Adopting Jesus' Jewish roots, Jews and gentiles worship Jesus at Life Impact Church
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Sept. 20, 2013 at 4:20 a.m.
The Rev. Ray Vargas gripped a small, black microphone and asked his congregation to listen to his words.
His voice, serious for a moment, called upon the crowd to pay attention to the holiness of Yeshua, or Jesus.
"Salvation belonged to the Jewish people first. We need to take our message back to the Jew and tell them about their Messiah," said Vargas, 51. "We observe their feasts, and we honor their feasts."
When preaching at his nondenominational, Jewish-roots church, Life Impact in Victoria, Vargas always refers to Jesus in his Hebrew name as he does with God the father, calling him Yahweh.
Three years ago, Vargas and his wife, Janice, a licensed minister at the church, launched the first Christian Zionist fellowship in the Crossroads. It is currently the Victoria district's representatives for Christians United for Israel, a national organization supporting Israel and its people.
The Vargas' preaching style isn't typical for nondenominational Protestant churches, but they believe they have an important message for Christians and Jewish people in the Crossroads: "We are an adopted people under Yeshua Jesus. We are supposed to be Jew and gentile living together as one," Vargas said. "Jesus was born and lived and died and rose again Jewish. He's coming back Jewish."
Vargas, a Crypto-Sephardic Jewish preacher, regularly leads the quaint church on Port Lavaca Highway in the ways of Jewish tradition, fusing Old Testament teachings with a mainline Trinitarian Christian preaching style.
Since opening three years ago, launching with about five people in the audience, the Vargas' said they have continued to grow in their knowledge of the Old Testament and Jewish traditions.
Though Vargas isn't wearing his Jewish prayer shawl, or Tallit, during service, many of his members are draped in the cloth. Many others are wearing the Star of David around their necks.
Only a few of the members have Jewish heritage, he said.
"The more we read about where we come from, the more we realize how much the history is important for us to know," his wife said. "This is where our faith comes from, and we should be participating in the traditions. We've lost so much of it, and we need to bring it back."
Vargas' Jewish family lineage stems from Spain on his father's side. He grew up never celebrating Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and he said his parents secretly incorporated Jewish traditions in his upbringing without ever discussing what they were or why they needed to be observed.
"We didn't really fit in because we were Hispanic and Jewish," he said, admitting he never knew his father came from a Jewish family until he was an adult. "I guess my parents were afraid we would experience anti-Semitism if we were public about it. And in Texas, Hispanics aren't typically Jewish."
But even without a Christian home life, God wooed Vargas into the Christian ministry as a young boy. By the time he was a young adult, he accepted Christ as his savior and began a life in the ministry singing in a Christian band. He said he would spend many years in ministry before discovering his Jewish roots.
"We've been interested in the traditions of Judaism and how they're related to our faith for many years," his wife said. "It's kind of a divine thing knowing that God would have us leading this church and preaching this message all these years later, even before (Ray) knew about his Jewish roots."
Christian, pro-Israel churches have been growing nationwide since the 1990s, though they've been present since the 1940s. Many Christian Zionists churches believe they should be supporting ethnic Jews, God's chosen people and the establishment of a peaceful Israel.
Christian Zionists groups are often politically mobile in Washington, D.C., lobbying for efforts that support the nation of Israel and protection of Jewish people.
The Vargas' said they, too, are politically active, but they do not emphasize their political views during service.
"All of this has clicked in my heart. . it's always been about Israel and the Jewish people," Vargas said. "For me, to say that I am Christian is to say that I'm tied to Jewish culture. Yeshua Jesus didn't teach Mathew, Mark, Luke or John, he taught the Torah."
The Vargas' said they hope to continue growing in their knowledge of Jewish culture and Hebrew language skills. And as they grow into the traditions of Judaism, they said they will be observing the feasts of Jewish culture and keeping kosher to honor God.
They also hope to grow their church as far and wide and Yahweh will allow, teaching as many people who are interested in the exciting and rich Jewish history of Christianity.
"We're believing God that there are Crypto-Jews all over Victoria, and God is going to send those people here," Vargas said. "We're uniting Jew and gentile and we praise God for that."