PAULLINA—At first glance, the Rev. Dr. Angel De La Cruz, Paullina’s newest pastor, seems like an odd fit for the O’Brien County community of about 1,060 mostly Caucasian residents.
De La Cruz is a self-described black Latino from New York, whose large figure, friendliness and boisterous personality help him stand out in any crowd.
The 53-year-old was named minister of Paullina’s 134-year-old First Presbyterian Church in June. He delivered his first official sermon to the congregation on July 3.
Moving to Iowa provided a bit of a culture shock initially, but De Le Cruz noted the progressiveness of his church quickly erased any doubts about the decision.
“When we met and talked, we knew God was calling us together, and their hearts were so open to it — that again shouldn’t surprise me because that’s how our theology works,” he said.
De La Cruz comes to First Presbyterian from Word Centered Presbyterian Church in Sharon, PA. He founded that ministry 12 years ago, and at the time it was the first new church charter in 102 years within the Shenango Presbytery, which consists of 49 western Pennsylvania churches and about 6,000 members
The Harlem-born clergyman, who holds a doctorate in ministry, started searching for a new flock to lead about 18 months ago. He said he searched all over the country and as far as Europe for his next church home, but did not have much luck.
Like most people of faith, during a difficult time he turned to one source to guide him through the situation.
“I said, ‘Lord, I’ll go wherever you want.’ Two months later is when Paullina called,” De La Cruz said. “They said, ‘Well, Angel. We see you sent your resume here, do you mind if we talk some more? ‘I said, ‘OK,’ because I didn’t think anybody would call me from Iowa.”
‘Unanimously voted for’
After the initial conversation with First Presbyterian, De La Cruz asked his wife of 18 years, Charlene, about the possibility of moving to Iowa. Likewise, she thought the prospect of them moving from Pennsylvania to Iowa seemed improbable.
Since March, De La Cruz had been vetted by the church’s pastor nominating committee to see if he was the right person to lead the congregation. This process included Skype interviews, multiple background checks by local officials as well as the church’s parent organization, Presbyterian Church USA. Things culminated in June when De La Cruz delivered a neutral pulpit sermon, which serves as a test sermon for pastoral candidates.
“I was unanimously voted in after the sermon,” he said. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened here, and it’s the first time that’s ever happened in my career where I was unanimously voted for — not one ‘no.’”
De La Cruz said one thing the committee found appealing about him was his preaching style. His preaching style and mannerisms are grounded from his roots within the black church. Sermons in black churches typically feature more engagement and vocal interaction between the audience and pulpit.
“It’s just been a hit since,” he said. “It’s been pretty nice to see the crowds that have been coming out.”
‘I was high every day’
While the black church has influenced his preaching style, De La Cruz noted he had a rather rough upbringing and he did not attend church as a youth.
The journey that led the New Yorker to a church in a rural O’Brien County community that’s nicknamed the “Gem of the Prairie” dates back to his troubled adolescence.
“Born in Harlem, raised in the South Bronx, mother was a drug addict, I became a drug addict at the age of 12 — started drinking at the age of 5, actually,” De La Cruz said. “My stepgrandfather, who was a convicted murder,thought it was funny to give me beers on the weekend.
“We’re not talking about a parent letting somebody have a taste; we’re talking about a can of beer and stuff like that.”
Living in New York in the late 1970s and early ’80s, De La Cruz compared the environment he was surrounded in to something out of Hollywood.
“Understand, brother, I grew up in the gangs of New York,” he said. “I saw my first death at 8 years old; I watched a dude bleed out after my grandfather stabbed him in the groin.”
In addition to the rampant violence, De La Cruz, who survived an overdose at 17, said open drug use also was common.
“I was high every day of my life from the age of 12 to 19,” he said. “Drug of choice was cocaine, heroin and angel dust — did a lot of angel dust.”
De La Cruz’s path to getting clean did not start with rehab or a treatment center, but with the church.
‘God saved my life’
For about a year, an elderly woman from his neighborhood asked him every week to visit her church, Radio World Church of God in Harlem, an offer he always declined.
One week, instead of brushing her off like he typically did, De La Cruz told the older woman he did not own church attire. She offered to buy him new clothes, so he purposefully picked out an expensive outfit, hoping it would deter the determined churchgoer, who lived on a fixed income.
De La Cruz said he approached the woman on the street and told her his clothes would cost $160. She told him, “OK, baby,” and proceeded to remove the money from her bra.
“Now I’m shocked, I’m really blown away that she’s going to give this money to me,” he said. “I thought about getting high with it, using it, but I went and bought the clothes with it. I figured I could bring the clothes back, use the money and get high.”
Instead, De La Cruz said he woke up at 8 a.m. the next Sunday, something he was unaccustomed to doing, and went to church with her.
As he sat in the pew, the church’s choir started singing “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” and De La Cruz said that moment began to change his world.
He described the experience as akin to the old Maxwell “Blown Away Guy” ad campaign, which featured a man seated in a recliner being blown backward by a wall of sound.
Between the choir, the warm reception he received from the congregation and a sermon over John 3:16-17, De La Cruz felt compelled to join church that day, which also was the first time he had ever actually stepped foot in any place of worship.
“It was the first time that I ever heard that God loved me,” he said. “I did not go there to get changed. I didn’t go there to get saved — I didn’t know what any of that was.”
After the service, De La Cruz said he went home and disposed of all the drugs and alcohol in his house. He has been clean more than 30 years, but still refers to himself as a recovering addict.
“When God saved my life, that was my recovery,” he said. “I didn’t know where else to go, I went to church every day and I’ve been clean ever since. What was significant about it was they loved me unconditionally.”
‘Be all things to all men’
Through his church in Harlem, De La Cruz became involved in ministry work. He said received the calling from God about three years after joining the church.
His first ministerial opportunity came when he was asked to serve as the pastor of a small church in Edenborn, PA, an unincorporated town about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh.
“They needed a pastor in Edenborn and it was only four members at this church — I said, ‘Yes!’” De La Cruz said.
It has been almost three decades since his humble beginnings in rural Pennsylvania, and along the way De La Cruz has led three other congregations prior to coming to Paullina.
De La Cruz has led churches that have been all black or white as well as multi-ethnic, and he said he has been able to deliver the word of God to all them without issue.
“I can talk to the drug addict on the street corner and I can eat dinner with the president; I’m supposed to be all things to all men, so I’ve got that range of ability,” he said.
Once De La Cruz became sober, he said he felt like he wasted so much of his time on drugs that he had to make up for it.
The former high school dropout has earned several college degrees; served as a drug and addiction counselor; been a prison chaplain; served on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Board of Directors, where he also was an adjunct professor; and achieved other numerous professional and personal accolades.
For all of his success, De La Cruz credits the loving welcome he was given at the tiny church in Harlem almost 35 years ago.
One of his ambitions as a pastor has been to recreate that level of warmth and acceptance at every church he leads.
“It’s that love and that kind of environment that I believe is to be created or that a church is supposed to have,” De La Cruz said.
“No matter who comes in there, God’s love will overwhelm them and welcome them in there, and that’s kind of been my life.”
AT A GLANCE:
Name: The Rev. Dr. Angel De La Cruz
Position: Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Paullina
Start date: July 3
Education: Earned high school equivalency diploma in 1980; earned associate degree in letters, arts and sciences from Pennsylvania State University in State College in 1991; earned bachelor’s of science and administration of justice degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1993; earned master’s of divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1994; earned doctorate of ministry in urban studies from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2007.
Experience: Has been a pastor for 28 years at four churches; served as a drug and addiction counselor 1991-92; served as chaplain for State Correctional Facility in Pittsburgh in 2005
Family: Wife, Charlene; son, Marcus, 41; son, Jasen, 40; daughter, Kelly, 35; daughter, April, 31; 18 grandchildren.
Interests: Watching football, working out, reading and learning.
First Presbyterian Church in Paullina holds a worship service at 9:30 a.m. every Sunday. For more information, call 712-949-3487 or visit www.paullinafirstpres.net.