In South Texas, Hispanic plant seeks to raise faith from the ruins

Pastor Jhonny Gonzalez (far right) baptizes a woman at True Hope Bible Fellowship Church in Hebbronville. SUBMITTED PHOTO

HEBBRONVILLE—Like many towns, Hebbronville has its challenges.

This small South Texas city with roughly 5,000 residents wrestles with crime, drugs, and divorce. No aspect of the community is unaffected.

“It’s hard to work [in Hebbronville],” says Jhonny Gonzalez, pastor of True Hope Bible Fellowship Church, “because now we have seen this town’s spiritual and moral condition is in crisis.”

Amidst all the physical ruin, social deterioration, and spiritual drought, God called Gonzalez and his family from Reinosa, Mexico, several years ago to plant True Hope. The church’s vision and mission are focused on restoring families, marriages, and children and strengthening family relationships through the gospel.

Despite all the challenges, they continue to see the power of God bringing families out of the ruins of sin so that they can then be witnesses for Jesus among their neighbors—even as parts of their own church are in disrepair. A portion of the building where True Hope meets, that once housed the now-defunct First Baptist Church of Hebbronville, has been condemned by the local government. So True Hope’s members meet in a multipurpose room on another portion of the property.

After 100 years of existence, FBC Hebbronville closed due to a significant drop in membership, Gonzalez said. In early 2000, the roof of the church collapsed, the walls began to break, and the few remaining families meeting there had to look for another church.

One of the families that left went to Retama Park Baptist Church, located about 60 miles east of Hebbronville, and upon meeting Gonzalez and his family, urged the leaders at their new church to join with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention to seek ways to resume services at the old FBC Hebbronville site—but this time as a new Hispanic mission. Hebbronville’s population is nearly 90% Hispanic.

Retama Park continues to support True Hope by helping fund the pastoral salary and administrating the church’s finances.

“Our heart is to be involved in the Great Commission,” said Brent Howard, Retama Park’s pastor. “Hebbronville, it’s an area that is kind of economically depressed. It is very much predominantly Catholic, so there is very little evangelical presence there at all. So a major thought in the process and the goal is to establish solid Bible belief and a Baptist presence in that town and region. That’s why we continue helping Brother Jhonny and True Hope the best that we can to be an established church fulfilling the Great Commission.”

Healing the divide

Gonzalez said many years ago, racism was very strong and evident in Hebbronville. The divide could be seen in the town’s churches, as many Anglos attended the Baptist church while Hispanics attended the Catholic church. Gonzalez—who was raised in the Catholic church—said the racial divide left many Hispanic residents feeling welcomed only in the Catholic church, and as it grew with the population, other evangelical or non-Catholic churches were viewed with contempt.

Thanks to the church planting efforts and the work God is doing in Hebbronville, those feelings have been changing in a positive direction and more and more people in town are receiving the gospel and seeing Anglo people as brothers and sisters in Christ, Gonzalez said.

Although the mission at True Hope began as a Hispanic one, Gonzalez said he realized there were still original Anglo families from the old First Baptist Church who needed to be ministered to, as well as second- and third-generation Hispanics who prefer to speak English. Because of that, True Hope began transitioning to a bilingual work. One of the church members began helping translate, and now Gonzalez preaches his messages in Spanish and English.

Moving forward on mission together

Gonzalez constantly urges his congregation to share the gospel—not only because of the biblical mandate to do so, but because “not everyone wants to talk to a pastor, but they listen to their cousin or neighbor.” Church members are responding and are increasingly sharing the gospel more naturally with their families and neighbors, he said.

The result? Ex-alcoholics are now evangelizing their alcoholic friends. Husbands are wanting to come home and restore their families. A local nursing home is hearing the gospel each week through one of the church’s outreaches, with some employees not only sharing their need for Christ but also expressing a desire to someday visit the church. Gonzalez and his daughter offer piano and guitar lessons to the community, as well, which has allowed them to connect with two families.

In other words, the mission of the church is moving forward. Gonzalez said he is daily seeking wisdom from God about how to continue moving ahead in this gospel work. He is also urgently seeking help to demolish the old church building that has been condemned so a new work can soon be constructed in its place.

A work that, literally, will rise from the ruins and provide hope to a city where hopelessness, for many, is a daily reality.

Arlene Sanabria
Southern Baptist Texan
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