JACKSON – Parishioners of the Canaan Christian Church describe themselves as a congregation of families who make up one big bilingual family. With that thought in mind, the church’s 40th anniversary was perhaps more of a giant family reunion.
The church is made up of a diverse background of people, but the majority of them are families, according to their pastor, Reverend Jose Santiago, who has served as pastor since 2007.
The evangelical church formed in 1978 when residents were seeking to form a Spanish congregation. Over time, it became a unique blend of Spanish and English speaking parishioners who would share their beliefs, their questions and their problems.
Santiago replaced founding ministers Antonio and Connie Pla who held services in the basement of their Bennettsville home. “We were able to buy property for a church in 1982,” Santiago said.
In January of 1979, the congregation decided to move all their services to the basement chapel. Each year the congregation grew with an emphasis on discipleship, bible study and fellowship.
In 1995, the building was completed and the parish finally had a home on 88 Frank Applegate Road. “We’ve become a church that has bilingual services that hosts a variety of programs. We have activities for younger people as well as older ones. We also have weekly life group meetings which are smaller groups that meet at people’s homes,” Rev. Santiago said.
The pastor said that the congregation has around 185 members. “We are looking to expand and add to our building. We have been blessed to be a part of Jackson and to help meet the needs of this community.”
Michelle Rodriguez of Brick was busy planting petunias in front of the church a few days prior to the parish’s anniversary. “I joined two years ago. My husband Ernesto and I had been invited by a friend and my husband wasn’t sure about it but we came out and we loved it and have been here ever since. They are very godly people and it is like a family. Our pastor is a very humble man. He and his wife (Pastor Marianela Santiago) make everyone feel welcome.”
Rodriguez said that being Hispanic, she enjoys the services spoken in Spanish. “People learn a little Spanish when they come here. Many families attend, some from outside of Jackson. Some ex-wives and ex-husbands all come together here with their children. It really brings people together.”
Gil Berrios of Barnegat joined the church a little over a year ago. “I came here because my daughter, from Toms River, was a member already.”
Berrios said he and his wife Aida, had been attending a church in Lakewood. Like Rodriguez, he found Canaan to be welcoming and one large extended family. He was also attracted to the bilingual services and the life group meetings. He noted that while the church does not have a choir, members provide their musical talent for Sunday services.
Lakewood resident Betsy Roman joined the church when she was a child in 1997. “Pastor Antonio was there for me after the passing of my sister. He was there for my family and offered us counseling. I was five years old at the time and not even a member of the church. He didn’t have to do that but he did.”
Roman returned from Puerto Rico recently having endured Hurricane Maria. “I was there during the hurricane and afterward to try and help. I’m glad to be here for this celebration. I enjoy the Monday Life Group meetings. Most of them are based on the subject of the Sunday Service and we go into questions or concerns that people may have and it helps you to get to know people so that on Sundays, you know others, and this makes you feel even more a part of the church.” The church has been involved in recovery efforts for residents of Puerto Rico.
Jorge Rod has been a member of the parish for several years now. Rod publishes Latinos Unidos de Nueva Jersey, a Spanish newspaper. His wife Betty has been a member of the church for nearly 30 years. “This is my large family.”
Christina Faulkner of Manchester served as greeter during the celebration. “When we moved from north Jersey my husband and I were looking for a church. We visited several but when we came here we knew it was the one for us. It is special.”
The anniversary gathering on July 28 featured an outdoor celebration that included Spanish food, a display table featuring photos, proclamations and other items of church history, music and children’s activities. The party continued on July 29, with a fellowship breakfast, followed by services.