By Tobin Perry
Special to the Baptist and Reflector
COLUMBIA — As Noel Garzón compares his visa photo from four years ago to the one this past year, he can see a change.
No, it’s not extra weight, a different haircut nor simply a different shirt. It’s much more profound.
“I’m smiling now,” Garzón said. “My eyes are different. I’ve got joy in my life now.”
Garzón says that’s because Jesus has changed his life.
When Garzón first showed up at the Hispanic ministry at The First Family, First Baptist Church of Columbia, he had attended a Catholic church as a child but never had a relationship with Jesus.
After moving to Columbia, his girlfriend encouraged him to get serious about spiritual matters. Friends invited the couple to First Baptist, where Garzón eventually became a follower of Jesus.
“When I started really having faith in Jesus is when I started seeing changes in my life,” Garzón said. “One day, I told the Lord, ‘I want to stop drinking. If you are who you say you are, help me get over this. And suddenly my habit went away.’ ”
As Garzón read his Bible, prayed on a regular basis, and started serving around the church consistently, he grew in his relationship with Christ. In 2017, Garzón became the Hispanic ministry’s youth leader.
Garzón’s story is just one of many coming out of First Baptist’s Hispanic ministry as the church celebrated the ministry’s 28th anniversary Sept. 1.
“We are so grateful to God for providing a ministry to Hispanic individuals in our church and community for all these years,” said Steve Livengood, senior pastor of First Baptist. “God has been changing lives in and through this ministry, and I believe He will continue to do so in the years ahead.”
The church’s Hispanic ministry started as a Spanish-speaking Sunday School class in 1990 when two of the church’s members, Angel Ortiz and Lucy Fore, separately began to sense God’s leading to engage the community’s growing Spanish-speaking community.
Two years later, Gustavo Castillo, who lived in California at the time, got word that his job was moving to Columbia, Tenn.
But Castillo didn’t want to go. That’s when a friend at church gave him this advice: “You should go. I think God has something in store for you in the little town in Tennessee. Maybe you can start a congregation.”
“Me, a pastor?” Castillo asked. “I don’t think so.”
But God had other ideas.
Castillo worked all the time when he first came to Columbia, but he and his family attended church at First Baptist. The ministry continued to grow slowly over the next decade and a half. In 2009, before the ministry’s original pastor moved, he asked Castillo if he’d consider being a pastor.
Castillo responded in the same way he had years earlier. He wasn’t a pastor, plus he already had a job and didn’t have time to lead the ministry. But he agreed to preach for a few weeks while they found another pastor.
Just two days later, Castillo discovered he was losing his job.
“When they told me I was going to lose my job, the first thing that came to mind was, ‘Well, now I do have time,’ ” Castillo said.
Castillo still had all the same excuses as he had before, but he agreed to give it a try. Now, nearly a decade later, God has blessed the ministry both numerically and spiritually. In the last decade, the ministry has more than doubled its regular attendance.
But Castillo notes it’s not because of him. He points specifically to a renewed passion for prayer in the church.
One day, Julio Rosas, one of his members came to Castillo’s house and said, “Pastor, we need to pray.” The two started praying together every Saturday morning.
At first, it was just the two of them. Two months later, there were nine. Six months later, there were 40. Today, it’s not just the fathers and mothers praying, but it’s entire families lifting one another and the church up in prayer.
“When we started praying every Saturday, the church started growing,” Castillo said.
Garzón credits the church’s love and care for him as part of how he came to faith in Jesus. “Everyone was so friendly when I first came. Before I knew Jesus, I didn’t understand why they were so friendly to me.”
Castillo says he is most excited about the church’s growing hunger to learn the Bible. He looks forward to a day when the ministry has its own building and can play a part in starting another church to engage more Hispanics in Columbia.
“My dream is not to have a 500-member or 300-member church,” Castillo said. “If we have a church with 250 people, it’s time for us to start another church.” B&R