Strategists discuss ways Georgia Baptists can partner with Southern Baptist Churches in Puerto Rico.
By Buck Burch
After a delay from COVID, the Lord has now granted an opportunity for partnership between Georgia Baptist Convention churches of the southeast region and the churches and church planters of Puerto Rico. In a recent meeting for developing this strategic partnership, Buck Burch, missions catalyst for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, and Tim Dowdy, former pastor of Eagles Landing First Baptist Church and now serving the board as lead strategist for pastoral wellness, met in San Juan in conjunction with a “Catch the Vision” Tour sponsored by the North American Mission Board for SEND Puerto Rico to talk with Felix Cabrera about an impending partnership agreement .
Felix Cabrera serves as both director of SEND Puerto Rico and as the executive director of the Puerto Rico Baptist Convention. Having served as a church planter in Oklahoma City in 2011, Cabrera’s new vision for Puerto Rico involves Georgia Baptist churches having a healthy partnership with Puerto Rico’s newest church planters.
Puerto Rico has a population of over 3 million people and only 50 small Baptist churches, one SBC church for every 44,522 persons. Lives were tremendously impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017 with about three thousand deaths and severe devastation of properties and livelihoods. With 2.4 million people living in the capital city of San Juan, almost half of the population lives below the poverty line and 85% self-identify as Roman Catholic Although the small number of Baptist churches on the island are working hard to share the true Gospel of Jesus’ grace through faith instead of a works-based salvation or a syncretistic combination of folk religions, but the churches feel weak in comparison to the sheer millions that need Christ. Consequently, there has perhaps never been a more opportune time for GBC churches to partner with Puerto Rican Baptists in sharing Jesus’ love. That open door is facilitated by GBC churches’ long-term presence and care over the years. Currently there are 20 Baptist church planters working on the island, but due to the hurricane 80% do not have permanent meeting space.
Like some other Georgia Baptist churches in the past, Eagles Landing First Baptist Church has been involved in Puerto Rico since 2013. Dowdy says that he had personally gone on mission trips to Puerto Rico sometimes up to five times a year. After Hurricane Maria hit, Eagles Landing’s presence through SEND Relief was noted. “People would often ask us why we were there,” Dowdy said. “They would ask if we had family members on the island that we were trying to help, but we would simply say, ‘No, it’s because of Jesus’ love that we’re here.’” Dowdy recalls one man who responded, “That gives me chill bumps that you came down here for us.” As was his goal when he led Eagles Landing, Dowdy now explains that he still wants to help facilitate church planting so that “ultimately every town and village on the island would have a Gospel-sharing church.”
The “Catch the Vision” Tours sponsored by SEND Puerto Rico have a two-fold purpose. There is a search to find some points of connection for ministry on the island. How God might use one church can strategically complement the connection of another, whether that be primarily through SEND Relief or church-to-church partnerships. But there is also a need to adopt an entire city, town or village by partnering with a church planter. At a very low cost, GBC churches in southeast Georgia can lend a direct hand in advancing the Gospel through influencing the formation and development of new churches in Puerto Rico. Dowdy and Cabrera agreed that there are immediate benefits of such a partnership. Because English is so widely spoken on the island, there is no real language barrier. Because Puerto Rico is a US territory, Americans do not need a passport to go; it’s a domestic trip. And because of NAMB’s prior investment, there is great opportunity to build upon a foundation of care.
In a suburban town a few miles from San Juan, Burch met church planter Andres Laracuente who shared that Georgia Baptists could partner in multiple ways. First and foremost, church planters eagerly desire prayer partners. They need long-term partnerships for building relationships with Puerto Ricans. They offer opportunity for participation in the financial recovery of churches and their ministry expansion. Puerto Rico Baptist churches want to reciprocate by offering their “fields” as preparation grounds for southeast Georgia churches to grow their members into missional disciples, from one-week trips to month-long missions internships. And there is a vast array of missional projects with which a southeast Georgia church could partner- adoption, literacy, evangelism, counseling, theological education, construction, English as a second language, sports ministry and meeting human needs.
Cabrera would like to “see each of our 50 churches partnering with at least one church in the Georgia Baptist Convention.” There are some new church plants starting next year that desperately seek Georgia partners. If a GBC church wishes to learn more before diving into a long-term partnership, Cabrera recommends taking a low-cost vision trip or initial ministry trip through NAMB’s SEND Relief this fall or next summer. Churches can go to sendrelief.org/projects/Puerto-rico-ministry-center for more info about upcoming trips. Alternatively, GBMB’s South Georgia missions consultant Samuel Ayala can provide specific connections a virtual strategy coordinator, Puerto Rico missions catalysts and new church planters within SEND Puerto Rico. And finally, just as each of GBC churches benefit from being continually strengthened, the existing churches of the Puerto Rico Baptist Convention long for partners who can walk alongside them in their journey for church strengthening on a spiritually dark island. Ayala can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.