This past October, Stadia hosted an Anniversary Dinner at the Exponential West conference.  Cesar and Maria Salazar had the rare opportunity to attend the celebration, not only to celebrate the five-year anniversary of their church plant, Plaza Iglesia in Bakersfield, CA, but also to celebrate the launch of a new campus in West Bakersfield.  During the celebration, we asked Cesar to share what he has learned in the past five years.

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He spoke candidly about the importance of perseverance and how at times you need to guard against that drive crossing over into stubbornness.

He shared that when God calls you to plant a church, it is your battleground. And that battleground is unique. It’s not going to look the same as it is for others who are planting churches. “The vision God gives you is bigger than you can imagine, so give your 100% — or even more than that,” he encouraged the new planters. “You guys are on the best adventure of your lives!”

Cesar challenged new planters to find needs in the community then meet them. Plaza Iglesia has done exactly that by starting an after-school program called, “Hope for the Future.” In Bakersfield, 25.9% of children live below the poverty level. That’s one out of every four children living in poverty. Realizing their surroundings, the Salazars started Hope for the Future so children could have a safe place to participate in mentoring programs, tutoring and a weekly Bible lesson (which is the students’ favorite day).

Maria explains, “The mentors are retired teachers and believers who want to serve these children. They are so in love with what is happening that we have a retired couple that drives 45 minutes each way, twice a week to be part of it. Countless kids have come to know Jesus through this program. We have realized that the priority is not to follow structure and curriculum, the priority is the child. If you need to knock down the structure to be with a hurting child, to pray with a hurting child, then knock it down.”

Maria shared a story of a young girl whose father had been shot and whose mother was young, pregnant and had five other children. One afternoon, there was a police officer from the neighborhood at the program to serve as a mentor. The girl asked him what it felt like to be shot…they were soon able to understand the burden this young girl was carrying. As her defensive walls began to come down, she would regularly come to Maria’s office for love and support. Eventually, Cesar and Maria were able to come alongside the entire family, leading them to a relationship with Jesus.

Maria also told about a teen girl who was struggling with a friendship. Instead of the young girl choosing to fight with her classmate, she approached her, asked to speak with her and brought resolution through respect and conversation. This program is teaching skills that will last for a lifetime.

Hope for the Future has come a long way since its inception. Maria says, “Its wonderful to see the children running to the program with awards they have received and report cards they are proud of.” The Salazars have started a student adoption program that includes specific mentors caring for specific children. This allows for a very personalized approach. And, once a month there is a birthday celebration for the children. These are children, whose birthdays might pass without any recognition at all, let alone a gift and a party. Maria is thankful that the children have learned it is okay to ask for specific needs and to trust that those needs will be met.

As the conversation came to a close, Maria simply said, “They are kids and we love them.” When complimented on their great leadership, Maria humbly responded, “We just want to be great followers.”