HARTFORD, Conn. (BP)–When the members of Primera Iglesia Bautista in Hartford, Conn., began praying for the salvation of Gregory Torres in the early 1980s, they had no idea he would one day be their pastor.
Torres, an administrator with Bell Pump Services and also the owner of a bar, accepted Christ as his personal Savior in 1985. The bar was the first thing to go.
“They [the church] put me to work. I didn’t have much time to grow,” Torres recalled. “God worked in my life very fast.”
He served as a Sunday school teacher, church treasurer and a deacon. In 1991, the church asked him to serve as interim pastor. The search committee then asked him to submit a resume to be considered as pastor.
“I prayed and prayed,” Torres said. The support of his wife, sons and extended family was a key factor in his conviction that God was indeed calling him to change vocations.
“Their support made it easy for me to accept that God was calling me to pastor the church,” he said. “I love to meet people and share with them. I think my call is preaching and teaching in New England. It’s hard to explain, but it’s very convincing.”
When Torres became pastor in February 1992, the church was meeting in a school. Later that year, they purchased an 18,000-square-foot building to remodel into a church facility. Located in a Hispanic neighborhood a few blocks from the state capitol, the building was structurally sound. However, it had burned three times and the inside was filled with garbage and asbestos.
“It was a horror,” said Angelita Torres, wife of the pastor.
After the asbestos was removed, volunteer teams from New England and several southern states traveled to Hartford to help create a worship center, preschool room and other facilities on the first floor. They moved into the first floor in June 1997.
Church members completed the second floor that includes a fellowship hall, Sunday school and discipleship classrooms and a commercial kitchen the church hopes to use in a soup kitchen ministry.
Today, the church includes members from eight Hispanic cultures plus African Americans and persons of Irish descent. Most Sunday school classes are held in English while discipleship groups, also held on Sunday morning, are conducted in Spanish and English.
For worship, everyone gathers in the sanctuary where songs are sung in both languages. Then the children depart for a service in English. Teens and younger adults also worship in English. Others stay in the worship center for a message in Spanish.
“A lot of our kids and teenagers feel more comfortable in English. I’m glad the church is open to that,” said Mildred Carrasquillo, Sunday school director.
“This year we are focusing more on discipleship,” she said. New converts first attend a class where “we teach them the basics of what we believe. We pass them through that class first so they know where we stand.”
Carrasquillo said the church has seen the Holy Spirit at work in recent months as “people are really turning to the Lord.”
For the future, she said, “I hope in the Lord we keep growing, reach the neighborhood and keep reaching people as the Lord told us to do. This neighborhood is mostly Hispanic. We’re in the right place.”
While the different Hispanic cultures can present communication challenges as they use words differently, Carrasquillo sees the diversity more as a strength.
“The Lord put us together. It’s not like he’s from Cuba or she’s from Guatemala. We’re just one,” she said.
In addition to envisioning continued growth for his congregation, Torres sees a need for starting more Latino (Hispanic and Brazilian) churches in New England. The strategy will be to involve at least three existing churches in starting a new work.
In addition, Primera Iglesia Bautista plans to start a Brazilian mission in their building in 2002. That group will hold services on Sunday nights. And because there are no Anglo Southern Baptist churches in downtown Hartford, Torres hopes his church can play a role in starting an Anglo mission.
Earlier this year, Primera Iglesia Bautista called one of its laymen, Julio Carrasquillo, as associate pastor. Like Torres, he had held several leadership roles before the church licensed him to preach.
“The Lord put in the congregation’s heart my call,” Carrasquillo said.
In the next decade, Torres envisions a staff of four or five ministers, continued numerical growth, multiple ministries to the community and new missions being started.
“People want to grow spiritually. This is the solid foundation of the church at this moment,” he said.
Jess Fairbanks, pastoral ministries specialist at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, affirmed the desire of Primera Iglesia Bautista members and leaders to grow. He noted that the church has hosted two LifeWay training events and several members will be part of a Baptist Convention of New England team participating in Regional Hispanic Multiplier Training in Cleveland, Ohio, in May.
“Greg Torres is a great believer in developing leadership. This effort on their part has shown dividends in the local church,” Fairbanks said.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SHOWING THE WAY, HIS CHURCH HOME, SHARING THE WORD and NUTURING THE FUTURE.