Transforming Lives through Genuine Love and Faith

Transforming Lives through Genuine Love and Faith

Mario Flores (BA ’18)

Mario Flores sat at a round table in a high school classroom and looked into the eyes of 10 young men who know hate. The 10 were equally divided between two rival gangs all too familiar with violence.

But on that afternoon, there was an opening for something different in the lives of these teenagers. “They shared with me that they were sick and tried of being sick and tired,” Mario says. “They wanted transformation. They wanted to experience something different. They just didn’t know how.”

It started with listening, a skill that Mario brings to his work. He is a pastor and the Mennonite Central Committee West Coast Transformative Justice Program Coordinator, focusing on schools in Tulare and Kings counties. Mario spoke directly but also with humility to the 10 gang members at one of those schools.

“I was genuine about what I said, and I didn’t sugarcoat it, but there’s a line of respect I drew with each one of these young men. I didn’t look at them as someone who’s superior to them. I met them right where they’re at,” he says.

That philosophy sums up Mario’s approach to ministry. “I enjoy doing life with people, and being able to teach them how to live a life of faith and what it means to really follow and love Jesus.”

He doesn’t—to use his word—“sugarcoat” his life’s journey. There have been times of self-doubt, and times of tremendous grief. But, he says, “The Lord has taught me to pursue truth and not push things under the rug, but to allow those painful moments to shape me.”

‘A perfect place’

Mario grew up with loving and supportive parents, Justo and Norma, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador. They encouraged him to pursue his education, but he doubted his abilities to complete a four-year degree. Then he and his wife, Breanna, were expecting their first child, and he found new motivation to better prepare for life ahead.

Now 36, Mario enrolled in the bachelor’s degree completion program at Fresno Pacific, earning his degree in business administration, focusing on organizational leadership. “It was the perfect place because it allowed me to embrace my faith and also my love for community and my desire to transform it through the power of the Gospel,” he says.

That mindset has led Mario down many paths. He’s worked as a youth pastor, and he’s developed and taught substance abuse and mental health programs for the Tulare County Office of Education. Mario also supports his wife’s work with teen parents through Tulare County Younglives, and he’s coached high school basketball teams.

His commitment to community service has played out in other venues. Mario has graduated from both Leadership Tulare, a program of the Tulare Chamber of Commerce, and the Central Valley Latino Leadership Academy. In 2020, he ran for the Tulare City Council, finishing second in a five-person race. “My passion for my relationship with Jesus is the cornerstone of my life, driving my desire to see his kingdom flourish across all sectors of society,” he says.

When Mario felt God calling him to full-time ministry, he was ordained by the Alliance of Reformed Churches and started Hope City Church in Tulare (a church plant from Tulare Community Church). In the early days, 25 people met in his living room, but the church grew quickly. On Easter Sunday this year, 235 gathered for services in a rented building.

Of all the things pastors are called to do, counseling is Mario’s first love. “You can lead people through repentance and reconciliation back to the Lord,” he says. “And I believe in walking with people as they experience that.” To that end, Mario has returned to FPU to pursue a master’s degree in social work, and he hopes to one day teach at the university level.

‘Genuine love’

In the meantime, the teenagers from the rival gangs needed him. Mario stepped into a tense situation. There’d been fights on the high school campus. Distrust bound the two groups—as chains might—to their opposing views of each other. Mario was, perhaps, an unlikely person to plant seeds for change.

“I didn’t come from a gang background,” he says. “But I grew up in a small town, and I understand some of the culture that comes in that environment. And I have genuine love. I care.”

Mario had shared with some of the gang members a time in his life of shattering brokenness. He and his wife lost a baby at birth, and, he says, he had to learn to grieve. “Mourning is part of the walk of a Christian. We serve a really good God, and he walks us through the grief to experience joy again,” he says. (The Floreses are expecting another baby in May 2024; they have three other children.)

Sharing that part of himself built credibility with the gang members, Mario says. And into that space, there was room around the round table for the teens to talk about something important to them—respect, and what it looks like in their lives. It was a small step forward, but Mario was encouraged. “I want to teach these kids how to dream and how to trust God.”

FPU Webteam

FPU Webteam

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