Reach El Paso vision tour inspires awareness on heels of tragedy

EL PASO  Two days. Eight churches. Two bilingual guides. The Aug. 19-20 Reach El Paso vision tour, planned by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention months earlier, saw a city rebounding from the kind of tragedy that magnifies spiritual needs.

“El Paso Strong” adorned t-shirts and marquees throughout the area, testifying to the community’s unity in the wake of the Aug. 3 shootings at a local Walmart.

The El Paso-Juarez (Mexico)-Las Cruces (N.M) Borderplex is home to 2.7 million mostly Spanish speaking and bilingual residents. Only 30 percent of El Paso residents speak just English. SBTC research indicates the vast majority do not attend church regularly, although a popular website claims nearly 60 percent are “religious,” and 3.5 percent describe themselves as “Baptist.”

Joining SBTC church planting strategists Chuy Avila and Jorge Diaz were pastors Kevin Barke, Fellowship Baptist, Saginaw; Robert Murphy, Alamo Heights Baptist, Midland; and R.J. Nanny, Ridgecrest Baptist, Commerce. Nanny was joined by church member Daniel Smith.

To convey the pulse of the city, Avila drove the group along the Cesar Chavez border highway and through dusty neighborhoods of flat-roofed stucco houses. They visited a hastily erected memorial for the recent shooting victims, saw suburban xeriscaping, and viewed El Paso and Juarez from a scenic overlook on Mt. Franklin.

On the first day of the tour, the group visited Iglesia Bautists Genesis, a 50-member church led by Gamalier Luna that has planted three other churches.

The participants also met with Sergio Lopez, pastor of La Verdad Community Church and Spanish associate director of the El Paso International School of Faith, where many planters have benefited from the low-cost Spanish and English college-level theological courses.

Before touring downtown El Paso, the group enjoyed Mexican cuisine with Tommy Rhode, a third-generation “preacher’s kid” who recently started Gateway City Church.

Day two began in the Triangulo del Diablo, the Devil’s Triangle, a neighborhood known for prostitution and drugs. Alvaro Castorena, an EPISF graduate, started El Triangulo de Cristo, a church in a converted building beside his home. He bought the property 35 years ago—back in the day when the streets were quiet.

“This was the worst part of El Paso,” Castorena told the group, adding that crime in the 20-street triangular area has decreased “little by little,” and even more since the church began five years ago.

Still, the transient population throughout the Triangle presents challenges.

“People come. They trust Christ,” Castorena said. “They move out and on, out of the neighborhood, on to new churches.”

“In many ways, this is a sending church,” Avila added.

Castorena’s church provides Sunday meals. A small room off the cobbled-together worship space is used for children’s ministries and VBS. Its needs include financial support, prayer, and assistance with an occasional festival outreach. An abandoned church building nearby would allow for growth, if the owners would consider selling or leasing.

The SBTC group prayer-walked the property.

Parks grace the neighborhoods of El Paso, and festivals are possible for churches like Castorena’s because of Tears of Joy (Lagrimas de Gozo), a ministry directed by another EPISF graduate, Juan Vasquez, pastor of the Agua de Vida (Water of Life) Baptist Church, the tour’s next stop.

Agua de Vida recently moved into a small building provided at nominal cost by the adjacent First Korean Baptist Church. Cleared of debris, repainted and rewired, the church plant that previously met in homes is poised to grow.

Vazquez, a mechanic who like the other planters is bi-vocational, started Tears of Joy with donations, including Cooperative Program (CP) funds from the SBTC. The ministry provides training and equipment like games and bounce houses for block party outreaches.

Vazquez is known as the block party expert, with Bible, bike and toy giveaways, free food, short sermons and motivation for guests to memorize John 3:16. Each festival costs about $500 to host; financial support is an ongoing need.

“When Spanish or Anglo churches want to do a festival, they contact him,” Avila said.

Tears of Joy holds monthly festivals in Juarez and has scheduled seven in El Paso this year, including a block party at El Angel, a park known as the “Evil Angel.”

After lunch, the vision tour continued in Northeast El Paso, at Iglesia Bautista Internacional, where associate pastor Carlos Mejia spoke in a sanctuary with rafters full of international flags.

An active and influential church in the community, Internacional, with about 70 members, conducts weekly outreaches to children in Juarez and a ministry to seniors every other Wednesday.

The church desires to host mission teams coming to work on projects for other churches, and while there is sufficient housing, Mejia said the addition of shower stalls in two restrooms would make it more practical for teams.

On the road again, the group headed outside El Paso, past cotton fields and pecan orchards, to Fabens to visit the family of Marco Antonio Orozco at Iglesia Bautista Jesucristo Redentor, a church started in their garage five years ago. Two elderly ladies who owned the former First Christian Church of Fabens offered the abandoned building once they learned of the Orozcos’ need.

The church features beautifully crafted wooden ceilings but lacks signage, air conditioning, suitable flooring, and money to pay for Sunday meals to serve the hungry.

Santa Muerte cultic worship and witchcraft pervade the community, Avila explained.

“It is a spiritual battle in Fabens,” Avila said, “and also in San Elizario,” the location of planter Marcos Jacinto’s Iglesia Bautista Dios Con Nuestros church, the tour’s next stop.

Once housed in a former bar (see, Dios Con Nuestros meets in a trailer on property purchased after they were given two weeks to move.

The church, which calls itself “more than a family,” squeezes 50 adults into the renovated space, with children’s ministries outside.

Its greatest need is for a multifunctional building for its ministries to young families, teens, the displaced, and those lacking extended family.

The tour’s final stop was at Semilla de Mostaza (Mustard Seed) Centro Familiar Internacional, a church pastored by Diaz and housed in the chapel of Immanuel Baptist, minutes from the Cielo Vista Walmart, where the recent shooting took place.

Diaz, with church administrator Graciela Acosta, said the Spanish language church migrated to Immanuel after a series of temporary locations. At the request of Immanuel’s pastor, J.C. Rico, the churches meet simultaneously to offer services in Spanish and English. Children who go to Semilla de Mostaza attend Sunday School at Immanuel.

As the two-day tour drew to a close, Diaz, a veteran church planter and pastor, asked participants for advice on reaching nearby apartment dwellers.

The lively dialogue as younger pastors shared ideas with an attentive Diaz epitomized the two-day experience of cooperation and mutual respect.

Participants praised Avila, Diaz and the planters.

“This is one of the best vision trips I have been on,” Nanny said. “Our motive was to figure out what the local guys really need,” he added, noting his church, with Avila’s counsel, would be exploring how to help.

Barke said networking among the churches to coordinate efforts in El Paso would be helpful, while Murphy said the tour provided “perspective” on the men’s own ministries.

For the SBTC, the vision for El Paso, La visión para El Paso, will continue long after the pain wrought by the recent tragedy subsides.

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