How the Hopeless Are Hearing about Christ in Albuquerque

December 11, 2017 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

Editor’s Note:

To celebrate the announcement of the 2017 Kaleidoscope Fund grant recipients, we are sharing the 2016 recipient’s stories over the next two months. See all 2016 stories here as they are published.

-LCEF Editorial Team

Lionel Cebreros, a brawny, playful man with a big smile, was working in the back of the God Cares About You—East Albuquerque Mission when two men, clearly distraught, approached.

“We need help,” one man said. “We heard this place can help us. Who do we need to talk to?”

Cebreros smiled. “I can help.”

The men eyed Cebreros. “You can help?”

“Yep. I work here.”

The men were stunned.

“But you are like us.”

“I am,” Cebreros said. Little did they know just how much he was like them.

Humble beginnings

Six years ago, Rev. Mark T. Kluzek started the East Albuquerque Mission. The mission serves the very poor and homeless Hispanic, White, Vietnamese and African population on Central Avenue, a major east-west street in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Central is part of U.S. Route 66 where you can find a large number of surviving Route 66-era buildings—like the Pueblo Deco-style Tewa Lodge and KiMo Theater.

Central is also south of Interstate-40, where the mission works out of a rented house. Travel two miles north, on the other side of I-40, and you’ll find Christ Lutheran, the administrative center for the mission. The freeway serves as the dividing line between what are two totally different worlds. One of abundance and one of great need.

Kluzek started knocking on doors along Central Avenue, asking people what they needed. His goal was to share the Gospel and meet the needs of the community. He discovered those needs were basic. Food, school supplies, clothes and jobs were on the top of everyone’s list. He eventually started a back-to-work program, which quickly grew. A year later Paul Mueller, chairman of the board of directors of the LCMS in the area, joined.

“This has been the work of the Holy Spirit,” Mueller said. “The way the mission has grown.” Mueller now sits on the mission’s board.

The hopeless find acceptance

Like the back-to-work program, the mission offers the community many benefits. Every day of the week the mission hands out hygiene items. On Thursday mornings, volunteers from the mission hand out breakfast bags. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, Cebreros and volunteers walk from bus stop to bus stop handing out breakfast bags and cold-water bottles. On the last Wednesday of the month, a local food bank drops off 200 meals at the mission for Central Avenue families.

There are about 12 volunteers who help with the back-to-work program, and about 30-35 volunteers who help with other activities. Most of the volunteers are from the community and have been homeless at one point.

One volunteer told Mueller she overdosed 43 times when she lived in California. Since coming to the mission 18 months ago, she was able to kick her drug habit. “It was not one thing in particular at the mission that made the difference,” she said. “It was everything.” The counseling, Bible studies, the love and acceptance she received and her volunteer service at the mission. She knows that Jesus worked in her heart to give her a new life in Him.

No wonder the ministry experienced amazing growth and support.

Lives are being saved

“Latest info we have is 2,900 contacts a month,” says Al Koschmann, a member of the mission’s board. “This means that if a person gets a water bottle on a Monday, comes to the mission for food on Tuesday, gets clothes a week later and comes to a worship service on Sunday—that would count as four touches.”

That growth attracted many other churches, too. Six people are on the board for the East Albuquerque Mission, and four of them are from different churches in New Mexico: Calvary Lutheran Church, Rio Rancho; Immanuel Lutheran Church, Albuquerque, (Koschmann’s church); Christ Lutheran Church, Albuquerque; and Redeemer Lutheran Church, Albuquerque. The San Andreas Circuit and LCMS Rocky Mountain District also back the mission. A circuit is a group of congregations within an LCMS district.

“It’s amazing how broad the support is,” Koschmann said. “The mission—and the people behind the mission—are there to serve these people. Our main goal is to love them.” Clearly, they are fulfilling a need because these contacts can be life-changing.

One of the mission evangelists spoke to a young Muslim man who showed up on their doorstep. The evangelist gave him some cold water and a little food and listened to his hurt. Turns out he was planning to go into the mountains and kill himself that afternoon. Instead of suicide, he came back to the mission several times, where he says he knows people treat him with kindness and respect.

“We pray the message of Jesus will turn his heart to faith in the Savior,” says Mueller.

Cebreros’ surprising Story

Lionel Cebreros wears many hats at the mission. He is the program coordinator, evangelist and counselor. His motto for the community is simple: “Whatever they need.”

Cebreros is very protective of the ministry and the people it serves because “they took care of me. I’ve been there. I’ve been down and out.”

He says that he and his wife had to leave El Paso, Texas, to have a life. “It was stay and die or leave and live,” he said. “All we had was a van and my wife was addicted to crack and I knew I had to get her out of there. So, we came to Albuquerque.”

They stayed with Cebreros’ uncle for a while, but that didn’t work out. “We fought all the time.” The couple tried to sell some of their belongings for food, but nobody would buy anything.

“One day we were walking down Central and heard people singing and smelled food, so we headed over there,” Cebreros said. “Paul walked out of the mission and asked us if we were hungry and we said, ‘Yes!’ and they have shown us love ever since.

“The mission saved me,” he said. “It’s our turn to help others. That’s why God’s given us this passion for the ministry. God cares for us, and we want others like me to know that.” This is how Cebreros could relate to the two men in the opening story.

How has the Kaleidoscope Fund helped?

Because the mission is growing, there is a constant demand for basic services like food, education and jobs. The board members have been wondering how to sustain it.

“The mission needs are all greater than the resources that we have,” Mueller said.

In April of 2017, the mission applied for The Kaleidoscope Fund grant, a granting program established by Lutheran Church Extension Fund. Six months later they learned they were awarded a grant.

“I want you to know,” Mueller said, “the Kaleidoscope Fund has been a blessing to our work in spreading the Gospel and the love of Jesus Christ to people in a very poor part of Albuquerque.”

The grant has allowed the mission to extend their ministry, create and implement a marketing plan and build a website. In addition, money will go towards rehabbing the two-car garage at the back of the house into a children’s home.

“The kids should have a space to call their own,” Cebreros said, “that is safe and away from the bad people.” There are about 40 to 60 kids who show up every Friday for the children’s activities.

The mission also wants to continue to train leaders from the ground up—people like Cebreros who appreciate the ministry of the mission the most because he benefitted from it personally.

“I probably wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the mission,” Cebreros said. “I owe Christ my life.”

God Cares About You—East Albuquerque Mission and its focus on loving the poor and powerless is exactly the kind of ministry the Kaleidoscope Fund was intended to support. Thank you, Paul, Lionel, Al and everyone else who volunteers and supports the mission to love your neighbors!

Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.