In God’s Image

Angel Rivero arrived in Marina on July 1 to serve as pastor of United Methodist Church in Marina. Social media immediately blew up with hateful comments related to Rivero’s sexual identity, but also drew supporters who called out the hate.

Angel Rivero’s welcome to Marina could have been warmer.

A native Californian, Rivero graduated from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, was ordained into the Methodist Church and sent to his first assignment – leading the United Methodist Church on Beach Road. Like many mainline churches, the Methodists are struggling to attract new followers, and at least part of Rivero’s marching orders is to grow the congregation.

He arrived on July 1 and seems a perfect fit for the Methodists’ social justice mission: He’s young (just turned 27), he’s Latino and he’s gay – his Facebook bio reads “Queer Latino of the Cloth | Cat Dad.” That drew ire from some members of a Marina-centric Facebook group, one of whom took a screenshot of Rivero’s page sometime in mid-July, posted it and described him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Others questioned how he could possibly serve as a pastor and called him a “perfect example of demonic infiltration.” As one observer commented on the thread, “The racists and homophobes of Marina are having a party in here. Disgusting.”

The reality of who he is, as Rivero put it, is this: “I am simply an itinerant minister of The United Methodist Church, called and sent to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

Getting an interview with Rivero took jumping through a few hoops – a talk with the Methodist Church’s regional media person and then approval from his bishop. Rivero acknowledges that the online hate directed at him happened, but he doesn’t want to breathe new life into the events of the past few weeks. Instead, he wants to talk about what lies ahead for his church in Marina.

Weekly: How did you end up a Methodist pastor in Marina?

Rivero: I grew up in a small town, kind of like Marina, just outside of Lancaster. I went to college up in the Napa Valley, a Seventh Day Adventist college, and that’s where I was first introduced to the Methodist Church. I went to seminary in Berkeley and graduated in May. In our system, the United Methodist Church, we’re an itinerant system and our bishop assigns us to a congregation. So Marina was not at all on my radar.

You discovered the Methodist Church in college. What about it spoke to you?

The beliefs really lead into action. It’s hard in my opinion to be a Methodist and not be concerned about the world around us. For me, Methodism is summed up in personal holiness in which I pray, I go to worship and take communion, but also social holiness and being concerned about injustice or evils in the community.

What kind of evils and injustices do you sense are out there, not specifically in Marina but in the greater world?

A big pressing one right now is racism, both individual racism and institutional racism.

Another that I’m concerned with and hope to be more engaged with here in Marina is the evils of poverty. I’ve only been here for a few weeks and meeting people in the area and hearing about the large percentage of homeless students in our school district – for Methodists, supporting public education is very important.

[We’ll be] finding ways to support the students and teachers and school, especially during this pandemic when times are even harder than they would be.

You’re a young guy and I imagine that part of your bishop’s thought process in sending you here is because denominations are struggling and you’re expected to grow the church. What do you hope it looks like in a year?

Since meetings turned to Zoom, we’ve averaged about 40 people calling in and attending worship. Before the pandemic, the congregation averaged between 40 and 50 people. So it’s a small congregation and aging like most mainline denominations. The nice thing about this church in Marina is that it is reflective of the diversity of the city.

With the pandemic it makes it hard to connect with new people, but I would love to see younger people, maybe students from the university and children at the church, and I’d also love to see it as a safe place for everybody.

For some people, going to church isn’t a totally safe place. We need to live into hospitality and live into love. I think we need to be that community first and in addition, people need to know we’re not just a social group that meets on Sunday, we’re a group committed to the well-being of our community.

What do you hope people will take away from what happened on Facebook? To some extent, it’s still being talked about.

For me, I think this is an opportunity for myself as a pastor and as an individual, but also for my congregation to live into the opposite of what was being spewed out. It’s our opportunity to be the opposite by offering something hopeful and life-giving.

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