LA FERIA—When Melba Zapata accepted the call as lead pastor of New Wine Church in La Feria this year, she became one of the first Hispanic Baptist women pastors in Texas.
But Zapata insists her calling is not so much about who she wanted to be, but who God wants her to be.
An uncle’s influence
Jorge Zapata, now the associate coordinator of missions and Hispanic ministries for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas, founded the New Wine Church in 1999.
At the time, Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 28 made up 68 percent of the population in the area, but he was not seeing churches reach out to them.
The name of the church was chosen to remind people of the words of Jesus and to represent his calling to leave old traditions in order to start a new ministry for a new generation.
Even before he started New Wine Church, he mentored his niece and advocated she respond to God’s calling to ministry. By age 15, Melba Zapata knew God was calling her to youth ministry. She planned to attend Howard Payne University after graduating from high school, since it offered a degree in youth ministry.
Closed door creates resentment
But during her senior year in high school, she and her father experienced medical issues that brought expensive bills. She began working to help out the family financially, and college ceased to be an option.
She found it hard to understand why God would call her to ministry and then shut the door of opportunity to prepare for that calling. She acknowledged feeling some resentment, and that led her to leave the church for an extended time.
One day, she experienced spiritual tension. She felt God was calling her, but she believed Satan tried to prevent her from responding to that call by telling her she was not worthy.
She wrestled with the issue, aware of the strong feeling God was calling her to come back to his service. She finally stopped at her uncle’s house. He prayed for her and invited her to attend Avondale Baptist Church, where he was pastor at the time.
Later, she learned her uncle had been praying for God to bring a youth minister to the church. He became convinced God wanted his niece to serve in ministry, but he left the matter in God’s hands.
“God, if you want her here, then you are going to have to be the one who brings her,” he prayed.
She accepted the role, and her uncle mentored her at Avondale.
Expanded opportunities to minister
In 1999, she followed her uncle to help start New Wine Church, where she accepted new ministerial responsibilities beyond youth ministry.
When her uncle experienced health problems, she covered his responsibilities as needed.
“He would call me because he was so sick, and he needed me to preach for him,” she recalled.
Her uncle always supported her in every ministerial role she performed, even when some people questioned it.
“His response to those who came to him to tell him I could not preach was that he would always use who God told him to use,” she said.
‘We believe God has called you’
The commitment and faithfulness she demonstrated led the church to ordain her in 2009, saying, “We believe God has called you.”
So, the congregation, in turn, called her as associate pastor in 2016 and as pastor this year.
While some people outside the church oppose her serving as pastor, she has confidence God has called her because it has been affirmed by those who know her.
“When you have people as strong as them (her uncle and New Wine Church), supporting you, then what others say is not that much of a problem,” she said. “I have to answer to God about my calling, not to other people.”
To prepare for the challenges of the pastorate, she enrolled in ministry certificate program classes at Wayland Baptist University, and she hopes to complete her studies soon.
Investing in the future
At New Wine Church, she continues to lead the congregation to work with children, youth and their families. In a few months, the church will hold its annual back-to-school drive, providing backpacks, clothes, haircuts and school supplies for children in the area.
Members of the church also visited some neighborhoods of La Feria last year to offer medical clinics for families who cannot afford healthcare, and they plan to do it again this year.
The church serves as the headquarters for Hearts4Kids, an organization her uncle started to improve the quality of life for children and their families in the Rio Grande Valley.
While Melba Zapata now is pastor of people representing different age groups with different backgrounds, she uses her strengths learned in youth ministry to lead the church.
“Our vision has always been to transform lives from darkness to God,” she said. “We believe God will use New Wine to reach La Feria.”
That starts in investing in younger generations, she believes. Three of the youth she discipled when she was youth pastor now are pastors of churches in the area, and she continues to support that ministry as lead pastor.
Perhaps now, she said, young women will see her example and respond to the call God has given them.
She wants those young women to experience the same affirmation she received when New Wine told her, “We believe God has called you.”