West Texas pastor had an unlikely path to ministry in Sweetwater

SWEETWATER  While many pastors experience reduced incomes after assuming the pulpit, few pay for the privilege of preaching. Yet that is what Richard Acuna did for almost a year, as the firefighter routinely shelled out $200 to hire a substitute to work for him at the firehouse on the Sundays he was scheduled for a shift. Acuna’s role as an interim pastor at Avondale Baptist Church in Sweetwater paid less than $200 a week.

That changed last October, when Avondale called Acuna, 41, to become its permanent pastor. It was validation of a most unlikely journey to pastoral ministry.

“Now I am getting paid enough to cover this expense,” Acuna told the TEXAN. “But I am not doing this for the money. I feel I am doing what God has called me to do: kingdom work, for the church.”

Acuna admitted he “hates” to see churches close, a situation that concerned Avondale leaders before he arrived.

“When I see church doors close, that is a slap against the kingdom, a victory for the devil,” Acuna said. 

The firefighters’ schedule of 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off provides time for Acuna to prepare sermons and handle church duties. As if two jobs weren’t enough, Acuna also serves as a trainer for the Sweetwater-Nolan County Health Department, teaching classes in emergency preparedness.

Each job reflects Acuna’s desire to minister to Nolan County, a passion shared by his wife, Becky, who is not only on staff at another local Baptist church, but is also director of The S.H.O.P—Sweetwater House of Peace—a community outreach center to youth.

Few people in Sweetwater imagined that hometown boy Acuna would grow up to serve his community as a pastor and firefighter, both unexpected career choices for the onetime juvenile offender who occasionally broke into houses and vehicles, experimented with illegal drugs and found himself locked up in juvie hall.

“Praise God that all that happened before I was 15 years old,” Acuna said of his youthful indiscretions. “Part of my story concerns where God brought us,” he added, admitting that his transformation to community leader has surprised some locals.

“Everybody in Sweetwater knows about my business,” Acuna said with a chuckle.

Acuna credits his relationship with Becky, his high school sweetheart, with starting him on the right road, even though their relationship has had rough patches. The two entered a common-law marriage after high school. Acuna worked for National Railcar as a welder.

Children quickly followed. So did problems.

Becky had been raised in a Christian home, although her father, who had been a pastor, abandoned the family, leaving all with unresolved issues. 

She struggled with guilt regarding her common-law marriage. Becky’s upbringing, despite its challenges, had given her an enduring faith. Her family had attended church and studied the Bible together. But their common-law arrangement “brought shame,” she said. “I knew right from wrong. It was blatant disobedience.”

Becky finally returned to church at the invitation of a friend.

“That made me mad,” Acuna said. “I went to church to make sure that guy knew she had a husband.”

After a few visits to the church, Acuna trusted Christ as Savior. “That day was great,” he recalled. “I told Becky things were going to be different. Later that night, she told me she was leaving me.”

The couple went through the process of a legal divorce and were apart for almost four years, until God restored their relationship in 2005.

“I knew she was the woman I would be with the rest of my life. Even when we were divorced, I knew we would get back together, that God could restore this marriage and redeem us,” Acuna said. Slowly God did just that, even though both of them dated others during their years apart.

They began attending church with their children and decided to remarry.

“We wanted to do things right, to teach our kids it is never too late to do the right thing. The day we got married is the day we moved in together,” Acuna said.

They became active at a Baptist church, volunteering extensively as Acuna changed careers from working in a chemical plant to joining the Sweetwater Fire Department in 2007. The department sent him to earn certification as an EMT and firefighter. 

He later received an associate’s degree in biblical studies from Liberty University and said he plans to continue his education someday.

Acuna called his appointment to Avondale “definitely a God thing,” which began when he felt God calling him to preach nearly three years ago. Preaching invitations started coming and he began filling local pulpits often, frequently at Avondale. He agreed to become the church’s interim pastor in January 2018, and within a few months was asked to apply for the full-time position.

With Becky’s support, and the church’s understanding that she would remain on staff at the family’s prior church, Acuna accepted the call to Avondale.

Acuna said the time as interim gave him the confidence to agree to a permanent position. He said he felt God telling him to love the people and that God would take care of the rest.

Avondale has responded. Average weekly attendance has almost doubled from 25 to 40, and a recent Sunday night special event put on by Teen Challenge drew 110.

“The church members are so caring. They have showed me grace, love, mercy,” Acuna said.

Paul Anderson, an SBTC field ministry strategist who attended Acuna’s installation at Avondale, said of the couple: “They are both entrenched in ministry and love the Lord.”

“We never thought we would be where are now,” Becky said. “I tell kids at The S.H.O.P that God uses all kinds of people. In our weakness he is made strong.”

Acuna said 1 John 4:19 motivates him to serve: “We love because he first loved us.”

“I have so much to be thankful for.” 

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