Zeke Nelson helped Delhi find its soul.
The unincorporated area of about 10,000 people in North Merced County lacked a sense of community when Nelson arrived about five years ago.
There were few activities for youth. Unemployment was high. So was crime.
That's mostly still the case, but Church of the Cross, the small congregation Nelson leads with his wife, Rebecca, has been working hard for change.
"New churches that are active and involved have a certain energy," Nelson said. "When a church is strong enough, and active enough, it spills out into the community."
Nelson, a church planter affiliated with Gateway Community Church in Merced, says it's his church's mission to live out the example set by Jesus Christ. For Nelson and his church's followers, that means doing a variety of community-oriented projects, such as offering English classes and working with youth. The church has helped organize community barbecues, bicycle clinics and multicultural holiday services in attempts to reach out to Delhi residents.
Like other rural Central Valley communities, Delhi struggles with gang and drug problems. Nelson said he's honored to have been able to counsel locals who are often hitting low points in their lives. "I've had the opportunity to walk alongside people with family members in jail. Gang members will ask to talk with us. It's kind of a privilege," he said.
The church also works with people assigned by the county court system to community service. One man, after completing his community service with Church of the Cross, offered his property to the church for use as a community garden, Nelson said. "People know who we are and appreciate what we're doing," he said.
A Washington state native, Nelson, 33, came to Merced after working in Mexico City and Honduras. The Valley was as alien to him as either of his previous homes. He had never seen an almond tree before. He had to adjust to the change in temperature -- and it didn't help that Merced, at the time, was going through an extended triple-digit heat wave.
And the first thing he noticed about Merced? "Everybody in the Valley seemed to drive a pickup."
Today, Nelson, his wife and their four children are entrenched in the Delhi community, even as he's been working to establish another church a few miles away in Livingston.
A small group identifying itself as Church of the King has been meeting at 10 a.m. each Sunday in Livingston's Memorial Park for Bible studies and barbecues.
His experiences in Delhi have helped him prepare for such new challenges, but Livingston is a different animal, Nelson said.
"Livingston has more of a sense of identity. It's a multicultural, multiethnic setting." That's why he tapped Alfonso Silveira, who leads a Spanish-speaking congregation in Merced, and Kenny and Marilyn Perumalla, Christian missionaries from India ministering to the local Sikh population. Services will be offered in English and Spanish and perhaps Punjabi, Nelson said.
In July, they started going house to house to get the word out about the new Livingston church. So far, they've been met with an enthusiastic response, he said.
"There's always a need for solid witness," Nelson said. "When we're doing community development work, some people may think it's only a block party, but for me, it's not separate from the other work we do. It's sharing the Gospel and living it out."
For information on Church of the Cross in Delhi or Church of the King in Livingston, call Nelson at (209) 656-1439.
Online editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 385-2464.
EDITOR'S NOTE: 'Merced Matters' appears every Monday. In it we will tell the stories of Mercedians -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and a lot in between. We hope you like our effort to let you know more about others in our community, and we welcome your suggestions. Please contact Mike Tharp at email@example.com or (209) 385-2456 with your ideas for 'Merced Matters.'