By Blake Tommey
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches are well aware of the state of world hunger, which currently leaves nearly 870 million of the 7.1 billion people in the world suffering from chronic undernourishment. And the hearts of CBF congregations ache for that painful sensation caused by want of food in developing nations as well as in the United States.
Jim Wallis, Christian activist and founder of Sojourners magazine, once defined world hunger in a different way, stating that “two of the greatest hungers in our world today are the hunger for spirituality and the hunger for social change. The connection between the two is the one the world is waiting for, especially the new generation. And the first hunger will empower the second.”
In Deltona, Fla., La Primera Iglesia Bautista is done waiting for the connection between the two hungers and is serving its community with a vision for solidarity with the oppressed and transformation of society. Located just 30 miles north of Orlando, PIB Deltona, led by pastor Ruben Ortiz, is responding missionally to an influx of vulnerable immigrants, a host of hungry families, growing churches in the Caribbean and through a passionate partnership with CBF.
From its humble founding in 1976, PIB Deltona was not always so holistic in its mission, Ortiz said, and has undergone a life-defining change since 2002 when he became pastor.
“At that time the church was growing and changing from a mission of evangelism, with messages and campaigns, toward a holistic vision of the church, or what we call in Latin America, integral mission,” Ortiz explained. “Now our mission is not only to participate in the conversion of souls, but in the transformation of society. It is not only a mission to disciple people, but to see their families grow in health and to see our community united. It is about being part of one movement to change the roots of injustice and the values of a community.”
As the first Hispanic church in Deltona, PIB stands in a unique position to be the presence of Christ among immigrants who seek valuable resources and information as they live and work in the United States. In responding to this vulnerable population, the church is advocating for immigration reform that stops deportation, allows for paths toward naturalization, keeps families together and ultimately removes fear from the lives of countless families.
The church is also holding meetings to empower immigrant families with legal advice as well as information on health insurance, which Spanish-speaking people struggle to acquire. Immigration reform is desperately needed now, according to Ortiz.
“Anything that is happening in Washington is important for us,” Ortiz said. “We need to stop deportation now. Families are being divided. Lives are being shattered. Kids live in fear every day at school and when they return to their homes, they don’t know if they’re going to find their parents remaining in the country. So we make sure to be a part of any effort for immigration reform in Florida and the entire United States.”
In addition to advocating for reform, PIB Deltona is responding to the physical hunger pangs of its immigrant community with a feeding ministry for those struggling under the weight of the economic crisis. In partnership with Open Hands Ministry of Central Florida, more than 50 church volunteers distributed meals to 350-plus families each month in 2013. The congregation dedicated a total of 6,000 volunteer hours to feeding local families through the food bank, an endeavor that would typically cost $100,000 in payroll expenses.
“Someone said that either the church’s mission is holistic or it is not mission,” Ortiz noted. “As the gospel teaches us, the church’s mission is the proclamation of a truth that is physical, real and palpable in daily life. This is very clear for La Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de Deltona and we have pledged to open our hands for those in need of that good news.”
Because of Ortiz, the church’s holistic mission also extends to the palpable truth found in every-day partnership, specifically with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida and its mission to serve those beyond the border of the United States.
Ray Johnson, coordinator for CBF Florida, recalls seven years ago when Ortiz came looking for fellowship with other Baptists in Florida and became fast friends with former coordinators Carolyn Anderson and Tommy Deal. With justice-oriented ministry centers in Homestead and Miami, CBF Florida attracted Ortiz, who became increasingly involved in the life of the Florida Fellowship. The partnership was all too natural, according to Johnson, as PIB Deltona not only shared a state with CBF Florida but, more importantly, shared a hunger for social change.
“For me and for many CBF churches, advocacy and solidarity with the oppressed gets to the heart of what Jesus asks in Matthew 25,” Johnson said. “That passage simply tells us what a follower of Christ should be involved in. I call it a ‘six-point test.’ Are we feeding the hungry? Giving drink to the thirsty? Welcoming the stranger? Clothing the naked? Healing the sick? Visiting the captive? That test fuels the passion of CBF people.”
For nearly 10 years, Ortiz and PIB Deltona have fostered relationships with more than 25 churches and missions in Cuba and Puerto Rico, committing financial support as well as physical labor to aid their growth. During that period of support, PIB has sought ways to help those churches become self-sustaining and extend the mission of transformation.
Shortly after joining the Fellowship, Ortiz introduced Iglesia Bautista de Metropolis of Puerto Rico to CBF Florida, who welcomed the church into the Florida Fellowship and, as of 2010, is extending its network into the Caribbean Islands.
“Floridians understand the need for partnership and fellowship in an acute way,” Johnson added. “The world is so much bigger than we Baptists or Cooperative Baptists, and, almost as a natural consequence of the immense diversity around us in this state, PIB Deltona and the rest of CBF Florida have embraced what growing partnerships can truly mean for the mission of the church.”
Ortiz is moderator-elect for CBF Florida and continues to involve CBF Florida in reciprocal mission work with Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 2014, PIB Deltona will be developing a new community resource center, out of which it hopes to engage the community in its ministry of advocacy and social transformation. But in that ministry, the church will not simply provide a system of programs, Ortiz stressed, but will walk with others in their journey toward a new kingdom.