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Westside churches stay true to mission while changing outreach
First Baptist Church celebrated their 100-year anniversary in 2009. - photo by Photo Contributed
 This is the beginning of a five-part series on the area of town known as the Westside. Today’s article is the first in a two-part look at the faith community and its role on the Westside. Coming articles will focus on crime, business and the people of the Westside.

Every community big enough to be called a city has one. That area of town that used to be the heart and soul of the community, but has long been forsaken for newer areas by developers and incoming businesses.
When businesses — and their tax dollars — leave a part of town, it’s not soon after that a feeling of abandonment is often felt by the remaining neighborhood. This is the part of town that immigrants, those with limited financial resources, and, all too often, criminals move in to. Turlock’s Westside is one of these areas.
Turlock in the 1930s was much different than it is today, especially on the side of town known as the Westside — generally defined by the area west of Lander Avenue and south of Fulkerth Road. In the ‘30s, the Westside would have been known as Turlock proper, the center of business, city government and residential growth.
It was also in the 1930s that Turlock earned renown through “Ripley’s Believe It nor Not” as having the most churches per capita in the United States. While Turlock is still a deeply religious community, few churches remain in what was once the heart of the city.
Two of the churches that were founded in the early 20th century and remain today are Turlock Covenant Church and First Baptist Church of Turlock. While their congregation and outreach programs have changed over the decades, their mission to minister to those in their community has stayed constant.
“At one point, this was the biggest church in town,” said Reverend Steve Carlson of Turlock Covenant.
Turlock Covenant was founded by Swedish immigrants lured west from Chicago in search of fertile farmland. Although the sand and dust that made up the majority of Central Valley land in 1902 was heartbreaking to the new arrivals, they decided to stay and set about building a church, school and homes.
“This church continues to say, ‘We are a church with a heart for the community,’” Carlson said.
First Baptist has a similar history, dating back to 1909. And, like Turlock Covenant, the congregation of First Baptist also made a commitment to continue to minister to the people in their community, even as they saw other founding churches move across town.
Both churches found themselves in a unique situation — having resources such as large, beautiful buildings and support from their respective international denominations, but also dealing with diminishing and aging congregations. Each church found a way to make the most of their assets and reach their neighborhood community.
Turlock Covenant, with the support of their national council, brought in a Spanish-speaking pastor in the 1980s to minister to the large Hispanic and Latino community that surrounds the church. The Spanish-speaking ministry has grown over the years into today’s Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico, a sister Covenant church that shares the Laurel Street building.
Pastor Samuel Galdamez of Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico has been ministering to the families on the Westside since 1991. Over the past 18 years, Galdamez’ role in the community has changed.
“I’m not just a pastor of this church, but I’m a pastor to the community,” he said.
When Galdamez first arrived, he acted as a go-between for Spanish-speaking community members and local government and social service agencies. He also opened up lines of communication between residents of the Westside and the police department.
“When I first got here, there was more graffiti in the area and in the alleys, a lot of trash. Just in the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of change,” Galdamez said.
Over the past few years, Galdamez said the focus of his ministry has changed to a more spiritual center.
“When (people) make a spiritual change, I see a change and it helps the family,” he said.
The number one need Galdamez sees today on the Westside is reaching the youth. Both Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico and Turlock Covenant have been focusing their outreach programs on children, and junior high age youth in particular.
“The church needs to be a place where they can come and be safe, not just read the Bible,” Galdamez said.
Addressing the difficulties youth on the Westside face and offering them counsel and alternatives to gangs and drugs has been a primary goal, said both pastors.
“We’re trying to move towards hospitality, instead of hostility in difficult neighborhoods,” said Turlock Covenant Associate Pastor Tim Hawkinson.
In an effort to make a difference in the community, one Saturday morning every month the youth of the church take to the streets, picking up trash from the alleyways and painting fences for the elderly.
“Young boys who could be tagging the alleys are now cleaning up,” Hawkinson said.
The church is also looking to bring up bicultural leaders, such as Samuel Galdamez’ son and junior high ministry intern Willie Galdamez. Willie Galdamez, like many 20 year olds in the area, grew up in a primarily Spanish-speaking home on the Westside of Turlock, but is fluent in English and American culture.
He said that in the Hispanic community, it is important to build relationships first then recognize what problems exist, stop them and figure out a way to prevent them from reoccurring.
“If we don’t address generational poverty and drug addiction, painting a door won’t make a difference,” Hawkinson said.
While the pastors of Turlock Covenant and Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico deal with the unpleasant aspects of the Westside community regularly, they also said that the criminal element is only a fraction of the families who live on the Westside. The majority of community members are law abiding, good citizens and neighbors who sometimes struggle due to economic conditions, Carlson said.
While Turlock Covenant has focused their current outreach on the Hispanic and Latino communities on the Westside, First Baptist has used their resources to house the town’s first faith-based homeless mission.
Three years ago, a committee was formed made up of local Christians who believed the church community should step in and help the homeless. Soon after, they approached First Baptist as a possible mission site based on the church’s proximity to the downtown area, said Reverend Bob Reichert.
“Our congregation recognized we could alter our programs and facility use to allow the mission to use our facility,” Reichert said. “(The congregation) determined this is what God would want.”
The Turlock Gospel Mission headquarters have been located at First Baptist ever since. The gospel mission’s ministry of spreading the Good Word of Jesus Christ through words and action is in line with First Baptist’s goals, said Reichert.
“The salvation of the Westside would best be accomplished by faith-based organizations because ultimately, humanity must be changed from within,” Reichert said.
Two churches founded by one of Turlock’s first wave of immigrants have asked themselves a question articulated best by Reverend Carlson of Turlock Covenant, “If we closed the doors and moved away, who would miss us?”
Both Turlock Covenant and First Baptist have found a way to honestly answer that question with, “the community on the Westside of Turlock would miss us.”
To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.