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In Miami, he bridges diverse cultures

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2009 Week of Prayer, March 1-8, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $65 million to help support Southern Baptists’ 5,600 North American missionaries.

MIAMI (BP)–There’s an un-glitzy side to Miami you’ll never see depicted on “CSI Miami.” Sure, there’s the flaunted wealth, the big beachfront homes, the flashy cars and fast boats of the celebrities and superstar athletes who live here.

But Miami is a city of paradoxical extremes. Though ranked as the third-richest in the United States, it also has more citizens — about a third of the population — below the federal poverty line than any other U.S. city except Detroit and El Paso, Texas. Miami is the seventh-largest metro area in the country, with more than 5.4 million people.

Southern Baptist missionary Al Fernandez, 50, the son of Cuban immigrants, is attuned to Miami as only a man born and raised here could, having witnessed the start of the huge influx of Cubans, Latinos and other Hispanics into Miami in the early 1960s.

Fernandez’ parents already were planting churches in the Miami area when Cubans began flooding in to escape the Marxist dictatorship of Fidel Castro. He accepted Christ when he was only 6 and felt called to the ministry at 15.

“But it took me 15 more years to let go and to allow God to work in my life,” said Fernandez, who directs the Florida Baptist Convention’s “Urban Impact Ministries” in Miami. “I’ve been here all my life, grew up Southern Baptist and feel this is the place God has called me.”

Fernandez is one of 5,600 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. He is among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 1-8, 2009. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million.

Fernandez, who earned a B.A. degree at Florida International University in Miami, and an M.A. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and his wife Noemi, a Cuban by birth, have two sons and a daughter.

Urban Impact was established three years ago because in response to the need “to establish a stronger Southern Baptist presence in south Florida,” Fernandez said. “We felt we really needed to have an impact on our churches, pastors and associations in a complex urban setting like Miami. We want to impact Miami with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Fernandez’ work depends on a close partnership among three key Baptist associations in south Florida: the Palm Lake Baptist Association in the West Palm Beach area; the Gulf Stream Baptist Association just north of Miami; and the Miami Baptist Association in metro Miami. Fernandez has three distinct areas of responsibility: urban church planting, urban leadership development and urban evangelism.

“I grew up in Spanish-speaking churches so I understand the context. I’ve also pastored in English-speaking churches. It’s like God has allowed me to be a bridge across the different cultures and nationalities in Miami,” Fernandez said, akin to the Apostle Paul’s effort to be “all things to all people.”

Miami has the largest Spanish-speaking population in the Western Hemisphere outside Latin America. Miamians who use Spanish as their first language make up 67 percent of the population. One might think that would make Fernandez’s job easier. But language doesn’t tell the whole story.

“The No. 1 challenge is Miami’s diversity and multi-culturalism,” Fernandez said, noting that not all Hispanics are alike because they come to Miami from different nations — Cuba, Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. “Hispanics from different countries may all speak Spanish but still have different customs, traditions and cultures,” he said.

Three Baptist associations include 540 churches -– 300 in the Miami association alone.

“We need a sense of unity and cooperation within our churches and associations,” Fernandez said. “And we need each other because it doesn’t matter how large a church is in Miami, no one church can reach all the people in this environment. We have to work together.”

Another reason for Miami-area churches to come together — especially in today’s gloomy economic recession — is finances and resources, Fernandez said.

“South Florida is a very expensive place to live, and many of our pastors and churches are struggling because it’s not a cheap place to live and minister,” he said. “Miami is a city of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ You see the entertainers and the athletes who live here, yet you’ve got average people who have to work hard every day in their jobs just to survive. These dynamics make it hard to minister here.”

Gary Johnson, executive director of the Miami Baptist Association, said Miami’s high property costs are why only a third of Southern Baptist churches own their own facilities in the area, although the association is celebrating its centennial in 2009.

“A third of our churches are less than 10 years old,” Johnson said. “Many have to rent from another church or meet in warehouses or in store fronts. A big issue is always property — either you’re trying to keep it or looking for some.”

About 100 of the association’s churches and missions are English-speaking, 100 are Spanish-speaking and 100 speak Creole (Haitian). The rest are Chinese, Russian and Portuguese. Seventy percent do not use English as their first language and two-thirds of the local pastors are bivocational.

“The average size church in Miami-Dade is 45 members,” Johnson said. “Churches are small and they don’t have a lot of money. It takes all their money just to pay the rent.

Johnson said Fernandez’ strength “is that he’s from here, and people in Miami tend to trust someone who’s from here.”

“Al’s not only from here but his dad was a pastor and his brother Otto is a pastor, so he’s well-rooted in Miami. When Al comes to a church or visits a group of pastors, he’s already earned their respect and the right to be there,” Johnson said.

Fernandez believes that the continued growth in Miami’s Hispanic population and culture foreshadows the way the United States will look in the future.

“What you see in Miami today is what you’re going to see in the rest of this nation in the next 20 years. No matter where you live, it’s coming. So whatever we learn here as Southern Baptists using Miami as a laboratory, the principles will be the same and will work elsewhere in the country.” Citing the Apostle Paul’s practice of ministering in major cities, Fernandez said Southern Baptists need strategies “to know how to minister and be effective in these large urban settings.”

Asked how the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s importance in his work, Fernandez reflected, “The reality of these ministries is that they cost money. And one size ministry does not fit all. We need a lot of resources to do the work of the Lord in south Florida.”
For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.

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  • Mickey Noah