Sticking with the Vision - Interview with David Santiago ’11 M.Div.

David Santiago ’11 M.Div. has been the lead pastor of Triumphant Church in New Britain, CT, since 1998. The church has evolved denominationally over the decades. It began in 1964 as an Assemblies of God congregation, then became independent for several years. It recently joined the American Baptist Churches USA. Santiago was born in the Bronx to parents from Puerto Rico. He has a B.A. from Evangel University in Missouri, and has earned four units of clinical pastoral education at Hartford Hospital. He is also a chaplain for the Connecticut Department of Correction.

REFLECTIONS: You describe your 400-member congregation as multicultural. What does it take to create meaningful diversity?

DAVID SANTIAGO: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever committed to. I was born to challenge the notion that God is okay with the fact that 11 a.m. on Sundays is still the most segregated hour of the week. With about 50 percent of our congregation Latino, 30 percent Black, and about 20 percent Caucasian, we still have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re giving it our best effort. I’ve reinvented the way I preach. I can’t be that fiery preacher anymore. I had to tone it down, scale it back, in order to connect with everyone at once. Our music has become gloriously complicated. Fellowship events that involve food are especially challenging, since we strive to be representative. Going multicultural/multiethnic is hard work. But its reward – love building all of us together – is worth it. My personal motto has become “not I, but Christ through me.”

REFLECTIONS: You’ve been at one church nearly 20 years. Did you plan it that way?

SANTIAGO: Before entering the ministry, I asked God for one thing: that I would be permitted to invest the rest of my life in one place. Reaching your full potential requires staying in one place long enough for God to teach you how to walk worthy of the call. Harvest happens in due season. For pastors, it comes down to a choice. Either you become a congregation’s chaplain who specializes in baptisms, nuptials, and funerals, or you become a congregation’s visionary leader. For most, the latter will require a lifetime of service.

REFLECTIONS: How do you deal with setbacks or moments of discouragement?

SANTIAGO: Years ago, we purchased 12 school buses in order to reach the youngsters living in our city’s six public housing developments. We bussed over 500 children to our location on Sunday mornings for a program called “Super Church.” The 75-minute program included a praise-and-play session with loud and upbeat music, an illustrated sermon, and lots of sweets. It was so successful that within 10 months we maxed out the capacity of two gyms. Because of fire codes, we had to suspend the program temporarily while searching for a larger venue. During that period, unfortunately, the 12 idle buses were all vandalized and damaged beyond our ability to repair them. So we gave them away, shipping them off to a ministry in Guatemala. That was very heartbreaking, but you can’t get stuck. You must move on and dream again.

REFLECTIONS: How did your vocation come about?

SANTIAGO: After responding to what I perceived was God’s calling upon my life, I went up the proverbial mountain in search of a grounding and sustaining vision. Once I got it, I wrote it down. I’ve been reading that piece of paper for almost 20 years. The more I look at it, the more I realize that I will grow old pursing it. God gives vision to one person, one leader, one steward, not a committee or a congregation at large. Personal ownership is required, if the vision is going to survive the test of time. Then it’s the visionary’s responsibility to enlist others to see it come to pass, a task that will squeeze both the best and worst out of you.

REFLECTIONS: How would you describe your church’s theology today?

SANTIAGO: The chief goal of every believer should be to become more and more like Jesus. At Triumphant Church we believe this goal is best achieved through small steps of commitment. Nothing significant and long-lasting occurs instantaneously, so at Triumphant we take special care to provide plenty of opportunities for spiritual growth while encouraging people to move at their own pace. For people who are serious about God, a commitment to faithfully attend one of the weekend services is a good start. Going deeper in the faith would include a commitment to participate in a small group. Other levels of commitment include water baptism and church membership, spiritual study, participating in a ministry, and sharing with others outside the spiritual family.

REFLECTIONS: Is there advice you’d offer a young ministerin- training?

SANTIAGO: Yes, three things. First, ask God to give you a vision that is bigger than you. Second, understand that just because God gave you a vision, that doesn’t mean it will be accepted readily by everyone. Don’t force it. Move only when favored to do so. Lastly, learn to love through presence. Take your sandals off; if God called you, you’ll be there a while.