Yes, Together We Can

by | Jul 7, 2016

By Jesse Velásquez and Vidal Rivas, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Buildings & Grounds [& Mission] (July 2016)

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo es disponible en español aquí.

St. Matthew’s/San Mateo Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Maryland, in the Diocese of Washington, has gone through many changes over the past 200 years. While the congregation is 204 years old, the church buildings were built in the 1950s and 60s (the rectory was completed in 1951, the parish hall in 1954, and the church/sanctuary in 1964). Since 2008, this venerable old church has experienced a veritable renaissance with the arrival of Latino/as from countries such as El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Chile, and others.

Many hands…

We Latinos have contributed a great deal to the changes in our church. When we joined the existing congregation in 2008, the church had been neglected. We cleaned it, raked the leaves, fixed the garden, and applied a fresh coat of paint, both inside and out. We also cleaned and repaired the pews. In the winter we cleared the snow, and three times a year staged a thorough cleaning to keep our church beautiful and in good repair. We did it to honor those who built the temple.

This summer we have two important projects. One of them is to install a welcome sign outside the main door, so people know that we are a welcoming church. The second, is to install a central air conditioning system, something the old church has never had. We’ve already built the infrastructure for the air conditioning and we are currently fundraising for the $70,000 needed for installation. Half of the money for the air conditioning and all of the money for the sign has been raised through dances, food sales, and raffles. The church has secured a loan for the remainder of the air conditioning expense; plans are underway for a campaign to pay off the loan.

Our community donates its time and talent to raise funds and to achieve our goals. Among many other things, we have secured donors for the paint and labor required for all of the building projects that we have undertaken. We are hardworking and dedicated, and approach all projects as a big family. When we work together it seems that we are having a party, because while some work, others cook. There is always lots of food, music, and joy.

Meeting our neighbors 

When we arrived in 2008, only about 55 English-speaking parishioners attended the service. Soon after we added a service in Spanish, more people began attending and the church experienced a true renaissance. We’ve also made the church more visible to the community. The neighborhood no longer sees our church as a relic, but as one that is alive. To gain new members from the neighborhood we visited homes, distributed booklets, and organized processions in the street for the Virgin of Guadalupe and on Good Friday. Through those events, the church eventually became full of new people from the community. Now, we have several active committees: hospitality, communion, prayer group, Catechism teaching for children, and communication. Additionally, we have three music ministries to cover our four services attended by over 500 people every Sunday. There is opportunity for anyone who wants to be involved. We also have many retreats and workshops. We are a parish committed to social justice, and our church is a sanctuary for immigrants.

Another way in which St. Matthew’s/San Mateo reaches out to the community is through our radio station. The station’s mission is to spread the Gospel beyond our community. Our radio helps us to establish a spiritual connection through daily prayers. Radio San Mateo can be heard 24/7 with lively programs full of hope. We can be reached at 641.552.5821, or by visiting our website We also have a large presence on Facebook and other social media networks where we can post upcoming events and the community can share their feedback.

A second home

It is important to feel that one is part of a community, and church community is a second home, which is how we have to take care of it. When the community feels that the church belongs to them they will do what it takes to keep it standing. We must consider the church as part of ourselves, and not allow anyone to destroy it. We must keep on building it to make it even stronger. We are always moving forward with new projects so that the church will continue to grow and be a home to all of those who enter it. Some years ago we installed a bannister to make the second floor safer for our girls and boys; as always that was done with donated labor and materials.

What makes a community is a sense of brother/sisterhood, of dedicating ourselves to it, and the knowledge that we are a family with the same Lord, the same faith, and the same temple. When there is certainty in that understanding, together we are strong. When people visit St. Matthew’s/San Mateo we welcome them with open arms, we love them, we treat them with respect and warmth, and we give them opportunities to participate. When they say that St. Matthew’s/San Mateo is a lovely community we see the fruits of our communal efforts working together for the good of the church. Our efforts are rewarded with positive feedback and an image that we feel proud of, which we have learned is very important when attracting new members. St. Matthew’s/San Mateo is once again a place where you can feel that the Spirit of God is present.

Jesse Velásquez is a musician and program director for Radio San Mateo. He has three sons with his wife, Carmencita and is Salvadorean. He has helped Father Vidal for many years in several churches and in many ministries, especially in the music. 

Vidal Rivas, the rector of San Mateo, was born in El Salvador and has been a priest for 24 years and an Episcopal priest since 2008. He and his wife, María de los Ángeles have three children and live in Maryland. He is the founder of Comité de Solidaridad Monseñor Romero (Committee in solidarity with Bishop Romero) in Washington, DC that supports low-income people in need with various solidarity projects. 


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