When he was growing up in his native Honduras, State Missionary Dennis Rivera never dreamed of visiting, much less living, in the United States. Expectations were low in his village of about 300 people.
“I grew up in poverty for the first 10 years of my life before my brother and I moved to New Orleans,” he explains.
“I can remember our home getting electricity and running water when I was eight years old. Until then we carried water from the creek anytime we needed it for cooking, drinking, or bathing. Half of our home had mud floors, but so did everyone else’s.”
There were 15 members of his extended family in the dwelling, with his grandmother raising everyone. But that’s just the way it was done back then.
“You know, when you don’t have anything you really don’t want anything,” he says with a slight laugh.
A lot has happened in the intervening years, and this week he begins his new responsibilities leading the Intercultural Church Planting and Mission Ministry department for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. Rivera fills the shoes … rather large shoes, he admits … of longtime department head Jerry Baker who retired on July 31 after four decades.
“I’m just honored and humbled by this opportunity to follow Brother Jerry and sit at his desk. This was not on my radar at all,” he says. “It is a wonderful opportunity that the Lord has provided to me.”
As he looks back over his younger years he remembers the lessons he learned about life and trusting God every step of the way.
His mother made several trips to visit her brother in New Orleans, staying a few months at a time. One of those visits resulted in her meeting and eventually marrying a Cuban and bringing Rivera, in the fifth grade at the time, and his brother to their new home and their new life.
That was his first experience with America and the point where he says his life in poverty ended. It was not an affluent life, he stresses, but the living conditions were far better than he could have imagined as a 10-year-old boy.
Making soccer balls from rolled up paper
He no longer had to wrap paper into a large ball, use tape to hold it together, and use it as a soccer ball. Or fill an old sock with soft material and kick it around the neighborhood with his friends.
He knew no English. And as he says, “I didn’t even know that ‘no’ meant exactly what it sounded like … ‘no.’”
His life in New Orleans soon became life in the fast lane. He began drinking around the age of 14, even though he grew up in the strong Catholic tradition of his village. He became the star of a popular soccer team and life was good … decent pay, good clothes, nice car …. night life in the nightclubs. But one night on a dance floor – April 13, 1998 to be exact – he came under conviction and asked Christ’s forgiveness. He knew that was not where he needed to be and made a turnaround in his life.
“I suppose the seed that was being planted in my life at First Spanish American Baptist Church, which I had been attending, had actually taken root. That is the power of the gospel and why, to this day, I tell people to never stop telling the gospel story; you never know when it will take root in someone’s life.”
One of the first things he did was begin to collect toys and clothes to distribute back in that tiny village. He eventually made three trips and added one to Costa Rica as his personal mission projects.
He would distribute the items in the town square and in other villages, giving back to the community what had been given to him years earlier when a stranger gave him a new ball.
As he distributed the items he would preach and give an invitation as a lay evangelist, even though he had no training. One trip resulted in enough supplies for 600 children, donated through friends who admired his commitment.
That evangelistic zeal eventually caught the attention of a woman he barely knew who told him to wait by the telephone the next day. She said she had placed his name in consideration for a summer missionary position with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Summer missions calls him to south Georgia
The call came, but not from one of the states who had requested candidates. Instead it arrived from Mike Brandenburg, then-associational missionary for Piedmont-Okefenokee Baptist Association in Waycross. Rivera accepted the summer of 1992 missionary assignment since he had no better offer at the time.
It wasn’t until he arrived on the field that he was informed he was the interim pastor for two Hispanic missions, one at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear and the other at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Baxley.
“I had never been a pastor and had no idea what to do. But they needed someone until the new pastor arrived from seminary in the fall. Somehow, they got my name and I came,” he says with a laugh.
During that summer of 1992 he was instrumental in also starting two other Hispanic missions out of First Baptist Church of Vidalia, where he served on staff as the Hispanic church planter.
Rather than returning to New Orleans, he decided to stay in south Georgia and complete his education Brewton-Parker College. A full scholarship covered all his expenses.
While on campus he caught the attention of then-state missionary Moses Valdez, who mentioned that Georgia Baptists had been trying to start a Hispanic mission in Vidalia for a decade with little success … and he had started two that summer.
Rivera then returned to New Orleans to pursue his master’s degree. Shortly before graduation he received a call from Jerry Baker who, through conversation with Valdez, offered him a position as one of the Mission Board’s three Hispanic church planters.
He arrived on March 1, 1997, based out of south Georgia. Eventually, his territory enlarged to include the area served by legendary missionary Ada Fernandez following her death. He then served “from Columbus to Savannah and everything below that.”
Knows the challenges and difficulties of the field very well
Rivera says the experiences gained during those years on the field will be a valuable asset as he steps into his new responsibilities. He can relate to the challenges and difficulties of starting new works and the problems church planters deal with as they share the gospel.
One of the goals on his list is to work to provide more materials in the various languages that continue to grow in the state. Resources are needed in a variety of topics ranging from discipling new believers to understanding the value of the Cooperative Program to Baptist doctrine.
He just completed his doctorate in evangelism and church growth from Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, which will also help him implement his objectives.
But this week he will be preoccupied with moving into his office in Atlanta house hunting with his wife Rossy – also a native of Honduras. Until then he will commute from their home in Warner Robins.
The couple have three sons, Dennis, 18, who is a student at Louisiana State University; Joshua, 14, who is in the 9th grade; and Jacob, 12, who attends 7th grade.