Creating Connection for Immigrant Families in Queens

Rut and Simón Padilla moved to New York City from Venezuela with a very specific call and passion for church planting. They had spent the last 20 years starting and multiplying churches in Venezuela. 

Rut and Simón were drawn to Long Island City because of its diversity. From culture to food to the over 100 languages spoken, it seemed like just the right place to start ministry with a model for church planting that was multicultural and multilingual in nature. 

However, shortly after Rut and Simón settled into Long Island City, they started to notice a change in their community. They had lived there for about 10 months and in that short time, 18 hotels were converted to shelters to provide housing for over 1,000 immigrant families settling in New York. This brought a huge shift to the neighborhood, with a new influx of families and children and opportunities to care for and support their new neighbors. The neighborhood, once industrial, was becoming residential before their eyes. 

“Everytime we have the opportunity to serve, we can see and experience how God is working. For many, to arrive here is already a miracle.”  – Rut Padilla

Rut and Simón are partners in ministry serving together as lead pastors of the church. In addition to this, Rut is the Executive Director of Expansion Community Center. From the beginning, their vision has been to be the hands and feet of Christ. They talk a lot about the heart of a good neighbor because that is what they are there to do! 

The Expansion Community Center has a food pantry and services close to 100 hot meals every week and every other week, they deliver clothes to over 150 people. Even to those outside of the church, Expansion is making an impact and changing the perspectives of those in the community about how the church can serve people. Recently, they created a partnership with a local organization that provides health insurance for refugees and the director, a practicing Muslim, remarked, “I believe in the church. I believe in that church.”

From the beginning, it’s been about connection. 

“When I think of the needs in our community, I think of New York as a city of transient people. The immigrant who comes here is looking for the American dream and resources to send to their family. I think this is a city of people who are very lonely and isolated. In our community, we want to create spaces where people feel the warmth of family. We want people to celebrate and enjoy their birthday, have a movie night, spend time with friends or people from their own country or another country with the same language.”

Expansion Church seeks to create spaces where people, specifically immigrant families, can feel at home. “One of the things that we most enjoy is seeing kids participate in the services. They are asking questions and contributing because they too have gone through a difficult and traumatic process. And to see men and women, many older, open up their hearts and listen to their stories of how they have seen God work on their behalf, it’s simply moving.”

At Expansion Church, God is moving. 

New neighbors are settling in the community. The church is mobilized — meeting needs and living out a culture of family for those who would otherwise be isolated. Connections are being made — individuals, families, churches, community organizations, all working together side by side. Expansion Church & Community Center are becoming known, creating momentum and collaboration across sectors. Spiritual renewal is happening in the hearts of people. 

The gospel is taking root. 

In thinking about their journey of ministry in Queens after years of starting and multiplying churches in Venezuela, the Padillas realized there was some unlearning they had to do and relearn how to be effective in planting a church in an urban context. Taking Incubador Grupal (Incubator for Spanish speakers) through City to City enabled them to think through contextualization, challenging them to develop a lens for understanding the reality and needs of their community. Having this lens has propelled them to more intentionally build a church that knows and listens to the neighborhood – a church that doesn’t just preach but walks with and understands the strengths, needs, and longings of the community. 

In Iglesia Floreciente (Community Engagement Training for Hispanic Churches), they were challenged by what it looks like to be a good neighbor. Since then, their methodology has changed. 

“We serve people not so they can convert. We serve people because we are converted.” 

When the motive is to be a good neighbor, there is also a freedom to partner and collaborate with other churches and organizations. There is no competition. Developing an asset-based approach creates opportunities for partnership instead of thinking you need to build on your own. In reflecting on the relationships gleaned from this cohort, Rut shares, “Still today some of those alliances remain. Today, much of what we do, we also do because others join what we are doing, but we also join other initiatives, other activities, different programs…. I celebrate it today because we do not do this alone.”

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