Non-typical Southern Baptist pastor leads church to impact community
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
NEW MARKET — Donnie De La Cruz would be the first person to tell you that he’s not your typical, everyday Baptist preacher in East Tennessee. And, most people who know him would agree wholeheartedly.
But, those who know him well would also say he’s totally sold out on telling lost people about the love of Jesus Christ and leading Dumplin Baptist Church in New Market to reach its community for Christ.
What makes De La Cruz different from most of his colleagues in Jefferson County Baptist Association?
The tattoos are a dead give-away as is the fact that he rides a skateboard and has used skateboarding to reach boys and young men who might never enter the door of a church.
He noted that probably no other church in the association would have “taken a chance” on De La Cruz because of his tattoos and skateboarding ministry. In addition, “I’ve never seen him in a suit or wearing a tie,” he laughed. “I commend the church on calling him.”
De La Cruz hit the ground running and has made a good impression in the association in only a year.
Several churches in the association have invited him to do skateboarding demonstrations and talk about his ministry. He also has been active in the association’s pastors’ conferences, the DOM added.
And, the results of his work are bearing fruit. Though not every church has completed its ACP (Annual Church Profile) report yet, Dumplin Baptist currently is leading the association in baptisms, Davis said.
“He’s a fine young man. I think the world of him,” he added.
De La Cruz said he also has felt welcomed by other churches in the association. He admitted there were probably reservations about him in the beginning but “I just came in as humble as I could, loved on the people and I think they have seen my heart and what God is doing in my life.
“I just feel totally supported by the other pastors in our association and our community and I hope to continue to gain their trust and partnership,” he said.
From Texas to Tennessee
How De La Cruz ended up in New Market (about 20 minutes or so east of Knoxville) by way of California and East Texas is a unique story in itself.
When he was only 12 years old, De La Cruz felt a deep calling to become a pastor. At the time he was attending Calvary Baptist Church in Modesto, Calif. His pastor was Don McEntire.
He credits McEntire for helping “to usher me” into that calling. During De La Cruz’s junior year in high school McEntire retired and moved to Jefferson City to be near his children and grandchildren.
De La Cruz completed high school and enrolled at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall where he graduated and met his wife. He served at First Baptist Church in Longview, Texas, where he led a skateboard ministry for seven years.
De La Cruz had fallen in love with skateboarding at a young age in Modesto and even had an outreach to skateboarders while in high school.
“Skateboarding is a pretty dark industry,” he acknowledged and noted there are “demonic elements” in the industry with brands and “just violent nature, drugs and alcohol.” At the encouragement of McEntire, he invited friends to come to the church where they skated in the parking lot and came to the youth group. “That was the beginning of my love for skate ministry,” he said.
Though it wasn’t in his plans at all, God eventually led him to First Baptist while he was in college. The church had recently built a skate park and the pastor wanted him to be in charge of the ministry to skateboarders. “When I saw the skate park, it was like God was telling me, ‘This is what I created you to do. You’re going to eventually be a pastor but now you’re going to reach these skateboarders.’
“God did big things in that skate ministry and it’s still continuing now, after I left to come to Tennessee,” he said.
De La Cruz has no doubt God led him to Tennessee. His former pastor and mentor was serving as interim pastor of Dumplin Baptist Church in New Market. McEntire’s wife called him more than a year ago and told him she had dreamed she would introduce him to Dumplin Baptist as their new pastor. She asked him if he was looking for a job. One thing led to another, and the church brought De La Cruz and his wife to Tennessee for an interview. “As soon as we landed and got to the church, we knew that’s exactly where God was calling us to come, so here we are,” he said.
De La Cruz acknowledged he was honest and up front with the church. They knew he had tattoos and he told them that God did not bring him to New Market to blend in with the culture but instead to “shake the culture up” and to help the church “to engage the culture around us.
“One of the great things about Dumplin Baptist Church is that they really want to reach the lost in our community and if skateboarding is the means to do that, they’re going to fully support it. They support me being who I am and they support the skate ministry.”
His former pastor has now embraced De La Cruz as his pastor. “I really let him be my pastor and I don’t interfere with what he is doing,” McEntire said, adding that he is very proud of the young man who was called to the ministry under his leadership years ago. “I have always taken an interest in him and still do to this day,” McEntire noted.
Shortly after arriving at Dumplin Baptist last September, De La Cruz began his skateboard ministry at the church with about five participants. In a year the number of skaters has grown to more than 20, he said, noting “that’s big for a skating ministry, particularly in East Tennessee.”
The ministry has grown by “word of mouth” from the skaters as well as photos through the church’s Facebook page and other social media outlets. “The Lord is blessing,” he observed. He stressed the ministry is taking the “gospel and spreading it to a community and a culture that normally wouldn’t step foot into a church.” And the opposite also is true, he said. “The church normally wouldn’t step foot into a skate park. Just seeing how God has blessed it … excites me.”
The skateboard ministry is done in conjunction with Middle Man Skateboards, for whom De La Cruz serves as a mentor and director in Tennessee. It’s a non-profit ministry designed to reach the skateboarding community, De La Cruz said. Through the ministry he is able to provide skateboards and Bibles to people who need them.
He stressed that the ministry is about the gospel. He noted the main rule that everyone who comes to the church to skate must follow is: participation in the Bible study. He noted they skate for a while to begin, then have a Bible study.
If the skater does not participate then he cannot skate again after the study. “We’re trying to share the gospel. We’re for skating and for Jesus,” the pastor said.
Though he is not a professional skateboarder, De La Cruz can hold his own on the skateboard. He and other mentors from Middle Man Skateboards sometimes will go to skate parks and try to build relationships. He will skate with people without telling them he is a pastor until they are finished. He then invites them to church. “It’s funny to see the expression on their face after they just realized they were skating with a pastor,” he said.
Surprisingly the ministry is not reaching just children and teens. It also is reaching older adults who have been skateboarding for years. De La Cruz said the goal is to show every skater, from teens to people in their 40s, that “there’s grace and love when it comes to Jesus. We stress that God cares more about our hearts than He does about the things we’ve done in the past.”
Skateboarding is just another tool God has given to “build the kingdom,” De La Cruz observed, adding that the “culture in America has taken a drastic shift away from Christianity. We have to be willing to reach people by any means necessary without changing the gospel message.” The skateboarding ministry is just one way to accomplish that, he noted.
Revitalizing a church
The skateboarding ministry also has helped Dumplin Baptist see how they can impact the lives of people and, as a result, the church is growing.
The church was averaging around 40 people in Sunday School and 50 or so in worship a year ago, he said. “On a recent Sunday, there were 81 in Sunday School with about 90 to 100 people in worship, De La Cruz added. But it is more than just an increase in numbers, the pastor stressed. “The true blessing and the true growth is that the heartbeat of our members is changing.”
Besides the skateboarding ministry, the church has created other ministry opportunities, including Mission Serve. Once a month, church members go out into the community and meet needs. “Our focus at Dumplin Baptist is worship, serve, disciple. That’s what we’re doing,” the pastor said.
He added that he came to the church a year ago with a three-, six- and a nine-month plan. After the first year the pastor realized he had not done anything that he planned. “I’m just trying to abide in the Lord and hang on as He makes it happen. It’s been awesome. Glory to God.”
De La Cruz is grateful for the progress the church has made but he understands that revitalization is a lengthy process. “I’m in it for the long haul,” he pledged.