Meet Pastor José Luis Escalera, Bishop’s Associate for Mission

Dec 20, 2023

by Bishop Michael Rinehart

Pastor José moved to Texas and began his work with us in the Gulf Coast Synod in November. This week I sat down with him to hear about his journey in ministry. 

José was born in Ponce, a town in the south of the Island of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico (“Rich Port”) is an island in the North Caribbean Sea, about a thousand miles from Miami and 2,000 miles from Houston. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but Puerto Rico is considered a U.S. territory, not a state. As such, residents of Puerto Rico do not pay income taxes and do not vote in U.S. elections. Puerto Rico has a non-voting representative in Congress.

Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands make up the ELCA’s Caribbean Synod, one of 65 synods in our church. On the island of Puerto Rico, there are nearly 30 ELCA congregations. The Caribbean Synod includes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The oldest Lutheran congregation in North America is on the island of St. Thomas; Frederick Lutheran in Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands, was established in 1666.

José’s father worked for Texaco. José and his younger brother were born in Ponce, but shortly after that, his father was transferred to the metropolitan area of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s largest city, about two hours away on the north side of the island.

They moved to an area called Levittown, a planned community where a sidewalk ran behind the houses. This is where he played, and where people gathered. Many childhood memories are from this setting. His dad was church council president when José was five years old. They worshipped from Culto Cristiano, a Spanish worship book used by several Lutheran denominations in North America. It was published in 1964 by Publicaciones El Escudo and was a loose translation of the Service Book and Hymnal, 1958.

“We sang the Kyrie and Gloria in the style of a Gregorian chant.” He became more and more more involved in the church as he grew up. José was the president of the youth organization for one of the three conferences in Puerto Rico. Pastor Rafael Malpica came to his congregation as an intern, from Philadelphia. When his internship ended, the congregation called him to be their pastor. In time, Pastor Malpica became Bishop Malpica of the Caribbean Synod, the youngest bishop ever elected in the ELCA at the time.

Although he had plans to go to seminary with his friend Javier Goitia, plans changed, and José decided to join the Air Force instead. While in the Air Force, he was stationed in northwest Florida. There was an English-speaking Lutheran church he would visit. The congregation used the new Lutheran Book of Worship. José translated the liturgy into Spanish. He also found himself worshipping at an ecumenical service at the base in the evenings.

When his tour of service ended, he went back to Puerto Pico and continued working on his degree in finance. Upon graduation, he began working with a financial institution attached to ITT Intermedia. He got married and had a son, Alejandro. When his home congregation had an anniversary celebration, his friend Javier Goitia came back, having been invited to preach. He said, “José, there is still time for you to go to seminary.” José took this to heart and moved his family to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), founded in 1864, now United Lutheran Seminary.

Once he had completed seminary, Pastor Escalera returned to Puerto Rico for about 15 years, working a full-time job in finance during the week and serving as part-time pastor. During this time, he and his wife separated. Five years after the divorce, he connected with Magda. Raised Roman Catholic, Magda had been invited to church at José’s congregation. He was baptizing a child that Sunday. The parents of the child were friends of Magda, and they invited her to the baptism. She, too, was divorced. Conversations in time led to a relationship. José and his son, Alejandro, and Magda and her daughter, Astrid, formed a blended family.

In 2019, when Alejandro and Astrid were grown and out of the nest, they began to consider other options. The company José was working with was merging with Wells Fargo. Another person at Wells Fargo held the same position as he did. He was told his position was going to be eliminated. It seemed a good time to return to the States.

Epiphany Lutheran Church was an Anglo congregation in New Jersey launching a Latino ministry. He began his work, and people started coming. In time, however, the Anglo side of the congregation declined and decided to close and sell the building.

From there, the bishop asked him to work part-time with Temple Lutheran Church. They were redeveloping and launching a parallel ministry with the Latino community that was growing in the neighborhood around the church. José jumped in and began doing outreach with the support of the leadership and congregation. People began to show up and were well-received by the existing members. The congregation was growing when he received a phone call from Bishop Mike, who had been given his name by Bishop Pedro Suarez, who formerly served on staff here at the Gulf Coast Synod.

Out of a slate of two dozen applicants, José was one of the applicants invited to interview. He and Magda flew to Houston where they interviewed the Gulf Coast Synod, and the Gulf Coast Synod interviewed them. After prayerful consideration, José and the Gulf Coast Synod decided it was a match, and here we are.

As Bishop’s Associate for Mission, half of José’s job description involves working with the Gulf Coast Synod Mission Table to plant new faith communities and renewing existing ones. A list of new and renewing congregations can be found HERE.

The other half of his job description includes important aspects of the Gulf Coast Synod Strategic Plan: first, developing a Lay School to invest in our people and support congregational ministry, and second, attending to diversity and hospitality ministries with those who have been underrepresented and historically marginalized. In addition to and in support of this, he will visit congregations and conferences, represent the Office of the Bishop, and speak publicly for the sake of the gospel.

Having started only weeks ago, he is already preaching weekly in congregations. Invite him! He is meeting with conferences, committees, and key leaders. He has visited Lutherhill. His priorities are getting to know the people, clergy, and congregations of this synod and digging into the strategic plan objectives. He hopes to engage the Mesa Latina’s plans for Latino ministry in this synod.

José says, “Magda and I are very happy to be here and grateful to God for this new opportunity, this new enterprise of faith that we embrace, and we trust, as always in God’s will. I hope that we can reach out not just to the Lutheran community but to everyone we encounter in our journey.”