PAULLINA, Iowa | Nearly one year ago, The Rev. Angel De La Cruz welcomed the faithful at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Park, Iowa, a church chosen as a "neutral pulpit" site from which De La Cruz could deliver a sermon for members of that congregation, as well as visitors from Pastor Nominating Committee at First Presbyterian Church in Paullina, Iowa.
At the time, the folks at the church in Paullina had been without a full-time pastor for more than three years.
De La Cruz addressed depression that April Sunday. He spoke at length about the music icon Prince, whose death that week stunned pop culture and beyond. De La Cruz sang a portion of Prince's signature hit song, "Purple Rain."
Jill Rausch tells me this story. As a member of the Pastor Nominating Committee, she was there. "He sang 'Purple Rain? Really?" I ask.
"That was our response, too," Rausch answers. "It was way different from what you'd typically think. I was so unexpected."
And, yet, spot-on. Excellent by the way of introduction.
"It was absolutely beautiful," Rausch continues. "It was great, relevant, current. We didn't have any doubts. We felt God had led us to him. And he felt the same."
Today, Angel De La Cruz delivers his first Easter message at First Presbyterian Church in Paullina, where he's served as pastor since July, the first native of Harlem, New York, to lead this 125-year-old congregation.
"I could live here a lonnnnng time," De La Cruz says from the church kitchen on Tuesday morning. "I'll stay here as long as they'll have me. The best sleep I have ever gotten is the sleep I have here."
While sleep refreshes body and mind, it is De La Cruz's spirit, his soaring voice, his physical presence that seem to be on a full-out sprint in Paullina, where he's helped boost church attendance to as many as 130 for Sunday services, welcoming new members. He also put his education in counseling to work, advising young and old inside and outside the confines of this church.
He talks about reaching young people in need at South O'Brien High School. He raves about the food bank and the after-school program that have a history in this missionary church. First Presbyterian hosts a dinner for local First Responders.
"They will teach any child here who wants to go through confirmation," De La Cruz says. "They will marry and bury anyone. I am ecstatic God sent me here as they live out the love of God.
"I get too much credit," he adds. "I came to join what God was already doing."
Angel De La Cruz, of Puerto Rican descent, joined other forces a lifetime ago in Harlem and the South Bronx, where a single mother who fought drug addiction struggled to raise him and his three younger siblings. De La Cruz left school after eighth grade, already a seasoned user of drugs and alcohol.
His vices: Cocaine, angel dust, heroin, marijuana, alcohol.
He married at age 17, choosing for his wife a woman who had four children. He joined the U.S. Navy that year, 1980. "I overdosed on barbiturates in my first year in the Navy," he remembers.
De La Cruz was honorably discharged, thanks to a benevolent Navy clerk, and returned to the Bronx. His mother-in-law took him to church and wouldn't take rejection. She lovingly badgered him into attending church regularly.
In November 1981, De La Cruz sat in Radio Church of God in Harlem and heard John's Gospel for the first time, specifically John 3:16. "Give me your hand and God your heart and your life will change," he says. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son."
Members of the congregation screamed. "Rejoicing like the Angels," De La Cruz says. He went home and dumped his drugs and booze down the drain. Says he's been clean ever since.
The people of that church taught De La Cruz nouns, verbs and how to handle forks, spoons and knives at the dinner table. He was given a Bible and earned a job. He logged time as a domestic, a custodian, a cook and a pizza delivery pro before landing a job with the U.S. Postal Service.
He earned his high school G.E.D. in 1982 and began delivering sermons regularly, preaching on the Psalms and the Gospel of John, the only sections of the Bible he felt he knew enough about. "I realized I didn't know enough," he says, eyes widening. "And then Alfred Thompson met me and invited me to Penn State University."
He earned two degrees in 3 1/2 years. He served a number of churches and did a church radio show in the early 1990s. He also worked as a drug-and-alcohol counselor in Fayette County, Pennsylvania from 1992-94.
In 1994, he entered Pittsburgh Theological Seminary while serving Laketon Heights United Methodist Church in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. Three years later, he took an elective course that studied 20th Century theologian Karl Barth.
"Barth did something in my heart," De La Cruz says. "It made me understand the reform faith is where I live."
God's love, he continues, saves us. "All that I have comes from his love," he adds.
Each Lent, De La Cruz strips his office of everything but the cross. The season ends today with a beginning, the Easter message.
During Holy Week, he details many stops on his road to Paullina. He wed a second time and brought Charlene, who plays music at Sunday worship, to Iowa, leaving in their rear view mirror faithful flocks in New York and Pennsylvania.
He helped found Word Centered Presbyterian Church and served it 14 years until 2016. The church was chartered with the Presbyterian Church of America.
De La Cruz was 53 one year ago and at a crossroads: He could continue as a pastor somewhere, he could finish his master's degree in counseling, or he could find a full-time counseling job. He'd been serving churches, after all, for three decades.
He sent his resume to places of worship in Georgia, Virginia, New York and Washington, D.C. He sent word to London and Canada; he looked, but wasn't sure. "Nobody would take it," he says. "I'd pastored white and black churches. I was competent."
And then De La Cruz stretched his wings, scattering 200 resumes to the wind. One month later, he received one call, from Gene Veltcamp, of the Pastor Nominating Committee at First Presbyterian Church in Paullina.
Charlene's reaction: "Iowa? Really?" De La Cruz laughs. Her questions mirrored his questions.
But they proceeded, likely out of equal parts interest and curiosity, or adventure of faith. The couple interviewed via Skype with members of the nominating group. A "neutral pulpit" was arranged in Lake Park. Angel and Charlene De La Cruz drove to Northwest Iowa.
"I had pastored mostly in urban, poor churches," he says. "When you've grown up begging for food, there aren't too many places you can't live."
He struck a high note with "Purple Rain" and stayed. It took a little time, and some good-natured prodding, but the pastor with the booming voice has gotten his "saints" -- his term for members of the congregation -- to occasionally wave their arms, to shout, to serve others throughout this church and community with even more gusto.
"After he was done preaching and singing (at Lake Park), you could tell the whole congregation had warmed up to him immediately," Raush says. "We, as the Pastor Nominating Committee, knew. We had a high expectation for sermons as we focused on having someone dynamic and energetic. He fit the bill right away."
De La Cruz wipes sweat from his brow as his cadence accelerates. He commends folks at Paullina for their pulled pork, their sweet corn, their prayers and welcoming ways. He sleeps as never before.
He lives as never before, too, finding awe in sharing Christ's message with four generations of one family, a consistency sown and celebrated here.
"I am ecstatic," he says of his role in rural Iowa. "They said they desired a real change in this church. They have changed me."