Nonstereotypical minister works to heal community's heart
By Renee Field, For The Taos News
With his ponytailed graying hair, cowboy boots and well-worn New York Yankees cap, Pastor Stephen Wiard is not your stereotypical Methodist minister. But the unsung hero, pastor of El Pueblito Methodist Church and director of Shared Table, is convinced that his brand of ministry is just what is needed in Taos, and there are many in our community who would agree.
Stephen came to Taos after spending most of his life in eastern Kansas as a high school teacher, a state legislator and a part-time rural pastor. He already knew Taos from trips he had taken here, and once he moved here for good, he found it to be a perfect fit.
"There is a good spirit here," he said, and, since he arrived, he's been working to make that spirit even better. "I believe strongly in a social gospel. Service to the community is an important witness of the church."
The Shared Table is probably the best known of Stephen's commitments to the community.
"There is a lot of poverty here," he said, and Shared Table is one of the ways he helps address the community's needs.
Shared Table provides a food-pantry distribution twice a month, on the second and fourth Wednesdays at 11 a.m. at the El Pueblito Church.
"We try to provide the basics -- food, of course, but we also give out health-care items, like toothbrushes and toothpaste, or even school supplies."
Supplies are sometimes donated by individuals or businesses, sometimes purchased by Shared Table for distribution. Shared Table helps in other ways, depending on the needs of the community.
When Taos school children were expected to show up in uniform this fall for the first time, Stephen learned that a couple of children were staying home from school because their parents simply couldn't afford the new clothes. With permission from the parents, Stephen loaded the children in his car, took them shopping, and didn't stop until they were each outfitted in the new clothes that would meet the school district's requirements. Not content to stop there, he took a check for $100 from Shared Table to Joanne Ortiz, principal of Enos Garcia Elementary, to be used for other children who might be in the same situation.
Children are important to Stephen, and one of his more recent gifts to the community is a program called "FAR OUT for Kids." He established the program with the help of the Community Against Violence (CAV). It seeks to provide children ages 6-11 "a couple of hours of positive adult time" each Wednesday afternoon. FAR stands for "Fun, Art and Reading." Currently, 8 to 10 children are taking advantage.
Stephen has "grown weary" of the memorial services for young people in the community. After he helped organize the memorial service for Erik Sanchez, who was killed at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the pastor decided he had to act on behalf of the children, and FAR OUT was born.
"Maybe if we can give them positive direction early, we can have fewer of those memorial services," he said.
Stephen also encourages youngsters to become part of the solution to community problems. As part of the "Empty Bowl Project," Stephen visited Taos school children in their classrooms, teaching them about hunger and homelessness. The children then had the opportunity to become part of the solution. They each made bowls that were later auctioned to help raise money for the needy.
Besides his community outreach work, Stephen is a busy pastor at his church. El Pueblito, the little church with the turquoise cross on Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, has been both a Texaco gas station and the El Pueblito Bar and Café. It is now home to one of the fastest growing congregations in Taos.
"Physically, the building is getting a little small," he said. "We had around 60 in church on a recent Sunday, and it was just about full."
Stephen stresses that the church is a welcoming one.
"God's word," he said, "is about love and acceptance," about opening the doors wide without judgment. Stephen also likes to quote theologian Karl Barth, who advocated preaching with "the Word of God in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other."
"That made a lot of sense to me," he said, his blue eyes twinkling. "Still does. It's about balance," he said, about bringing the Word of God into the real lives of people.
Stephen loves to preach. Preaching without notes, he uses Scripture but links the lessons to real life.
"I'm a strong believer in experiential theology," he said. He likes to mix it up a bit, too, like the time four years ago when he rode his horse to church and preached a sermon right from the saddle, a la the circuit-riding preachers of old. Still fondly remembered by both pastor and congregation, that experiment resulted in a once-a-month outdoor service in the summer, something everyone looks forward to.
"I like to preach good news," Stephen stresses. "People get enough bad news the other six days. I also think that if someone is bold enough to come to the church, they should be uplifted."
He calls El Pueblito "the church of the second chance," and encourages people to try it. "It's a comfortable church, with wonderful music and local art on the walls."
This tireless community crusader takes time to enjoy life, as well. With two grown children and a granddaughter, plenty of friends, and "branch offices" at some of the coffee shops around town, Stephen knows how to bring balance to his busy life.
"I work hard, but I believe in playing hard, too. My cup gets empty and has to be filled up again, like everyone elses," he said.
Stephen believes the greatest work the church can do is to "be involved in the community and meet the needs of the people." But unlike some pastors who simply say those words from the pulpit on Sundays, unsung hero Stephen Wiard lives his words and "walks his talk" seven days a week, helping to heal the heart of the community.
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© Karen Mitchell