First Odessa’s Hispanic ministry is opening doors to reach a rapidly changing community

ODESSA

Erika Meza had been praying for her husband, Luis, to come to faith in Jesus for nine years. But spiritual conversations with Luis could feel tense and he would tell Erika he did not want to feel pressured to walk away from the Catholic religion he had always known. 

But something began to change in Luis’ heart one day after he received a personal invitation from Hiram Ramos, the leader of First Baptist Church Odessa’s Hispanic ministry, and his wife, Saraí. Luis was touched by the invitation, but still guarded about the visit.

“Don’t get excited,” he told Erika and their two children that Sunday.

But God began to do a work in Luis’ heart through that first visit.

“The first day I went, I felt I was part of something,” Luis now admits. “God moved something in my heart and in my mind, so I started going regularly.”

Hiram, sensing the Lord at work, began to pull Luis closer. He invited Luis to his home. He was a sounding board to which Luis could voice his questions and doubts. Most importantly, Hiram presented the plan of salvation to Luis.

On April 7, 2023, First Odessa Senior Pastor Byron McWilliams preached his annual cross service—a special message he delivers on Good Friday while simultaneously using an ax to craft a life-sized cross on the church stage. Luis said something “clicked” in his soul as he listened to the message, and he gave his life to Jesus that evening. Luis became the first person Hiram baptized at First Odessa Español—the first of many. 

“The first day I went, I felt I was part of something. God moved something in my heart and in my mind.”

Expanding its reach

Long before that day, First Odessa—with a mission to reach its city and the world with the gospel of Christ—saw an urgent need to connect with the growing number of Hispanic people coming to the community to work in the oil industry. With nearly 60% of the city’s population being Hispanic, church leaders wondered, “How are we going to reach Odessa if we don’t speak Spanish?”

First Odessa already had a Spanish Bible class meeting at the church. It was led by its only Hispanic couple at the time—Roberto Chavez and his wife Aracely, who is Hiram’s sister. As the class began to grow, church leaders began to pray about taking the next steps to broaden its reach. They eventually purchased a building across the street to use for a Hispanic church. All they needed was a pastor. 

At the time, Hiram lived in his native Mexico and, other than making an annual visit to Odessa to visit Aracely and her family, had never considered leaving. During one of his visits, in 2019, Aracely told Hiram about First Odessa’s vision of starting a Hispanic work and asked him to join her in praying for the man God would call to serve as its pastor. 

“So I crossed the street from the church and started walking around the building [the church had purchased for the Hispanic work],” Hiram said, “praying that God would bring a pastor who would love the work.” 

He never imagined he would be the one God would choose to call to lead the Hispanic work.

Hiram Ramos (left) baptizes Luis Meza, marking the first baptism under First Odessa’s en Español ministry. Many years earlier, Hiram also baptized Luis’ wife, Erika, when she was living in Mexico. (Right photo) Luis and Erika Meza with their children.

“How are we going to reach Odessa if we don’t speak Spanish?”

A couple years later, in January 2021, Hiram returned to visit his sister and help preach the funeral of her father-in-law. Hiram preached part of the funeral message in Spanish, while McWilliams preached in English. Afterward, McWilliams said he and some other members of the church staff began texting one another about Hiram, saying, “This is the one we’ve been praying for.”

At McWilliams’ request, he and Hiram met a couple months later to discuss what God was doing to reach the Hispanic population through First Odessa’s ministry. Heading into that meeting, Hiram remembers praying the words of Philippians 2:13: “If it is your will, work in me both to will and to do” so that I may fulfill your purposes. 

The conversation ended up with the two men standing in front of the altar facing the pews inside the building where Hiram had prayed for First Odessa’s planned Hispanic ministry a couple years earlier. 

“This is the place God wants to fill with Spanish-speaking people,” McWilliams said to Hiram. “When can you start?”

“At that moment,” Hiram recalls, “God produced the ‘will and the doing’ in me.” 

Hiram answered the call to lead the Hispanic work and he and Saraí moved to Odessa. They said God affirmed their call to the work by allowing their work visas to be granted rapidly—faster than their attorney said she had ever seen. Hiram and Saraí prepared to launch the Hispanic work by hosting Sunday Bible classes, as well as men’s and women’s Bible studies during the week. 

“We are all part of the same vision where the Spanish ministry is being formed with the support of the whole church.”

One church, one mission

First Odessa en Español held its first service on Dec. 3, 2023, with 28 people in attendance. Since then, the church has seen more than 50 people come to faith in Christ. The church is working to disciple, shepherd, and meet the unique needs of those families—many of which include older generations that speak mostly Spanish with younger generations that are increasingly more fluent in English. By offering its Spanish ministry, First Odessa provides a place where such families can worship in the same location.

Hiram uses his training in psychology and counseling to minister to the needs of marriages and families. The church recently held a marriage dinner conference with 115 attendees. It also hosted an Easter activity in a local park where about 800 people came to hear the gospel in Spanish and English.  

“We are one church and one ministry together, and I love that,” Hiram said, “because we are all part of the same vision where the Spanish ministry is being formed with the support of the whole church.”

Correspondent
Arlene Sanabria
Southern Baptist Texan
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