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Fabiola Hernandez operates a small boutique, selling custom-made T-shirts with funny slogans, like “No Estoy Gorda, Solo Estoy pasada de buena” (I am not fat; I’m just so good.”) Photo: J.C. Hernandez

Transformation happens every weekend at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills – bright blue, turquoise, and red sunshades pop up and the parking lot becomes a tianguis, an open-air market where vendors hawk a range of wares, from clothing, toys and jewelry to household items, and the air is filled with the mouth-watering aroma of tacos, carnitas and tortas.

Tianguis is a Mexican and Central American tradition with ancient roots, a form of community and commerce predating the 16th century arrival of Spanish conquistadors. The custom remains an important form of enterprise today, according to Juan Carlos “J.C.” Hernandez, St. George’s facilities director, who oversees the market and considers it a ministry.

“The tianguis began in October 2020 at St. George’s, almost as a kind of surprise” after a vendor visited the church’s campus, looking for help, he said.

“She had been selling clothing and toys and other items at a swap meet in Costa Mesa,” he recalled. “That place had closed but her inventory was locked up there. She still had to pay them rent, even though there was no market, and she was struggling. They told her they were going to sell her inventory,” Hernandez said.

After her visit Hernandez, along with his spouse Sandra, who serves as the events planner for St. George’s Bourne Hall, brainstormed ways they might help.

“We thought, why don’t we open a few booths on the patio for Saturday and Sunday and see if anything sells?” he recalled. “We called and invited her to come. When we shared the story on Facebook, we received over one hundred calls from vendors who also wanted to come and sell their goods.”

With Covid-19 protocols in place, the tianguis quickly grew to as many as 100 vendors. The demand was so great that in addition to the patio, “we moved to the parking lot and added extra hours on Friday evenings, besides Saturdays and Sundays,” Hernandez said.

Rocio Flores, whose impromptu visit to the church sparked the birth of the tianguis, has since expanded to an online store and has been able to open a small shop in Mission Viejo, she recently told The Episcopal News.

“They call me Queen of the Sales,” the mother of five and owner of Rocio’s Bazaar said laughingly through an interpreter at her booth on a recent Sunday afternoon. She added: “I love to sell. It’s what I’ve always done.”

For many vendors who lost weekday jobs during the pandemic the tianguis offered hope and empowerment, said Rose Williams, St. George’s operations chief. The weekend event also offered an alternative revenue stream for the church at a time when many congregations are seeking creative ways to leverage their campuses as both a community hub and income generator.

The Rev. Canon Pat McCaughan, vicar of St. George’s Church, staffs the congregation’s booth, where she and her parishioners connect with the community, offering holy water and prayer card giveaways. Photo: Fabiola Hernandez

The church also joined the vendors in the market, creating its own booth and offering Spanish and English prayer cards as giveaways along with small vials of holy water.

“Sitting at the church’s booth gave me an opportunity to talk to vendors and customers about St. George’s,” Williams said. “I invited them to attend a service with us and shared that we have been part of this community for more than 130 years, and that, truly, all are welcome here.”

Jesús Serratos had always loved to cook and envisioned owning a restaurant someday. In December 2020, he was able to open Tacos de Birra Los Carnales weekdays on the church’s campus and also operate a tianguis booth on weekends.

“This is one of my dreams coming true, the opportunity to get my own restaurant. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time,” said Serratos, 44, whose tacos have quickly gained a reputation for being among the best in Orange County.

“Jesús’s tacos are a force to be reckoned with,” said the Rev. Canon Pat McCaughan, St. George’s vicar. “I always get a kick out of the Yelp reviewers and the way they characterize his location – weekdays he is at our St. George’s Joy Café, and then on the weekends he moves into the marketplace. It isn’t unusual for me to find people on Saturdays and Sundays knocking on the café door, desperately seeking his tacos.

“One Yelp user mentioned that Jesús’s café is located at a church and added, ‘but don’t let that stop you.’ Others have referred to his location as a ‘hole in the wall’ and tricky to find, but always worth it,” she added, laughing. “Some have said the tacos are so good it’s obvious they’re made with love. That’s totally our mission, to be a force for love in this community.”

Livi Crispin, 15, feels the love. After her parents began selling cold drinks in the marketplace, she asked to be baptized. Her baptism happened to fall on the same Sunday that Bishop Suffragan Diane M. Jardine Bruce paid an official visitation to the church and also blessed the marketplace.

Brian Sanchez, 36, at his “Snackingz” booth, prepares deep-fried Oreo cookies and a specialty pancake ball, served with fresh strawberries and bananas. Photo: J.C. Hernandez

Bruce said she knew about the marketplace before her visitation. “During the pandemic my husband Steve and I made a point of driving around to the different local churches that we knew were live-streaming, just to check on the grounds and to feel connected to the congregations,” she recalled.

“I’ll never forget the day we drove over to St. George’s and saw a bustling market in the parking lot! Everyone was masked, social distancing was happening – and the market was busy! Fast forward to when we could meet in person again and I baptized the daughter of one of the vendors at the market, and then blessed the market that same day.

“The vendors all wanted me to ‘hit them’ with the holy water! Not only is St. George’s offering Jesus’ love and grace to all who come to the church, they are serving the local community by offering part of their sprawling parking lot to this much-needed local market. It is a wonderful way for St. George’s to serve the community, for the market to support St. George’s through a financial commitment to St. George’s! Congregations looking for ways to seek alternative revenue streams should look at partnerings such as this one.”

Crispin also celebrated a pivotal moment in her life, her quinceañera, at St. George’s, with McCaughan officiating. “I just love the church and the people,” she said. “I just want to be part of it and for it to be part of my life.”

She and Krystal Mendez, 27, were serving up cold drinks on a recent hot day at the market. They said helping out in the marketplace has come with practical life lessons, too, like learning about customer service, ways to deal with the public, how to save money and also to hone math skills when making change.

They also help out as part of the clean-up crew but consider their participation more a family affair, Mendez added. “We help out any way we can. The church is helping us out and we want to help the church out, too. We just want it to keep growing.”

Booth rental costs are minimal for vendors, Hernandez said, ranging from $20-35 weekly. Vendors begin arriving about 6 a.m. and “now on Saturdays, they do a breakfast potluck about 7:30 a.m. before the market opens at 8 a.m.,” he said.

Livi Crispin (left) and Krystal Mendez help out at the open air market. Photo: J.C. Hernandez

On some weekends as many as 300 people have visited the campus market, although sales and the number of participating vendors has fluctuated. Some vendors have returned to their weekday employment, but they continue to maintain their weekend booths, Hernandez said.

“New vendors with unique items keep coming,” said Sandra Hernandez. She and J.C. continue to seek ways to connect the church and vendors. “We often walk around the market and ask for feedback and we always get questions about the church,” Sandra said.

Recently vendor Brian Sanchez was invited to serve as a liaison from the marketplace to the church’s bishop’s committee as another means of deepening connection and relationship. The church also plans to begin a 7 a.m. Sunday morning prayer service before the market opens at 8 a.m.

Sanchez, 34, and his brother Daniel, 30, operate “Snackingz,” which offers deep-fried Oreo cookies and such dessert appetizers as pancake balls, which are dusted with confectioner’s sugar before they are served up with a side of fresh bananas and strawberries.

For the Sanchez brothers, who describe themselves as “foodies,” the marketplace is a family affair and an opportunity to work together for their future, with a product that “we just hope will make people smile.”

As the market approaches its one-year anniversary, relationships have deepened. Hernandez said the vendors have volunteered to help paint campus fences and contributed to a recent fundraiser to paint the church’s interior and exterior.

At Christmas, the church hosted a drive-through tree-lighting ceremony and ‘visit with the Holy Family’ creche display, offering poinsettias, hot cocoa and prewrapped cookies to marketplace guests and patrons. Vendors also joined a Good Friday drive-through Stations of the Cross during Holy Week, hosted by the church, with many asking for seasonal blessings.

“It’s been a blessing for the vendors,” according to Sandra Hernandez. “They’ve grown their clientele, although people are always shocked we’re located at a church,” she said. A local comedian, Brinbos Dieras, part of occasional entertainment provided at the Tianguis, “couldn’t believe we were at a church,” she recalled. “He even talked about it during his act.

“People keep saying to us, oh my God, how can this be operating in a church? We say, well, that’s the best place to be.”