HOUSTON Jaime Garcia remembers playing baseball on a field at Bethel Baptist Church in Houston when he was a teenager, part of one of the first Hispanic families to move into the neighborhood where the Anglo church was thriving.
Fast forward several decades, and now he is the pastor.
“These were my stomping grounds. This is where I grew up,” Garcia told the TEXAN.
Though he had no other connection to Bethel, Garcia attended several of their outreach events during his youth, and when he was called to ministry at age 21, he took a student pastor position at a Southern Baptist church just a quarter-mile away.
“I got married, and before you knew it, I was bringing my kids to fall festivals this church would do as outreach,” Garcia said of Bethel, adding the church “was always somehow in my circle of life.”
Through the years, many of the Anglos that caused Bethel to average 500 people in Sunday School each week moved to the suburbs and the community transitioned. “It’s a rough neighborhood, so things started to change and this church started to die out,” he said.
Nineteen years ago, Bethel called Garcia as its student minister, and eight years ago, when the senior pastor retired, Garcia became the lead pastor. Attendance had dwindled to around 80 people, and those who remained had a hard time connecting with the Hispanic community.
Along the way, the church received a boost from the Cooperative Program, “to help us as a church to continue to operate when we just started to help this community,” Garcia said. Bethel “will continue to increase” CP giving “because we believe in the Cooperative Program,” the pastor said.
The congregation includes Anglos and African Americans, “but it’s now 80 percent English-speaking Hispanics,” Garcia said, describing it as an English-driven church predominantly filled with second and third generation Hispanics. Before the pandemic, attendance had stepped up to around 130, he said.
“Because I am from the community and all my ministry has been in Houston, I now have second and third generation students [for whom] I was their youth pastor and they’re now under my leadership,” Garcia said.
To be effective in their setting, the pastor leads the church to love the people outside the walls.
“That means we’re going to have to get dirty. We’re going to have to sacrifice. We’re going to have to work because we’re in a community where it’s the third worst area in Houston as far as crime, drugs. Prostitution is all around us. Homelessness,” Garcia said.
Though Hurricane Harvey was a tremendous tragedy for Houston, it “was the greatest evangelistic platform that this church has ever been given,” he said. “We were given the opportunity to leave these walls and to be the church.”
Volunteers from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and 33 other states came through Bethel Baptist at some point during the recovery process, Garcia said, noting the church served as a lodging location and a distribution center.
“There’s really a need for relationship,” he said. People who survived Harvey and now have dealt with the pandemic are struggling more than ever, and they’re willing to look to the church for hope.
Bethel started Operation Covid-19 Share Hope Today and has given out “thousands and thousands” of produce boxes and milk to people in the community. They set up prayer tents, and people have come through and said things like, “Thank you for the food, but that’s not why we came. Can someone pray for our family?”
The pastor said, “People are looking for an affirmation that they’re going to get through this.”
To minister to the nearby homeless population, Bethel members have taken them blankets and coffee, and when Houston has one of its rare freezes, they open the church for the night, Garcia said. On one of those nights, they gave a young man a Bible and he pored over it, underlining verses. Several months later they learned the man died after being hit by a car.
Another way they minister is to take food to hotels frequented by prostitutes. “Just say, ‘No strings attached. We love you. We’re just here to pray for you. Just know that somebody cares for you,’” Garcia said. “You never know how that’s going to change their life or what impact it will have. We don’t know what the future is for those people.”
As Bethel looks to the future, Garcia says they “don’t want to get to the point where the neighborhood changes again and we don’t know how to minister to them.
“The reality is this is our mission field,” he said. “We have literally the world around us.”