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The Very Rev. Daniel Vélez-Rivera:

'Just a Street Preacher'

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church, Melinda Gipson

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

People sometimes describe The Very Rev. Daniel Vélez-Rivera of Saint Gabriel's Episcopal Church ~ Iglesia San Gabriel, as a man without a church. To Father Daniel, “The church is not a building, but the people gathered in faith! In response to the question, ‘When will you build the church?’ we say, ‘We are building it each time we encounter people wherever we are.’”

St. Gabriel’s congregation in fact worships at four different locations: on Sundays, the English language service takes place at the Belmont Ridge Middle School at 10 a.m. (and on Zoom and Facebook Live); and the Spanish language service is at Saint James’ Episcopal Church in Leesburg at 3 p.m. (and via Facebook Live) with Sunday school for children and child care provided at both services. They’ve created the worship community of St. Gabriel’s at Ashby Ponds which meets monthly on the third Tuesday of the month at 10 a.m. During the summer months, they hold Saturday bilingual services outdoors at the Chapel in the Woods on land owned by the Diocese of Virginia. 

To those who have missed out on this vibrant Christian community, “where diversity is intentionally and authentically engaged, worship is wonderfully empowering, and your spiritual journey is enthusiastically embraced with love,” we can only say, you’ve missed a blessing.

Too often, the recently immigrated Spanish-speaking members of the congregation go unnoticed by the community at large, unless they’re engaging in one of the many colorful, traditional ceremonies they enjoy like the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In the photo at right, the group pictured includes clergy and dancers of the Irene Saucedo Dance Studio who interpreted prayers through movement for the Blessed Mother. “At St. Gabriel's ~ San Gabriel, we commemorate the feast at a bilingual Eucharistic service, the music is performed by a live mariachi band (Mariachi Imperio), and the folkloric dancers conclude with prayer through movement,” Father Daniel explains. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the Patron Saint of Mexico and Patroness of the Americas. Her feast day on Dec. 12th commemorates her apparition to Saint Juan Diego in the hills of Tepeyac in 1531. She sent him to relay her message to the bishop at the time to build her a church atop Tepeyac Hill, which is the site of the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Such traditional ceremonies can bring a sense of home and family to an immigrant population, and serve to forge strong pathways for faith-based service among community minded congregations from other Loudoun churches. St. Gabriel’s ~ San Gabriel does not have the largest Spanish language ministry in Northern Virginia, but is one of the more diverse, featuring 13 Latino ethnicities, as well as Asian Americans, African Americans and White Americans.

No matter whether the gathering is a cooking class, a STEM competition, a food drive for a communion of saints, you can find Father Daniel in the middle of it. So, imagine our surprise that that’s not at all what he set out to do.

Raised in Puerto Rico, Daniel went to school in Boston for engineering and worked as an engineer for 20 years, at one point selling a deeply embedded operating system in telecommunications before the explosion in cell phones, and working on the Mars Pathfinder probe.

Raised Roman Catholic, he found the Episcopal Church to be a more inclusive and democratic institution to his liking. “By the time I was in my 30s, my priest asked me if I’d be interested in being a priest and I said, ‘yes.’”

So, he left tech sales and went to Boston University School of Theology where he received a Master in Divinity and a Master in Social Work. “As a bilingual person, I knew that I wanted to start Latino ministries in traditional Episcopal congregations and that I would be ministering to people with basic life needs and extra challenges.” His first seminary internship was to help start the first tuition-free, Episcopal Middle School for Girls in Lawrence, Massachusetts, called Esperanza Academy, which turns 19 next year. He was also part of the initial group of faith-based mental health providers at Trinity Church in Copley Square.

In the dozen years he’s been vicar of St. Gabriel’s, he’s worked to build connections among parishioners who are building the kingdom of God by helping their neighbors: working with groups like All Ages Read Together, teaching English to Spanish-speaking kindergarteners and their parents, making dolls, hats, scarves, and prayer squares for a ministry to immigrants they support through the Diocese of the Rio Grande Borderland Ministries in Texas that has served thousands of migrants and asylum seekers. Also, through St. Gabriel’s own social justice ministry, Educando con Amor, provides after school STEAM programs for children and adolescents.

St. Gabriel’s has a young demographic, and the St. Gabriel’s at Ashby Ponds community has increased the 65+ membership to about 8% of the congregation mix. Regardless of age, all are encouraged to become involved in the church’s various mission projects. Several members have developmentally disabled children who are also invited to serve as they are able in worship and community service.

In March, St. Gabriel’s teenage robotics teachers took 2nd Place honors in the Step-Up Loudoun Youth Competition for their “Four Seasons of STEM” curriculum. And this summer, the church will host nine weekly summer camp sessions in Sterling and Leesburg including culinary arts, robotics, Java programming, drawing, painting, chorus, theater, and more.  

He sums all this activity up as “just being a street preacher.” He adds, “Mission work is meeting people where they are – just being present. And one of the gifts that God has given me is that I'm a networker. I love to engage with people, listen to stories, share stories. Jesus was a networker. Jesus was an evangelizer. And what happens in most churches of all denominations is that the community becomes building centric. The congregation and its leaders must work hard to avoid being bound by their four walls. God so had it that I would become a priest of a church with no building, because it forces St. Gabriel's to be outward looking.”

“My dream is that we will find a permanent home so that we're not nomads anymore,” he admitted. “But the place definitely needs to be in the community and for the community,” meaning it first has to be accessible to public transportation, and then also open to community-based programs.

With more resources, he’d reach out to Loudoun’s large Southeast Asian community and invite more of this community to become part of St. Gabriel’s. “I love to dream. It's part of being an engineer and sort of my entrepreneurial background. Dreams are free and no one should be precluded from being at God’s table.”

For now, he’s focused on finding ongoing space for St. Gabriel’s Educando con Amor ~ Educating with Love program that provides after school educational programs for children and adolescents ranging from science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts. Some of the classes take place at the Sterling and Douglass Community Centers, part at the Leesburg Apartments, which has a three-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment that's a “Community Education Department” operated by the Loudoun County Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Prevention. Some classes take place in the St. James’ parish hall.

“We do science labs, math tutoring, computer programming. Middle schoolers do Scratch programming, high schoolers do Java programming. We use the Arduino hardware platform for participants to learn how to program robots. We have a folkloric dance group who practice at St. James two days a week. We do digital art. We do conventional art drawing and paintings.” iPads were donated to make some of the digital art classes possible.  

“Different expressions of art are important components to teach along technology because every little bit of exposure will uncork a child’s potential through education. Maybe because I was an engineer I know that technology and creative thinking are a pathway to move ahead a little bit more in life. Some of our children struggle – their parents also struggle because their children may not be given the same opportunities as their peers. We prepare children to be curious enough and knowledgeable enough to say, ‘I know how to do that.’”

Because he is so identified with the marginalized communities, Father Daniel received $880,000 from Catholic Charities and the Loudoun County Government (ARPA program) for rental assistance during COVID because he was among those who could best apply the funding where it was needed. It’s a double-edged sword; while St. Gabriel’s may be best able to help, they are also impacted when disruptions in the community occur,  like when Inmed Partnerships for Children closed its doors last year. That was particularly difficult for the church, which had six parishioners employed by the organization. To the positive, COVID does seem to have made St. Gabriel’s more visible for its anchor role in serving Loudoun’s poorest.

“We figured it out. We made it work. I've never worked so hard in my life,” he recalls. But that’s our mission: “Encounter God, build meaningful relationships and make a difference in the world. And that is how we operate,” he says. It’s all done with such joy, that any activity is worth a visit. They provide cooked meals at Shelter House one Friday a month, and he invites families including teens age 15+ to serve and engage with the guests. For information on how to help serve others in Loudoun through their community education programs. Just drop Father Daniel an email ( if you are interested in helping. Donations and conversations about how you can serve others are welcome too.

“Encounter God, build meaningful relationships and make a difference in the world. That is how we operate.”

  • Father Daniel at Shoe's Cup & Cork
  • Four Seasons of STEM: St. Gabriel’s community education teenage robotics teachers won 2nd place in the Step Up Loudoun Youth Competition
  • Fr. Daniel Displays a Prayer Square Knitted by a Parishioner as a Gift
  • Blessing the Water for Baptism
  • Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe
  • Outdoor Worship Service