ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP) — Despite the devastation across Puerto Rico in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath, Puerto Rican church planter Andres Laracuente has seen God at work.
Thanks in part to his participation in the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief network’s efforts, Laracuente has gained new opportunities “to get to know my community better, to get to know the surrounding neighborhoods.”
“I’ve seen many kids that I didn’t see before Maria. I’m preaching the Gospel with different people than I was before. My family has also grown more focused on the Gospel and the Word of God,” Laracuente said.
Now Laracuente is all the more hopeful, with the North American Mission Board’s addition of Puerto Rico to its outreach. NAMB President Kevin Ezell announced expanded focus on Puerto Rico during the Feb. 6 meeting of the mission board’s trustees.
Under the initiative, Puerto Rico will receive additional missionaries and resources through NAMB’s Send Network and Send Relief ministries.
The Send Puerto Rico effort joins NAMB’s missions strategy to come alongside churches to engage underserved regions of North America with the Gospel through evangelistic church planting and mercy ministry.
Baptist work in Puerto Rico began in 1965 with the planting of a church near a military base on the island. That church, in turn, soon planted the first Hispanic Southern Baptist church on the island. Currently, there are 74 Southern Baptist churches in Puerto Rico, engaging a population of more than 3.4 million people.
“We have 78 municipalities and about 40 don’t yet have [a Southern Baptist church] in them,” said Carlos Rodriguez, NAMB’s new regional missionary for Send Puerto Rico. “In San Juan itself, we have two established Baptist churches. We’ve planned already, these past few years, three new churches in the San Juan area, but we still need more churches because the San Juan population is almost 400,000 people,” and nearly 2.4 million live in the metropolitan area.
Rodriguez estimates that many Puerto Rico Baptist churches lost more than 30 percent of their attendees who fled the island for the mainland after Maria. But he also notes that the hurricane “has shaken the churches,” which is leading to a measure of revival.
“The churches, across all denominations, including Southern Baptists, have been the first responders to their communities. A lot of people are getting saved. Almost all our church planters are having people saved every time they are working in the community,” said Rodriguez who, before becoming NAMB’s regional missionary for Send Puerto Rico, served as a church planter and church planting catalyst thee and as executive director of the Baptist Convention of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.
Over the last few months, NAMB has been moving toward establishing Puerto Rico as a major area of emphasis. Before Hurricane Maria pounded the island, NAMB was already investing more in church planting on the island and investigating ways to enhance its missions strategy there.
When Hurricane Maria struck last September, those plans gained additional momentum and urgency, creating new pathways for ministry.
“The storms created an open door for us to be there and to begin engaging with the local churches while also [involving] many churches on the mainland for church partnerships,” said David Melber, president of Send Relief.
Ezell told trustees that Southern Baptists “will continue to help with the physical healing and restoration of Puerto Rico, but we must also consider the spiritual well-being of its residents. Our Send Puerto Rico effort will bring new resources and increased attention with a special emphasis on starting churches. Those churches will be an ongoing Gospel presence and places of strength and hope in times of need.”
The new emphasis in Puerto Rico will entail an increased role in the region for Send Relief as part of church planting efforts. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers have been on the island since they received permission from federal authorities to help a few weeks after Hurricane Maria. Send Relief teams also have served on the island and many Baptist collegiate groups plan to serve through Send Relief during spring break.
Melber described the humanitarian efforts of Send Relief as an opportunity to plant churches and see lives changed by Christ. Send Relief also has plans for at least two permanent ministry centers in Puerto Rico.
“We pray that, ultimately, as it transitions out of a humanitarian effort, the result will be healthy churches reproducing themselves, reaching their communities by meeting the physical needs in their communities and proclaiming the Gospel,” Melber said.
Rodriguez, speaking to NAMB’s trustees Feb. 6, asked Southern Baptists to pray for God to call more church planters to reach the people of Puerto Rico. For more information about the Send Network and Send Relief, visit namb.net.
During the Feb. 6 meeting, Ezell introduced Tim Dowdy, lead pastor of Eagles Landing First Baptist Church in McDonough, Ga., who has played a key role in getting church planting efforts off the ground on the island over the past two years.
“When Kevin called and asked if we would help lead the charge in Puerto Rico, I said ‘sure.’ I didn’t know how dismal the situation was,” Dowdy said. “The last church planting movement was 50 years ago. The churches who were still there had lost their hope. You could see it.”
Dowdy, recounting the progress that has been made in church planting, said, “We rolled up our sleeves and, working with Carlos Rodriguez, we now have nine church planters that have planted churches and two more launching this year.”
Rodriguez, in his new role with NAMB, will work with church planters as they launch and grow their churches, and he will facilitate partnerships with churches on the U.S. mainland that want to partner in Puerto Rico.
Dowdy showed trustees photos of each of the planters and those preparing to plant.
“We believe churches plant churches,” Ezell said after Dowdy’s presentation. “That’s why it is so exciting to see Tim and his church taking such ownership of these new plants in Puerto Rico.”