WORTHINGTON — When Jose Angel Franco crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana in 1990, he envisioned a better life for himself. He had no idea of the twists and turns life would take to get him to where he is today.
Where he is, as of a few short weeks ago, is in Worthington. He is here to plant a new Hispanic church, with support from First United Methodist Church, 408 11th St. The church will be the meeting place for the congregation yet to be built.
Cristo en tu Ayuda (Christ at Your Aid Church), led by Pastor Angel — as he calls himself — may begin organized worship services within the next few weeks. A congregation of at least 12 members is needed before services will start. Gatherings with local residents, however, will begin at 7 p.m. next Wednesday at the church for Pastor Angel to get to know members of the community and for them, in turn, to get to know him.
A native of Mexico City, Jose Angel Franco came to the U.S. at age 23 with a cousin whose brother had settled in California. The brother met them just inside the border and took them to his home with the intent of helping them find jobs.
Three years later, however, things were still quite difficult. That’s when Franco learned of jobs available in Wisconsin doing body work.
“From 1993 to now, he has experience working in a body shop — and he’s very good at it,” said his daughter, Ohianna Estrada, who translated the interview.
Shortly after moving to Wisconsin, Franco met Ohianna’s mother, Lourdes, a native of Puerto Rico. The two began dating, and he was a wonderful father figure for Lourdes’ two daughters.
It was Lourdes who encouraged Franco to go to church.
Until then, he had never been inside a church and didn’t trust religion.
“I used to make fun of people who were preachers — I didn’t believe,” he said. “I just thought those people were crazy. I didn’t have time (for them). I was busy.”
Franco was busy working and trying to succeed, but he also had his struggles. Before he met Lourdes he got mixed up in drugs — the hard stuff, crack cocaine.
“When he met my mother, he had stopped,” Ohianna shared.
Franco and Lourdes dated for a while, but split in 2001. Franco resumed his old habits, returning to the old friends and the drugs. He lived on the streets and in the parks.
“I know what homeless people feel like and what they’re going through, because I dealt with that,” he said.
While in that low point of his life, Franco said God showed him how his death would be if he didn’t start going back to church. A couple had found him on the streets, brought him clean clothes and took him to church. It was the turning point he needed.
“Everybody is the same in the eyes of the Lord, so he treats everybody the same way,” Franco shared. “I tell people a little about my story, but sometimes they don’t believe that I lived through that. I tell them, ‘Just like Jesus was here to help me, he’s here to help you.’”
When Franco returned to the church where he and Lourdes attended services together, Ohianna spotted him in a pew.
“I told Mom that she was going to end back up with him,” Ohianna said with a grin. “This is the man that I always felt like he was the one for my mother. He always helped us with homework. From the moment he met us, he was always helpful.”
With his love for Lourdes — and the Lord — Franco turned his life around.
“That process of being at church, I realized God had something bigger for me,” he said. “I was able to help people that were in the streets and people who had a drug habit like I did in my past.”
In 2010, the family moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Franco immersed himself in the church. He attended classes and seminars, became a trustee and a lay minister.
“But in my heart, I had that feeling that God wanted more than what I was doing in that moment,” he said.
So Franco began taking courses to become a pastor.
“In March, we moved to a new church in Watertown, Wisconsin,” Ohianna said. “Carlos Sandoval is the pastor there, and his wife Rosemary. They helped him with the next steps he had to take.”
It was while in Watertown that Franco decided to go to seminary, and as soon as that decision was made, a call came from Worthington to open a new Hispanic ministry within First United Methodist Church.
The family visited the Rev. Dr. Daren Flinck and several members of the congregation in mid-July.
“Right away, we got that instant connection that this is where we want to be,” Ohianna shared. “They showed us what it really means to be brothers and sisters of God.”
“I feel very blessed with the opportunity I’ve been given to come to a town … and be able to help other people and be a blessing to the Lord,” Pastor Angel said. “I feel Christ has been a help for me, and I want people to see that Christ can be a help for them as well.”
In addition to his church role, Pastor Angel plans to attend classes in Worthington to obtain his U.S. citizenship. He traveled to Juarez, Mexico, in 2017 to get his work visa to remain in the U.S. He will also be working to improve his English language skills.
“To me, that’s important — to be able to talk to people,” he said. “I want to be able to talk in English and Spanish.”
Ohianna said their family is interested in speaking with local groups and organizations who would like to learn more about them and the church they are establishing in Worthington. People can reach Pastor Angel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We want to thank Pastor Daren — he has been a blessing to us,” Pastor Angel said.