For border church, pandemic-induced difficulties created growing hunger for God’s Word

Juan Camilo Del Valle, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Gestsemaní. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Not just surviving, but thriving

For Juan Camilo Del Valle, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Gestsemaní in this South Texas city just a few miles from the U.S./Mexico border, the pandemic was a time of suffering. Yet he also saw how God used that time of discomfort to positively impact his family life, his ministry, and his church. 

“Not everything the pandemic brought was negative,” Del Valle said. “For me, it was a productive time.”

Gestsemaní is a 40-year-old Hispanic church that had been without a pastor for four years when Del Valle arrived as an intern from a theological seminary to offer help. He never imagined he would be recommended to apply for the pastoral vacancy sometime later and be installed as the church’s pastor in May 2017. 

A lifetime of service to the Lord

Raised in Medellín, Colombia, Del Valle trusted Christ at age 7 and began teaching children’s Bible classes after being baptized and trained at age 12. From there, his passion for teaching the Bible grew and God continued to open doors for him to minister to preteens and teens in the city. 

As he approached his 30th birthday, Del Valle moved to the city of Bucaramanga in northern Colombia and connected with a church where he met his wife of 17 years, Laura. While at the church, he served as a full-time youth pastor and studied at the city’s Bible seminary, graduating with a degree in theology and biblical studies. Later, in July 2011, his father-in-law started a church plant and he left with his wife to support that work. Del Valle was also ordained there and served as co-pastor until December 2015. 

It was during his service to the church plant that Del Valle’s father-in-law recommended he move his family to Texas to study and further prepare for his call to ministry. After much prayer, God made a way for that journey to happen—though Del Valle’s plan was always to come to Texas, be trained, and then return to Colombia to continue ministry there. That plan changed when the Lord sent Del Valle to Gestsemaní to serve the church as an intern and, ultimately, as its pastor. 

Pastor Juan Camilo Del Valle (far right) intended to come to the U.S. to receive ministry training and then head back to his native Colombia, but God had other plans. SUBMITTED PHOTO

“It has been a great blessing to see church members begin to discover things in the Bible that they had never read before, to see how excited they are, and to see the special and deep way they are getting to know God.”

A hard time, but a good time

The transition to leading Gestsemaní, Del Valle said, was challenging due to his age and adjusting to leading an entire church, but the Lord gave him grace and he began to settle in. About that time, COVID-19 arrived and changed not only the dynamics in his church, but the world. Though the pandemic brought loss and pain, Del Valle said he also saw growth in the church, a resurgence of family involvement, and a congregation eager to deepen its relationship with God. 

“It was a shake-up that the church needed,” Del Valle said. “I have seen the fruit in my personal life and in the congregation [after COVID].”

Personally, Del Valle found it a blessing that the pandemic gave him more time to spend with his two young children. For his congregation, suffering through a time when many people were shut in and isolated, the pastor saw an opportunity to begin ministries that would outlive the pandemic. 

“As soon as we were forced to close the church, I started looking for a way to stay connected [with our people],” Del Valle said. “So I started sending them little devotionals through WhatsApp.” WhatsApp is an app that allows messaging between its users. 

For many, these devotionals became part of their daily routine. When the pandemic ended, and though the church had returned to in-person meetings, members and other participants asked Del Valle if he would continue to send the daily devotionals.

Soon after, he began to challenge the congregation to read the entire Bible in one year using the devotionals. To assist with that effort, he added a YouTube channel that included a daily video of himself reading and talking about the assigned daily passages and concluding with a time of prayer. After completing the Bible reading plan at the end of 2022, church members again asked him to continue the effort, so they started a new reading plan. The church’s YouTube channel currently has 454 subscribers.

“There are church members who share these [devotionals] with family and friends who are non-believers,” Del Valle said. “One of these family members has already accepted Christ and traveled from her city to our church, was baptized, and was able to testify how she came to know Christ through reading the Bible.”

This year, Del Valle—who also serves as a workshop leader and panelist for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention’s en Español ministry and has been part of the planning committee for the Spanish track of the Empower Conference for two years—decided to start a separate YouTube channel called Creative Bible Teaching to broaden the reach of the Word of God beyond his church. That channel has 168 subscribers and more than 1,000 views on some of its videos.  

“It has been a great blessing to see church members begin to discover things in the Bible that they had never read before, to see how excited they are, and to see the special and deep way they are getting to know God,” Del Valle said. “People who have been in the church for years have been transformed and their perspective on God has changed.”

Arlene Sanabria
Southern Baptist Texan
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