God is growing a “harvest of churches” in the rich soil of Puerto
By Adam Miller
The town of Guayama, Puerto Rico, is known by locals as Pueblo de los
Brujos—the city of witches. It’s a small city on the southern coast of the
island between the Corozal Mountains and the Caribbean Sea, filled with people
who absently celebrate its history with African witchcraft during the “Witches
The place is peopled by speak-easy, cheerful folk who give a nod to
Catholicism and Pentecostalism, but not a lot of thought about eternal life.
(“I know what I need to do,” says a taxi driver about his own spiritual state.
“I just don’t do it.”)
Everyone knows the percentage of Catholics to Protestants (60/40) like
they know the percentage of pro-state to pro-territory Puerto Ricans (45/45;
ten percent want independence). At least one church is working to turn the
stats—three-year-old Iglesia Cristo Nuestra Justicia Bautista Del Sur (Iglesia
Cristo for short), a church plant of Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Isabel, a
church several towns away. Jose Rivera, a member of Iglesia Cristo, was a
nominal Catholic about three years ago when Pastor Lebron Santiago invited him
to attend a small Bible study in his home.
“I grew up Catholic,” he says. “But it didn’t mean anything. It was
just what we did. When I came to this church I felt the first day that I wanted
to be saved.”
Through Pastor Santiago’s teaching and the help of others in the
group, Jose began to understand the gospel for the first time. Jose now plays
the congas for the praise band.
“I stopped listening to bad music and started listening to Christian
music,” he says. “I stopped drinking and partying.” His family watched this
life change take place and now they attend with him.
Iglesia Cristo is one of a handful of church starts sponsored by
some of the longstanding Southern Baptist congregations in Puerto Rico. This
indeed is nearly the only way new church starts emerge on the island. When
Pastor Santiago had driven his family a number of years to Emmanuel, leaders
from the church prayed with him about a church start in Guayama where there was
no Southern Baptist presence.
He’d grown up Seventh Day Adventist, then spent time in Pentecostal
congregations before settling in a Southern Baptist church where they felt at
home. Unfortunately, it was hard to convince friends in Guayama to join them
for services and Bible studies in another town. “We didn’t want to go to
another church,” Pastor Santiago says. “So we started our own. We started
praying and we waited,” says Pastor Santiago.
What started as a weekly Bible study in the Santiagos’ home became a
Of the 30-50 who show up any given Sunday, about 20 have been baptized
as new believers—most from a Catholic background.
“Once you have baptized someone who was a Catholic, you have them for
the rest of their lives,” says Carlos Rodriguez, director of missions and
evangelism for the Convention of Southern Baptists of Puerto Rico.
Awakening them to urgency
About 60 Southern Baptist churches have drawn enough interest
throughout Puerto Rico to become well established in the island’s communities.
A handful of those churches have helped plant new works where none existed.
According to Carlos, the field is white unto harvest.
A few church leaders have caught Carlos’ vision and are awake to the
opportunities in Puerto Rico. According to Carlos, while the people of the
island are hardworking and industrious, the island and its churches have been
somewhat lulled to sleep. Be it the constant comfortable air or the lapping of
Caribbean waters, many people claim religion with little inspiration. Many
Catholics—the island’s majority religion—are only so by name. This has opened
the mission field for Southern Baptists. In the states, religion is perceived
as a threat to freedom. In Puerto Rico, it’s as commonplace as sand.
“We can share the gospel anywhere,” says Carlos. Anywhere indeed. All
a pastor has to do is ask and he can walk into a school and present the Bible’s
view on sexual purity to students or hold a Bible-based workshop on stress and
depression for teachers.
“If you are not experiencing salvations and baptisms, then you are not
working,” Carlos says, though recognizing there are challenges. “People are
open to the gospel, but the big obstacle is helping them pull up roots from the
Carlos and his family converted from Catholicism to Christ many years
ago, so he knows the danger of going to sleep among the lost. It’s his job to
plant churches, assist church planting, and help build community among Southern
Baptist pastors who might otherwise partition themselves off from one another
and thus be caught unaware by stagnant baptismal waters.
“I see my job as bringing pastors together, helping them share the
vision with one another, and accomplishing the task ahead together,” says
Carlos, who recently held a meeting with several prominent metropolitan
pastors. “I was encouraged. At least two of them have committed to start
churches this year.”
A symphony of souls
On a Sunday morning shortly after Christmas, the two or so dozen
attenders at Iglesia Cristo gather for worship. One look around the room in the
upstairs of this old furniture shop would draw joyful tears from anyone who
knows the history of this small congregation. Only a couple of years ago they
were a hopeful and much smaller band of believers, now they are a symphony
playing in tune with God’s plan for a fertile Caribbean island. The praise band
stands. The guitarist hits the first note as the church rings in another year
“This city is called The City of Witches,” says Pastor Santiago’s
wife, Emily. “We want to turn it into the city of God.”
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC