the shape of leadership

A Spiritual Father to Many

A conversation with Zenaido Garza

Chris Colvin on February 15, 2019

For 53 years, Pastor Zenaido Garza has faithfully served El Buen Pastor Church (Assemblies of God) in McFarland, California. Though he never sought fame for himself, Garza always believed the town of McFarland would become known around the world.

“I did say that a lot,” Garza says. “God placed that in my heart, and I believed it.”

If the name of the town sounds familiar, you may have heard of a Disney film called McFarland, USA. Based on a true story, it is about a high school coach who leads an extraordinary team of Hispanic cross-country runners to a state championship. Several of the young people portrayed in the film came from Garza’s church.

“Four of the runners from the movie grew up in my church,” Garza says. “I dedicated them as babies, they were in our Sunday School classes, in Royal Rangers. Thank God the coach of the group was a Christian man, and a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, full of love and compassion for the Hispanic people, and added to what I was trying to do.”

What Garza was trying to do often clashed with his own feelings of insecurity. Coming to the United States at the age of 20 to take on the role of senior pastor seemed difficult enough. But when he met some of the more established pastors, Garza suddenly questioned whether he was up to the challenge.

Zenaido Garza is clear about who deserves glory for any and all of his accomplishments: Jesus Christ.

“Every one of them had graduated from Christian colleges and universities,” Garza says. “They were pastoring the big churches of the city.”

Garza felt insecure in his calling and inadequate to pastor his own church. As a migrant farm worker and the son of migrants, Garza often felt out of place. He had received training at a quality Bible institute in Mexico, but still felt unprepared for the road ahead. Garza was so discouraged that he nearly gave up on his call before even beginning.

Today, many people are thankful Garza persevered. He has been a spiritual father to a long list of people, including individuals who now serve as pastors, church leaders and missionaries around the world.

One of those people recently wrote, “I am today a pastor for 41 years, and it’s because Pastor Zenaido saw in a young teenager a special calling upon his life.”

Saul Gonzalez is another leader to whom Garza has been a spiritual father. Gonzalez was the youth pastor at El Buen Pastor Church at the time of the events portrayed in the film. Gonzalez was such an effective leader that Garza had been preparing him as a successor.

However, God had other plans. A church in nearby Bakersfield was struggling and needed a pastor. Though he sensed God prompting him to send Gonzalez, Garza was hesitant.

After some prayer, Garza realized that without his intervention, the struggling church might close. Garza obediently released his spiritual son to serve. Today, Life House Bakersfield (AG) is thriving under the leadership of Gonzalez.

Garza is clear about who deserves glory for any and all of his accomplishments: Jesus Christ.

“He was the Builder, the Miracle Worker,” Garza says. “I was just the instrument He selected and chose to use.”

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of Influence magazine.


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