Church Community in Belen, NM

Church Community in Belen, NM
Church Community in Belen, NM

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Love Thy Neighbor: Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley, NM, Follows in Jesus’ Steps

Story by Debra Smith
Photos by Geraldine Wilkins

This article originally ran in Issue 50, Winter 2012 of Calvary Chapel Magazine. In 2014, Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley purchased its building and is the home of Canon Christian Academy, a K5-12 school, and Grounded Café and Bookstore—a full-service coffee shop serving breakfast and lunch daily.

Johnny Sanchez looked up from the Bible in his hands to the stern yet caring face of his pastor, Ray Jaramillo. It was 1997, and Johnny was a new Christian. Along with his wife, Jamie, he was receiving biblical marriage counseling at Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV) in Belen, NM. After several short-term separations and much talk of divorce, they were trying to save their marriage—and Johnny was finding his life revolutionized in the process. “Having not grown up attending church, I had absolutely no understanding of the Bible,” Johnny stated. “I was possessive and angry. Through the counseling and the biblical teaching I was hearing on Sunday mornings, I began to recognize I couldn’t control Jamie. I had to leave that up to God.”

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her. Ephesians 5:25

Racing truck

In August 2012, the Christian school at Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley, NM, hosted its annual mud bog benefit. Contestants race trucks and other vehicles through thick mud, while church members circulate throughout the crowd sharing the Gospel.

“What really convicted me was realizing that God desires our marriage to be an example of what Christ did for the church,” Johnny continued. “I wasn’t doing that—sacrificing my desires for Jamie’s good. In the two years since we had haphazardly gotten married after becoming pregnant, we had drifted further and further apart. Through God’s Word and firm but loving rebuke from pastoral leadership, I realized my lack of leadership in the family. I was not fulfilling my role as a husband and father. Now, 14 years later, our marriage is nowhere near perfect—but we’ve come a long way, by God’s grace.”


Johnny SanchezPastor Johnny Sanchez was director of Canon Christian Academy, the church’s school. The academy is one of CCRGV’s plethora of ministries to its town of approximately 7,000, Belen. Located in central New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley, it’s an area Pastor Ray described as “impoverished—with high drug, crime, high school dropout, and teen pregnancy rates. We’re in a mission field,” Ray observed, “and God has burdened our church for the community.” Ray and his wife, Margarite, planted CCRGV in 1992.

To reach into lives outside of the large congregation, the fellowship offers its facilities free of charge to dozens of groups. “The Lord gave us the desire to make our church available like a community center,” Ray said. “It’s a place where people love to gather.” Margarite explained, “Our doors are open to just about anybody. Our sanctuary is the biggest space in town for meetings, and people use the building for luncheons, conferences, funerals, and youth activities. Little League teams play on the 13 acres out back.” Many who first stepped onto the church property for some reason other than a worship service, the couple elaborated, have met believers there, heard the Gospel—and in time, come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Prayer for racer

Pastor Ray Jaramillo (right) prays for Eddie Matsu and his daughter before Eddie races. They were neighbors since before Eddie committed to Jesus.

Serving Coffee—and Eternal Life

“We have a coffee shop that is packed at lunchtime,” Margarite shared. “Police officers, school administrators, and others love the food. And the staff serve and love people so well, so eating here is an experience they won’t have in any other restaurant.” Peter Chavez first patronized the coffee shop in 2001. He was addicted to methamphetamines, and for years, he visited about every six months. “Peter would come in, we would tell him the Gospel, and he would leave,” Margarite recalled. “Finally one day, after talking with Ray in his office, he gave his heart to the Lord.” Peter’s girlfriend, Natasha, was soon incarcerated on drug charges. But after being released, she too surrendered her life to Christ, and the two married in 2008. They now have a baby, in addition to Natasha’s previous three children. Natasha and her oldest daughter work together in CCRGV’s coffee shop.

Men shake hands

Youth Pastor Shaun Gibson (right) greets a mud bog spectator before sharing the Gospel with him.

Discipling the Next Generation

After Johnny and Jamie Sanchez became part of the church in 1998, they took discipleship classes from Pastor Ray and began teaching and serving in various ministries. Johnny was a public school teacher; but eventually, he said, “I saw a void. We couldn’t use God’s Word, so the whole environment was devoid of biblical truth.” Through prayer, Johnny and Jamie decided they would either begin homeschooling their four children or start a school focused on discipleship. Soon, Johnny received an email announcing a convention at CC Fort Lauderdale, FL, for those considering opening Christian schools. Johnny, Ray, and another CCRGV pastor flew out, “And God confirmed His leading,” Johnny related. “We were praying a lot, and He started opening other doors too.”

The school opened in 2007 with 31 students; today, 160 attend. “Being a discipleship school,” Johnny reflected, “means teachers seek to address children’s hearts, not just their behavior. If you merely mow the weeds, they’ll grow back. Jesus says that the words coming out of our mouths show what’s really in our hearts (Luke 6:45). So we can’t just prohibit certain language or kinds of talk; we must help kids understand that they need Jesus to change their hearts. Only He can take away their jealousy or desire for gossip or revenge.” Even instructing students about God and the Bible, though vital, falls short of discipling them, Johnny stated: “We must train them to glorify God with their hearts and lives. And this obviously can’t be done without their parents,” he continued. Johnny meets with every prospective family and reads to them from Already Gone, a book in which authors Ken Ham and Britt Beemer contend that 80% of youth raised in Christian families leave the church during their university-age years. “If we keep doing the same thing, we’ll keep getting the same result,” Johnny tells parents during these meetings. “If we want a different result, we must do something differently.” He also reads to them from Scripture:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” Deuteronomy 6:5-8


Crowd members react as vehicles speed through mud in back lot of Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley, NM.

Johnny emphasized, “Canon Christian Academy exists to come alongside parents who accept their God-given responsibility to disciple their children. We can’t do that for parents; but we want to help them do so.” To equip parents to disciple their children, the school recently offered a parenting seminar featuring Pastor Scott Turansky of Calvary Chapel Mercer County, NJ. Scott has developed a heart-based approach to parenting that he teaches in churches around the country.

Investing Back Home

When Pastor Ray was 10 years old, his family moved from Belen to Southern California. Soon afterward, he remarked, “My mom got saved. She started jumping around from church to church, while my dad stayed home and drank and did drugs. I usually went to church with my mom. But when I was about 13, my dad started influencing me more. I tried to share the Gospel with him, but he convinced me instead that my mom was brainwashing me. Then he invited me to smoke a joint with him. That marked the beginning of my descent. Over the following years, I became a heavy drug user.”

Ray came to know the Lord at age 23 at the California church pastored by Raul Ries. Within a few months, Ray remembered, “The Lord gave me a burden for my home community of Rio Grande Valley. Some nights I’d go to bed weeping for those who don’t know the Lord. God was stirring my heart to return to New Mexico and start a church, so I started Bible school.” Ray soon met Margarite while both were serving at a church event. Desiring to see her more, he added to his schedule the Bible school class she was taking. They married in 1990.

Racing wide shot

The all-day family event is distinguished from most other mud bogs by offering activities for children. The event draws thousands in the 7,000-person town of Belen.

“From the beginning of our relationship,” Margarite recalled, “I knew he was moving back to New Mexico to be a pastor. I had never heard of Belen, but I was a young Christian and eager to do whatever God wanted me to do. I was praying about it, and the Lord gave me peace about moving.”

The Jaramillos chose a Belen house with a basement, where they held church services with 40-50 people for almost a year. “We eventually started getting complaints from neighbors about all the cars lining the streets, so we moved into a little storefront building downtown,” Ray expressed. After outgrowing that location and then another, “We made a ridiculously low offer on leasing an empty Walmart store we’d been dreaming about for a few years,” he continued. “We thought they would never accept it, but they did.” The church made half the building into a sanctuary, classrooms, and coffee shop and planned to sublease the other half; but after two years, more expansion was necessary. They then built the entire building into space for the church and its ministries.

Teacher prays

Preschool teacher Gloria Gallegos prays with a student at CC Rio Grande Valley’s school, Canon Christian Academy. The school emphasizes discipling children in God’s ways by focusing on obedience from the heart. Parents and teachers are trained to guide children in asking the Lord for help amidst challenges such as this one, in which the young boy was having trouble following his teacher’s directions.

Walking by Faith

Early on, Ray admitted, “There were many times I was so discouraged and felt like maybe God didn’t really call us here. As I would seek God, He always reminded me of what He was doing. So many times, that reassurance came from the Book of Nehemiah.” When messengers from Nehemiah’s hometown, Jerusalem, brought him news in a distant city that Jerusalem was in shambles, Nehemiah said, “I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4b). Ray explained, “The Lord had burdened my heart, like Nehemiah’s, to return and serve in my hometown. But Nehemiah’s enemies, Sanballat and Tobiah, were constantly there, trying to thwart God’s purposes. The Lord wanted Nehemiah—and me, at those times—to take comfort in Him, and persevere.”


Congregants worship God during a Sunday morning service.

Immediately after leasing the Walmart, Ray remembered, “We ran completely out of resources. A few of us church leaders took a day to go cry out to the Lord, and on our way back we stopped at a pizza place. As we stood up to leave, a young girl who worked there said, ‘You’re Pastor Ray, aren’t you? Can you wait a minute—I have something I’ve been wanting to give you, but I don’t have transportation and haven’t been able to get to church recently.’ She reentered a few minutes later with an envelope. I opened it on the way home; to my amazement, it contained $500. She had come to church a few times, given her heart to the Lord, and been saving the money since. The Lord can provide—through anyone, anywhere. We have taken some huge steps of faith through the years, and He has never failed to come through. We have learned of His faithfulness.”

Pastor Ray fellowships with ladies

Pastor Ray rejoices with Emily Thul (left) and Tillie Garcia (center) after hearing the news that Tillie’s cancerous tumor had shrunk and she was not experiencing any pain.


Prayer for army recruit

Ray prays for Giovani Miranda, who recently went to Army boot camp.


Café fellowship

Churchgoers chat at the church’s coffee shop, which provides relationship-building opportunities for the many who fellowship there on Sundays and during the week.


Children pray

Children’s Pastor Martin Olivas prays with children desiring to repent of their sins and trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.


People talking after service

Ray and his wife Margarite (center) talk with Sue Rowlison after a Sunday service.


Youth Bible study

Kristina Judson, 21, teaches Bible study skills to middle school students on a Sunday morning. Despite illnesses that limit her physically and threaten further disability, Kristina frequently speaks of God’s goodness at church and in hospitals.



All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version.

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.