By REBECCA WALLACE
About five years ago, Rev. Rodrigo Cruz was one of the pastors of a white, upper-middle-class congregation in Roswell that was reaching out to the Hispanic community. It was in that role that he began to discover a disconnect. The ministry was important but felt segregated.
His children were schooling and playing sports with various groups of kids, but they worshipped with only one group of kids – either white or Hispanic.
“It was at that moment, I asked myself, if the kingdom of God is not separated, why is church?” said Rodrigo.
Rodrigo let his District Superintendent know that he was feeling called to serve in a diverse church community. At the time there wasn't the right appointment available, but he was told that conference leadership would be supportive if he sought out to create such a church. Little did Rodrigo know what he was getting himself into! The path has not been an easy one. There were times that he began to question not only his own mission but the mission of the church.
“I thought what I set out to do made sense – using the United Methodist connectional system to ask for support from different churches based on their individual strengths,” explains Rodrigo of his first attempts at gaining momentum. Instead, he couldn't make progress using that particular model of church planting.
In the fall of 2015, he found himself with no church.
But, rather than waiting for his next appointment, he continued to talk to people in the area about how they would like to worship. After much dialogue, he knew a truly diverse church could work, particularly in the most diverse county in the southeastern U.S., so he tried again. He started gathering people for worship in his house. By January, they moved to Parkview High School. And by April of 2016, the group was able to launch as The Nett Church.
“Even we were surprised when 107 people came to our launch/Easter service,” says Rodrigo.
Over the next two years, Rodrigo’s District Superintendent asked him for help with two existing churches in the county that were in diverse communities. Today those two churches are the Berkmar Campus and the Bethesda Campus of the Nett UMC. And both are growing!
Even while those two congregations were still developing, in 2018 Rodrigo felt yet another pull. A third nearby church, John Wesley UMC, was dwindling. It was a diverse congregation, but not sustainable. When he learned that the church was going to close, Rodrigo asked the DS for six months to come up with a plan.
“Clearly God wants us to influence Gwinnett County, one zip code at a time,” he says.
He knew that the community needed more than spiritual revitalization – it also needed social and financial vitality – and since that building was located in a very strategic and central location, he began discerning how to repurpose it.
The Nett began to develop partnerships with private and public organizations and agencies to serve the community in the areas of homelessness, job training, health, and other family services. Out of that has grown the Nettwork Campus!
The Nettwork Campus has become a mission hot spot for many organizations that were already doing good in the area, now working together and doing more than ever before. There are plans for a music and arts program for children with a community garden that could employ residents from the homeless shelter.
“There’s even a plan for three acres of unused land to create a transition program where we move people from homelessness to home ownership,” explains Rodrigo, with excitement.
And there’s worship there. This past Easter, the Nett held its first worship service on the former John Wesley campus, a Sunrise Service. This summer they will launch a service in Vietnamese.
Only three years after the launch of The Nett, more than 550 people attend church at the three campuses.
Surely, God is in these places! And Rodrigo has truly gotten to answer his calling and be part of a diverse church community - as have others! Today the Nett Church has 14 people on a diverse staff.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I couldn’t have done it without the unconditional support and sacrifice from my wife Kelly and children, as well as the support of conference leadership – Phil Schroeder as the director of Congregational Excellence, my former DS Dana Everhart, my current DS Mike Long, and Bishop Sue,” concludes Rodrigo.
And the church name? Some may infer that it’s short for Gwinnett, but most are still curious. Which allows Rodrigo to easily share his church’s mission: Nations Experiencing Transformations Together.
Rebecca Wallace is a communications consultant (and United Methodist) in Atlanta.