estimated 87 percent of the city is Latino, and only 6 percent Caucasian.

De La Vega, who doesn’t speak Spanish, says the church of 130 regular attendees is starting to attract young adults who want to assimilate into American culture.

“We’re trying to reach the new community of first- and second-generation Hispanics,” De La Vega says. “They want the English.”

During 2016, Wilmington First AG served as regional host for quarterly meetings of the Acts 2 Journey led by AG Assistant General Superintendent Alton Garrison. The AGTrust Church Transformation Initiative is designed to help leaders of plateaued or declining congregations revisit their church’s mission, vision, and values while creating a strategic plan to become a more firmly established Spirit-empowered body.

De La Vega, 48, invited eight millennials to be on the church’s Acts 2 Journey vision team.

“We want to establish a place where people in the community can come for applying spiritual truth to their everyday lives,” De La Vega says. “This is a rough neighborhood, with a lot of people dying too early.”

De La Vega knows the downward spiral from his own youth. He was a high school dropout, alcoholic, and drug addict.

“I was pretty far gone,” De La Vega says. “I was in and out of jail.”

De La Vega’s life began to turn around after he entered an L.A. men’s discipleship home. He went on to graduate with a business degree in organizational management, then a master’s degree in theological studies from Vanguard University. His Caucasian wife, Andrea, who met her husband at Vanguard, teaches special needs children in the L.A. Unified School District.

If anything, the Wilmington area has grown rougher with an increased number of robberies and murders during De La Vega’s tenure at the church. Yet contrastively, teens working the high-paying jobs at the Port of Los Angeles, less than two miles away, suddenly have a lot of money to spend on swanky vehicles and high-tech toys. The church has begun offering Financial Peace University classes.

Jimmy Gomez, whose parents are from Nicaragua, grew familiar with gang violence while attending First InnerCity Assembly of God in L.A., before he became youth pastor at Wilmington First in 2012.

“We live in a culture where teens are pulled in many different directions,” says the 30-year-old Gomez, whose office is decorated with Star Wars figures and a Captain America poster. “We get them only 90 minutes a week. Realistically, how can we make an impact? Only an encounter with God can transform them to be followers of Jesus.”

Image: Pastor Adam De La Vega (left) and Youth Pastor Jimmy Gomez

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