Faces of San Antonio is an occasional series at Folo Media. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas and suggestions.
Reverend Michael Jolla believes in saving souls, and he would sure like to be able to focus on that task. But in his neighborhood, he tells me, there are more urgent matters to attend to.
“What’s the biggest challenge your congregants face?” I ask him, and before I can finish the question, he spits out one word, underlined and in bold type: “Poverty.”
The (Exciting) West End Baptist Church is on Culebra Road, not far from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower. This is the western edge of the zip code 78201, just across the street from 78207, or the near West Side, the poorest zip code in San Antonio.
Jolla and I are talking in the church’s kitchen. We’ve met only a few minutes before—I popped into the church randomly on a Friday, hoping to meet someone who can tell me more about this neighborhood. Jolla makes time to talk to a reporter only if I don’t interrupt his breakfast prep. He has volunteers outside building a new food pantry and he’s pressing them to get the pantry done today so they can announce it proudly at services on Sunday morning.
Jolla is heating a skillet (for eggs and sausage) and boiling some water (for grits). He chops and seasons and scoops butter and wipes his hands on a towel hanging from his belt. The kitchen is large, equipped with eight gas burners and three large refrigerators, plus a walk-in pantry and plenty of counter space. It’s not posh, but it’s been well-cared for. It also gets used a lot.
I ask Jolla about his church’s focus and he begins with a phrase so familiar I almost do not hear it at all: “Family ministry.” But it’s clear that for Jolla, family ministry is his city strategy, his way to try to save his neighborhood. “As the family goes, so the city goes.” He tries to get local kids in church so that their parents might follow—and when they do, Jolla gives them food assistance, rental assistance, help with budgeting, job training, whatever they need. He calls the ministry “holistic.”
Jolla says his church can’t just preach and teach the Bible, because first they have to help people survive. Jolla defends his pastoral priorities to me, not that I was asking, but because he’s probably had to defend them to his fellow pastors, or his denomination, or even himself. “There are no problems people experience that the Word of God does not speak to,” he says.
He relates Jesus to the poor. “We don’t know nothing about Jesus ever having a job,” he says. “He never claimed to be rich on earth. As a matter of fact, they asked him one day, ‘Can we follow you?’ and he said, ‘You can if you want, but let me give you this caveat: Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man don’t have nothing.”
Yet, he adds, Jesus and his disciples clearly had all they needed to survive. The lesson for Jolla and his church? “Do unto others. If God blesses me, he expects me to be a blessing to someone else. So that has me on my toes. That’s been our chief mentality, and that’s how we roll.”