The Good Shepherd

It all started at 1031 Dolores Street in Bakersfield, California. The year was 1965, and five young families crowded together in the kitchen of a two-bedroom home to learn about topics such as grammar, spelling, and Scripture.

“Now you can imagine in a two-bedroom house just how big the kitchen is,” says the home-owner Ben Herrera, chuckling. “If you turn around, you’d better be careful or you’ll knock the dishes over!” Pastor and early church-planter Miguel Guajardo initiated the gathering, a collection of families new to the area and searching for community. But after just two weeks, “they didn’t fit in there no more,” says Herrera, so they relocated to the garage. Three more months passed, and they realized the group would need much more than a 720 square foot home to continue. So one afternoon, each family came with a $100 bill in hand. They purchased a small church on 1100 Height Street and named it El Buen Pastor, meaning “The Good Shepherd.”

“Shepherd my People”

For the next 35 years, the church moved in and out of facilities, expanding and shrinking in attendance. But by the year 2000, the church had deteriorated to a point where there was little hope of revival. In response, the superintendent at the time and a senior pastor from the neighboring town of McFarland decided to temporarily send Rev. Saul D. Gonzalez, an associate pastor and well-known evangelist, to revive the struggling church.

On Pastor Saul’s first Sunday at El Buen Pastor, there were 15–17 people in the congregation. The church had accumulated thousands of dollars of debt while constructing a new facility, and the building was left looking scant and skeletal. “They had a gas generator in one of the side rooms with a cord going to the guitar and the microphone on stage. You could smell the gas fumes under the door,” he says. After a couple months, Pastor Saul came to church early one Sunday to pray for the services. As he knelt before the altar in the empty sanctuary, he heard the Lord speak above the silence. “I brought you to this house of worship to stay and shepherd my people.” In this very moment, Saul knew the Lord Himself had spoken, and he immediately petitioned God for wisdom and direction.

A Closed Door

Within a few short years, El Buen Pastor had grown exponentially, and the church debt was paid in full. By 2005, they had enough savings to purchase a new building, a necessary upgrade considering their increase in attendance. Pastor Saul was leading two services in a sanctuary that seated approximately 240 people, while he and his staff prayed about adding a third service. “We were really needing God to open a door,” he says.

To accommodate the overflowing congregation, El Buen Pastor conducted occasional joint services at a much bigger Assemblies of God facility. The ministries experienced a great relationship, and later Pastor Saul approached the pastor of the larger church about coming in under his leadership, in hopes of better serving the needs of both congregations. After determining the proposal was not amenable at the time, both churches sought to separately pursue their respective missions.

Following the news, Pastor Saul felt impressed and challenged by God to pray for peace, health, and growth for the local church. The Lord prompted him to write a letter to the pastor and the board, thanking them for their kindness and informing them that El Buen Pastor would be praying for their future success. Pastor Saul then asked his own board to partner with him in praying that God would enlarge and truly prosper their sister church. In the midst of prayers and patience, Pastor Saul felt confident that God’s plan was still in motion. “God has something else for us,” he stated.

“A Seminal Moment”

As Pastor Saul and his church waited for God’s “something else” to come along, they felt a clear calling to enhance their vision to include and minister to not only the Spanish-speaking but also the English-speaking community. “We felt that God wanted us to be a bridge between languages, cultures, and generations,” he says. “In His Providence, God had uniquely positioned us to be a bilingual, multicultural, and transgenerational church.” To complement these improvements, El Buen Pastor also adopted a new name and became Cornerstone Christian Community.

Months later, Pastor Saul and his wife Linda were driving through Bakersfield in search of a new church property. They visited a few locations, but found little potential in each. Finally, they decided to stop by the aforementioned, larger AG church. While sitting in the empty parking lot, they gazed ahead at the sanctuary they wished they could call their own. “Honey,” Pastor Saul said, “let’s pray for this church.” With clasped hands and bowed heads, they asked God to bless the pastor and his congregation with growth and prosperity. Afterwards, Saul looked up at the sanctuary once more. “One day, if we are faithful to God, three years from now, five years, seven years,” he said, “God will bless us with a property like this.” On the drive home, both felt a “very strange peace” settle over them.

The next morning at 9AM, Pastor Saul received a call from the local pastor who shared that his church was ready for a transition. They wanted to begin a new work and sell their current sanctuary, and their board had decided to give El Buen Pastor the opportunity to make the first offer. “God spoke to their board collectively,” says Pastor Saul. “They remembered the letter we had sent them.” He thought back on the challenge and testing he felt when the Lord instructed him to write the letter and calls it “a seminal moment.” “It’s the moment where God sees whether we’re spiritually ready for a larger blessing,” he says. “I think that a lot of us miss out on God’s blessings because we take rejection the wrong way.”

Engaged in Community

Thanks to the Lord’s orchestration, Pastor Saul’s humility, and the local pastor and board’s generosity, Cornerstone was able to purchase their new home for a quarter of the appraised value. Today, the thriving church continues to expand rapidly and meet numerous needs in the community. In fact, Cornerstone has been able to tremendously bless Bakersfield’s homeless population through a fruitful partnership with the Hope Center—a nonprofit organization that provides food, clothing, spiritual support, and more. The ministry leases their building from Cornerstone and sits only a few steps away from the church’s main sanctuary. “We have a very close working relationship with the church,” says Bill Richert, the Hope Center’s current executive director. “The setting really lends itself to what we do.” In 2015 alone, they served around 70,000 families. “It brings great joy to my heart to know that this church is in partnership with ministries having this type of impact,” says Pastor Saul.

Furthermore, Cornerstone has also been able to meet needs outside the nearby community, planting churches in Delano, Wasco, and East Bakersfield—with plans to add a fourth location. Though the attendance once hovered just above a dozen, Cornerstone now serves over 1,100 consistent members. “This man has a vision of expanding the Gospel,” says Herrera, a “regular” at Cornerstone, “and God is honoring it.”

Welcoming the Seed

As Cornerstone remains attentive to God’s leading, Pastor Saul recognizes that caring for his congregation must extend beyond preaching. “Every church has the responsibility of stewardship of lives and souls, but also stewardship of managing income and resources,” he says. So when Pastor Saul and the board at Cornerstone developed a goal to pay off the church in five years, he reached out to Church Extension Plan for support. “The spirit in which CEP works is the closest thing I know to a true partner in ministry,” he says. Pastor Saul worked with CEP’s Rev. John Garcia and Rev. Jeremy Stamback and received not only financial guidance, but spiritual encouragement as well. “We thank God for CEP,” he says. “Our relationship with CEP is a close partnership. It’s not business. It’s ministry.”

With CEP’s support and the Lord’s divine direction, Pastor Saul is confident that Cornerstone’s best days are yet to come. “I think God is pushing us out of our comfort zone,” he says. “We’re becoming a church that is very engaged in the community, and that’s what excites me the most.” In the midst of the church’s consistent expansion and anticipation for future impact, Ben Herrera remembers the past, reflecting on the intimate gathering in his kitchen back in 1965. “The story of this group,” he says, “it wasn’t planned at all. We opened our house for these fellowships, and God took them beyond that,” he pauses to swallow the knot in his throat and clutches his wife’s hand. “All I can say is it was our privilege to be the ones that welcomed the seed that produced this church.”