By Carolyn Curtis
Spread a map of New England on the
kitchen table and dust off your history textbook. Locate America’s smallest
state, Rhode Island, and recall that its founder, Roger Williams, a
twenty-something in 1630, sailed to America from his native London where
religious dissenters were being burned at the stake.
Williams and his wife made their way to New England, a
stomach-churning voyage of 57 days at sea, and eventually founded the
firstBaptist church in the New World.
“Our history is why my wife resists calling New England a ‘pioneer
area,’” says missionary Rafael Hernández, executive director/treasurer of the
Southeastern New England Baptist Association, which includes 18 churches in
Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. “We’re passing on the faith to a new
generation to reclaim our heritage.”
Rafael is one of 5,271 missionaries serving throughout North America.
He leads a brave group of church planters who are shifting their emphases to
disciple making, team building, and vision casting. “We also fish with a
broader net to mirror the populations of our association—establishing
Portuguese-speaking churches, plus congregations reaching professionals, blue
collar workers, and younger generations. We’re an association that’s become
The new strategies are working. In two years, they’ve experienced
growth in attendance, decisions for Christ, baptisms, and stewardship. “Because
of the prayers of Southern Baptists everywhere, God has touched the hearts and
minds of many New Englanders. The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering®
and the North American Mission Board (NAMB) provide us with 90 cents out of
every dollar we have to start new works in New England. Without AAEO we simply
would not be able to function.”
Missionaries like Rafael rely on the gifts to the AAEO and the
partnerships of Southern Baptist churches, associations, state Baptist
conventions, and the North American Mission Board to help them fulfill their
calling and ministry. One hundred percent of AAEO funds directly support NAMB
missionaries and their ministries. Their roles reflect a variety of mission
tasks that include evangelistic ministries, starting churches and serving in
local Baptist associations.
Rhode Island/Connecticut –Yesterday and
You don’t need to understand the differences between Pilgrims and
Puritans to take pride in the fact that Roger Williams, a Cambridge-educated
intellect known for his fiery sermons, contributed much that was positive in a
time of massive power struggles in the colonies, a century before the
A forward-thinking minister, Williams respected the dignity of Indians
and dealt with them as equals, angering Massachusetts’ colonists who were
grabbing Indian-owned land as fast as the King of England could declare it
their own. Banished by Boston elders, Williams was given land by friendly
tribes and founded a settlement he promptly named Providence.
Besides honoring God with its largest city’s name and serving as home
to the first strong-hold of the Baptist faith in the colonies, Rhode Island was
to be the first pure democracy and a cradle for religious freedom. Although
battles with the Indians would eventually threaten to destroy Providence and
his neighbors in nearby eastern Connecticut, Williams wrote: “Eternity, O
Eternity, is our business.”
Flash forward to the twenty-first century. White-steepled churches,
postcard perfect and dating from the colonial era, still anchor the village
greens and dot the countryside. But many are home to people of New Age
religions, one reason why Baptists who request an opportunity to tell New
Englanders about God may be asked: Which god do you mean?
Rafael draws on his years as an accountant and financial analyst to
lead the family of churches that make up the association. “As a person who pays
attention to detail, I visualize the process as well as cast the
Revival remains a struggle. But adversity is nothing new to Rafael, a
native of El Salvador, war-torn when he was a young man. The extremist
government jailed his brother-in-law, who owned a pharmaceutical lab. His
parents, both educators, were deported to Sweden. “They left with only the
clothes on their backs, but God delivered them.”
Now 56, Rafael first came to New England as an undergraduate at the
University of Maine (in 2004 he earned his doctor of ministry degree from
Andover Newton Theological School). An unexpected scholarship and divine moment
led Rafael to the region where he would one day serve as a North American
missionary. There he fell in love with Ramona, a fellow student, and the area’s
rich history, which he recounts with enthusiasm. Although much has changed
since the two states he serves were founded for religious liberty, he’s
encouraged by God’s promises to bless work done on His behalf.
Rafael’s vision for the association is in response to the divine
opportunities God has placed in their path. Opportunities like starting
churches along the I-95 corridor between New York City and Boston. Along that
211-mile stretch of coastal highway live corporate CEOs and humble fishermen.
The association is seizing upon new opportunities to share Christ and start
churches among this diverse population.
Rafael is training pastors, church planters, and leaders to discern
the local culture and apply the gospel to felt needs.
Biblical literacy is surprisingly low for a region where education is
so highly valued. Says Rafael: “New Englanders consider this the Athens of
America and for good reason. This area produces many educators, scientists, and
other great thinkers. Most of the world’s leaders come to New England for
advanced education at some point in their lives.”
But Rick Pressley, a Texan who serves alongside Rafael as a church
planting strategist, tells how, to test his listeners’ knowledge of scripture,
he will ask them to name just one person in the Bible whose name begins with P.
“It’s appalling how rarely they can do it,” he says, adding that statistics
supplied by NAMB show the area “to be 94 percent unchurched and about 99
percent evangelically unchurched.
“It’s rare to find a New Englander who will not listen to the gospel
of salvation through Jesus Christ,” says Rick. However, their openness to
hearing the gospel is countered by an unwillingness to attend church—often
viewed as an irrelevant institution. But residents of Connecticut and Rhode
Island are open to proven things.
Rick explains: “If a new church and pastor can prove themselves, many
in the community will join in and wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to the
ministry. This, barring a miracle, takes three to five years of hard, lonely
work with no room for error. Our church planters and missionaries need patience
and the ability to run a long time on one ‘atta boy.’ We need God’s artisans to
labor here for a journeyman’s fare.”
Reclaiming spiritual ground
Rafael, Rick, and the churches in the association are determined to
take whatever steps are necessary to reclaim this spiritual ground for Christ
so that eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island will again experience an awakening
like the ones that drove New England to greatness in days past.
Says Rafael: “The churches we plant will be vibrant organisms in
charge of spreading the gospel, nurturing new believers in the faith, and
sending out those called by God.”
The objective is clear. They will keep sharing the gospel and re-make
the church into a relevant and vibrant heart for the community.
Carolyn Curtis is an author, editor and speaker who currently
divides her time between Fort Worth, Texas and Cumming,
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC