SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Wilfredo De Jesus, dubbed as the face of the Hispanic church reformation in America by TIME magazine, displayed a humble persona at The Heart Revolution Conference on Thursday, as he shared his journey from growing up in poverty in gang-ridden Chicago during the 1970s to becoming the leader of the largest Assemblies of God church in the nation.
De Jesus, affectionately known as "Choco," short for Chocolate in Spanish, sat down with The Christian Post to discuss the movement of 18 million Latino Evangelicals taking the nation by storm, and shared his thoughts about the next generation of Hispanic church leaders.
"The migration between Catholicism and Evangelical is what's creating this surge within the Latino community. We're experiencing that not only in the U.S. but in Central and South America," De Jesus said.
The trigger for such a movement is due, in part, to the strategies that the Hispanic church has implemented in spreading the Gospel, according to De Jesus. He said the current movement is a result of an aggressive approach in outreach within communities throughout the country.
He also explained that Hispanics are turning to God in large numbers because they seek an approachable God, which the Pentecostal doctrine instills among its followers.
"The Latinos believe in God and they want something tangible, something that's not obscure or abstract," De Jesus explained. "That's something already embedded within Latinos, we're just very convicted about our faith in God. Our moms and dads would always say, 'Mira, teme a Dios, go to church,' we come already with that."
De Jesus grew up in a dysfunctional, Puerto Rican family where his alcoholic father abandoned him at the age of 8, and where the word of God was not imparted to him. His brother was the leader of one of Chicago's most dangerous gangs and he lived near Humboldt Park, considered to be the most violent park in the nation at the time, where De Jesus said that anyone who stepped foot in it would get "raped or killed."
In 1975, a riot broke out at the park between Puerto Ricans and the local police because of social injustice issues, turning the city into a three-day bloody riot. At the time, the National Guard intervened after the governor of Illinois declared a state of emergency; and although this was the environment that De Jesus was familiar with, he eventually decided to not let his surroundings dictate his future.
At 14, he applied for a city summer job to help his mother make ends meet and was prepared to clean streets. However, he was assigned to work at a small neighborhood church, New Life Covenant, with the children's day camp. Twenty years later, he became ordained as the senior pastor of that same church, and now, it is the largest Latino Assemblies of God church among 13,000 that exist throughout the country.
"For the first time in 100 years, there's a Hispanic leading a white evangelical movement, the paradigm is shifting," De Jesus said.
Although numerous denominations exist within the Hispanic church, De Jesus believes the Pentecostal movement is sweeping through the Spanish-language community, establishing itself as the leading doctrine of the Hispanic church reformation.
"The Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal movement within the world, there are over 66 million Pentecostals. If there is one particular denomination leading the way, it's the Assemblies of God, and if there's any growth within the Assemblies of God, it comes from the Latino community," De Jesus said.
His work within the community in Chicago and his rise to prominence through previously held positions, including vice president of social justice for the nation's largest Hispanic Christian organization, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and by the grace of God, as De Jesus humbly explained, landed him on TIME's 100 most influential people in the world.
"I don't know if that's something that you orchestrate, God in His sovereign will orchestrates it. How do you go from a riot in Chicago in the '70s to TIME magazine, aside from being faithful to the Lord and serving God's people? The Bible says, 'If you humble yourself, I will lift you up among men,' it's God who did that, I didn't campaign for it, or look for votes, I didn't care. Be faithful with what you're called to do and don't look for it, God will bring that to you," De Jesus said.
De Jesus admitted to the crowd at The Heart Revolution Conference that he did not know the extent of how prominent TIME magazine was at the time when he was approached to be included on the list, and now that he realizes it, he says landing on the April 2013 cover was an example of rising from nothing to something.
"This means a pivotal point in my life, because it serves as an inspiration because this is possible. You can be poor and on welfare, have a dysfunctional family, be abandoned and fatherless, and yet get your education and be covered by one of the biggest magazines in the world. It's been very humbling, but at the same token, it's a lot of pressure. According to TIME, I now represent 51 million Latinos in the U.S. Then when I go out to Central and South America, I become the voice, so that's the responsibility aspect."
Although he exudes an unpretentious demeanor, De Jesus represents the new face of the Pentecostal movement and he plans to impart his knowledge and mentorship to other rising leaders in the Latino community so they may have the same opportunity to continue leading this movement that is currently experiencing rapid momentum.
"I'm hoping, along with people like Pastor Sergio de la Mora [of Cornerstone Church of San Diego] and others, to identify young men and women who we can champion and pave the way for so they can feel like, 'Choco's doing this, I can do this too,'" said De Jesus.