Ever heard a Mariachi band play music at a Lutheran liturgical service? You can at Zion Lutheran Church, the oldest Lutheran congregation in El Paso, Texas.
“When we have the mariachi come to the church, they accompany the liturgy and hymns and try to keep the focus on the Word and the sacraments, cherishing those treasures God has established,” says pastor Stephen Heimer, MA ’11, the son of a Cuban father and a Texan mother. “We have a wonderful organist the mariachi plays with.”
It’s one of many ways Heimer and Zion — now 125 years old — reach the needy and spiritually hungry in and around this border city. Zion maintains strong partnerships with churches and missions on both sides of the international line. Much of this is coordinated by Ysleta Lutheran Mission Human Care, a separate ministry Heimer’s father founded decades ago just a mile from one of the five bridges that passes from El Paso to Mexico. It helps meet the basic needs of impoverished communities by providing groceries every Saturday, sending medical and eyeglass teams, building homes, repairing church buildings, and more.
As a boy, Stephen took part in much of what his father started in Ysleta and in Mexico. After moving away and earning a degree in music education, Stephen returned to El Paso to work with his father and decided to dedicate his life to ministry here.
“I saw God’s Word changing people’s lives, people coming to faith and joining the church,” he says.
He looked into seminaries and enrolled in Concordia’s Cross- cultural Ministry Center, operated in partnership with Concordia Seminary St. Louis.
“While studying, I loved that I could immediately apply lessons learned to the work I was doing in ministry on the U.S.-Mexico border,” he says. “I often tried out principles I learned, and grew in my understanding. It sent me back to class eager for more.”
The four-year vicarage (pastoral internship) that took place simultaneous with academic coursework allowed him to work with and learn from pastors in different settings.
“It prepared me for the large variety of people and situations that have filled my days since becoming a pastor,” he says. “It taught me there is always unexpected difficulty and that God can handle any such surprise.”
In 2011, he graduated and accepted the call to serve as Zion’s pastor while also serving as leader of the Ysleta mission, two ministries which have been closely connected from the beginning. In 2019, Heimer came on full-time at Zion but still spends Wednesdays doing as thousands of local residents do — going back and forth from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, in his case not to work, shop, or visit family, but to lead a worship service at a mission started by Ysleta. He takes with him catechisms, Bibles, song books, and his guitar.
Music has always been part of Heimer’s ministry. He founded Mariachi San Pablo, which proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ through mariachi music. The nine-member group rehearses weekly and has performed at churches, community events, and conventions in eighteen states and 105 cities since 2001.
“I never expected to be part of the mariachi music ministry that became beloved here in town and all around the U.S.,” says Heimer, who plays the trumpet.
His wife Krysia plays the vihuela, a guitar-like instrument. The band includes a guitarron, a second vihuela, a six-string guitar, and three violins. A number of young players and singers are rising up in the group’s ranks.
“I love the fact that the congregation has these multi-cultural aspects,” Heimer says. “Zion has a very German heritage, but an appreciation for the culture and community of El Paso. Zion is a beautiful group of people with a welcoming, warm spirit.” The church lately has experienced an increase in attendance, with new families of various ethnicities coming to the church.
“We’ve been blessed to see 26 adults become members of Zion in the past year, many through adult confirmation, and others who have moved into town and are transferring to Zion,” Heimer says. “This year has been exceptional. Those who joined us really value being in the church. Many were ready to get out of their houses and be active in a church.”
Zion’s identity is liturgical and they work hard to do it well.
“We use newer resources in our worship services and resources our Synod offers from Concordia Publishing House, which they do beautifully,” Heimer says.
In 2022, Heimer was elected to serve as vice president of the Lutheran Church— Missouri Synod National Hispanic Convention. He and his wife have five children, ages 5 to 14.
As for his time as a Concordia student, “The professors were amazing and I will always admire their knowledge and teaching abilities,” he says, “but even more, I am forever inspired by their love for Christ and passion for His Great Commission.”
[Concordia] Prepared Me For The Large Variety of People and Situations That Have Filled My Days Since Becoming A Pastor. It Taught Me There is Always Unexpected Difficulty And That God Can Handle Any Such Surprise.