Alvaro and Lesly Gomez escaped political persecution, rampant crime and poverty in Guatemala nearly 25 years ago during the tail end of civil war.
Today, they run the largest Spanish-speaking church in the Spokane area. Prior to COVID-19 restrictions, 300 parishioners gathered at the Comunidad Cristiana de Spokane church in Spokane Valley each Sunday.
The couple is also launching a nonprofit to help Spokane-area Spanish-speaking immigrants address their basic needs – housing, medical care and education.
Though the two have been working and studying in the United States for about 25 years, they have “no idea” when they’ll get their citizenship, Alvaro said.
The Gomezes feel lucky, but they’re frustrated for members of their congregation in situations like theirs; they have worked in the United States for decades but have not been granted citizenship.
“North, Central and South America are beautiful places to live, but our governments are very corrupt, very selfish,” Lesly said. “We work hard, we study and nothing is free. We’re not here to destroy or take anything away from others. We’re here to work and give our families better opportunities to live.”
Lesly describes Guatemala as a beautiful country, but “very insecure.”
“The people don’t have money, they find any way to find money. Gangs,” she said.
Alvaro and Lesly were both attending university in the 1990s during the tail end of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that killed 200,000 people, mostly Mayans.
A United Nations-backed commission found 93% of human rights violations during the war were carried out by state forces and the military. That report also found the United States’ involvement in Guatemala was key in contributing to human rights violations.
Alvaro said he began protesting when the government moved to increase public transportation costs.
Today, close to two-thirds of the country’s population live below the national poverty line and one-quarter live in extreme poverty, according to the CIA’s overview of the country. At the time, Alvaro said the increase in bus fare would eat up about a third of the average Guatemalan’s daily income. So he and his friends took to the streets.
Shortly after, government personnel started following him and nine other students who led had protests, he said.
“I remember they sent me an anonymous letter to say something like, ‘Hey, you have to go from Guatemala because you’re in trouble,’ you know?” Alvaro said. “It was not just me. Nine people received the letter.”
Alvaro believed he would be killed if he didn’t leave. He and the other young leaders in the protests fled. The group ended up scattered across the globe in Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States.
Lesly said crime was a main factor that drove her to the United States. She rode the buses daily during her time in school and witnessed many robberies, she said. On three occasions, men followed her off of the bus.
“One time a guy put a knife at my side, like, ‘Give me your stuff,’ and I said, ‘All I have is my backpack and my books,’ ” Lesly said. “He said, ‘Don’t lie to me,’ and he pushed it harder. Thank the Lord I was OK.”
Another time, a man followed her off the bus, a woman noticed and pretended to know Lesly.
“She opened the door and looked at me and said, ‘Good, you’re coming. I’ve been waiting for you,’ but she’d never seen me,” Lesly said.
After several hours in the stranger’s home, Lesly left and found the man still waiting for her.
“After like 7 o’clock, you cannot go out,” Lesly said. “You don’t have a choice.”
Both, though several years into their education pursuing their bachelor’s degrees, had to drop their education to flee. Alvaro finally received his degree in 2012 and Lesly is a few months away from receiving a bachelor’s in theology.
The couple met in Los Angeles in 1997 and have three children. Alvaro worked in a machine shop and Lesly as a building manager for more than a decade.
After 10 years attending a church with a Spanish-speaking congregation in L.A., clergy there approached Alvaro about studying to become a reverend.
In 2008, they visited Spokane to see family. He remembered a family member saying, “Spokane is the place to move.”
“I said, you know what, my God, there’s a lot of white people here,” Alvaro said and laughed. “It’s so far and cold and I started to make a lot of complaints. But we started to pray and God opened the doors.”
The couple recognized that, while in L.A. there had been Spanish-speaking business owners and congregations “everywhere,” Spokane had a population of about 12,000 Latinos but not one church with Spanish services. As of 2019, Spokane had about 13,000 Hispanic or Latino residents, according to census estimates.
“I said to my husband, ‘If the Lord works for us, why Spokane?’ Because there’s nothing here. We have to do something,” Lesly said. “I didn’t know if God was paying attention to that conversation.”
In 2012, the year Alvaro received his bachelor’s in theology from L.A. Pacific University, the Gomez family moved to Spokane and began a Spanish language Bible study group, Alvaro said. As the group swelled, the pair looked for a building.
In 2013, the two started their church.
When the church began, the congregation was made up of immigrants from Mexico and Honduras. Now it’s expanded to include 16 Latin American nationalities and some Russian and South Asian attendees married to Spanish speakers.
They want to share their faith because, Lesly said, “when you’re thinking about spirituality, you have hope. For a human being, it’s the most important thing to have.”
But they want to help welcome all Spanish speakers to the community, outside of the structure of a religious gathering, Lesly said.
That’s why they are launching Family Orientation Center or Centro de Orientación Familiar to teach English to immigrants in Spokane and help them with the daily and annual tasks that require English language skills – finding work, securing an apartment or house, enrolling a child in school and medical situations.
“People need to know they are welcome here and they are part of this city,” Alvaro said.
“We want to work hard to build this community different than the rest of the United States, in the rest of the U.S. there’s a lot of struggles.”
Though COVID-19 threw a wrench in their plans, they hope to open in spring and are chipping away at paperwork to obtain 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service.
“We didn’t feel welcome in Los Angeles. When I saw how people are acting here to us, it was a blessing. This is a good city where people are really nice,” Lesly said.
Alvaro said he and his wife have settled in Spokane to work together with the community.
“We are here because we want to do our best to build this community strong,” Alvaro said. “It’s easier when we work in unity and, believe me, we are here because we want a better life and we want to build Spokane.”
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