ON NORTH SUGAR ROAD IN PHARR, TEXAS, THERE SITS A PUZZLE OF CONNECTED BUILDINGS, ALL WHITE WITH BLUE TRIM, SOME ROOFS SHINGLED, OTHERS TIN. TWO PORTABLES SIT IN THE BACK, NEAR TWO PLAYGROUNDS, SOME PICNIC TABLES, A BLACKTOP, AND A PARKING LOT. ON HOT AFTERNOONS, MONK PARROTS FLY AROUND THE OAK TREE IN THE FRONT AND PERCH UPON THE POWER LINES LINKING THE BUILDINGS TOGETHER. WALLY MORILLO SAYS THEY HAVE A NEST IN ONE OF THE BUILDINGS.
The jumble of buildings is Grace Community Church, of which Wally is pastor. In 1967, he and his wife, Jane, moved in when the church wasn’t yet a church, and there was only one building with a few rooms without windows or locks. Rent was $90 a month.
The Morillos have always wanted to work with children. In their first couple years in Pharr, before they started the church, they would bring 15-20 kids at a time along with them to churches in town, but that didn’t always work out.
“The kids were a little rambunctious, and churches had a bit of a struggle dealing with that. [The churches] never made us feel welcome,” Wally says. “Eventually, the kids asked us to start a church.” So they started the youth ministry they dreamed of, and called it Ranch.
Starting Ranch led to creating Grace Community Church, through which the Morillos have been bringing groups to the Canyon two or three times a year for 49 years running. Over the years, thousands of kids have been through their church, some of whom were once struggling on the streets or victims of abuse—all of whom come from an area that has a median household income almost $22,000 below the median of the whole country. Wally and Jane gave them all a chance to see outside the Rio Grande Valley and into the Frio River Canyon.
Their first camp experience in the Hill Country was a Christmas Camp they held at Garner State Park in the late 1960s. After the temperature dropped to 18 degrees one night as they slept in their unheated and under-insulated cabins, they were ready for somewhere new. A mutual friend introduced Wally and Jane to Mary Holdsworth Butt, who invited them to the Canyon. They’ve been coming to the Canyon at least twice a year since then, driving dozens of kids in packed school buses 10 hours through the night.
According to Wally, the hardest part of youth ministry today is the competition for time and attention. “Nowadays, kids come to the Canyon so distracted,” he says. “But by the end of the week, they don’t want to leave.”
Working with youth in Pharr wasn’t always battling against tight schedules and excessive screen time.
“There were kids in these neighborhoods that didn’t have shoes or nice shirts,” Wally says, “and the pastors at their churches would get mad at them for not dressing up.”
Wally and Jane have always worked with kids, whether they were on the streets, in abusive homes, or involved with gangs—sometimes by playing football with them or buying shoes for those without them. Other times, they gave kids a safe space to live. They opened their home to children in need for the last 40 years.
Throughout that time, their ministry grew, meaning their need for more space did as well. The growth of their mission led to the odd combination of buildings that makes up the church today.
Over the years, Pharr also grew. Since 1970, the population of Hidalgo County (including McAllen and Edinburg) and has more than quadrupled, with Pharr itself now boasting a population of almost 80,000.
Although the city and people around Grace Community Church have multiplied and changed, Wally’s convictions haven’t. He and Jane still work to help children and families in their growing border city, and the Canyon is still a constant in their mission. Wally dedicated his life at a Christian camp in his early twenties, so he knows what camp can do firsthand.
“We can do more at camp in a week,” he says, “than we can at church in a whole year.”
Wally and Jane no longer live inside the church. Today, they live in a red brick house a quarter mile away, with one room to themselves and open rooms for those who need them. You can see it from the front of the church.
“We’ve always ended up with kids around us,” Wally says, “so we spend time with them.”
“It’s just felt like our calling.”
“Kids come to the Canyon so distracted. But by the end of the week, they don’t want to leave.”Wally Morillo
Ask this couple what pressures they’re facing day to day, and you get the most relatable reply in the world.
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