March 20th, 2012 at 8:37 am
LAREDO – Emerging from the baptismal waters, Fernando Luna raises his arms in celebration. He smiles broadly and soaks in the moment. Luna gave his life to Christ, is following Him and is enjoying the sensation of a fresh start.
It’s a new beginning he says he needed. Luna was wandering the streets looking for “guidance.” He had stopped enjoying life. His wife and children didn’t want him around. His daughter specifically told him to leave. He felt he’d be better off dead and had asked God to find a way to make it happen.
Norma Sanchez was a woman of the streets. She was a prostitute. A drug user. She had no interest in Christianity.
Then he turned to Christ, embracing a relationship with God. His perspective on life changed, and his relatives noticed it. He became a positive influence on others – inside and outside his family. Now he cherishes the time he has with his family, and they cherish their time with him.
“It has been a great blessing,” he said. “I’ve been able to get my children and my wife back. They look at me with respect now. They listen to me when I speak.”
Luna is one of a growing number of people who are coming to Christ through “home-based churches” in Laredo. In the past 11 months, about 13 of these churches have started in this border town – each of them by a layperson who feels called by God to share the gospel with a city onlookers say needs the gospel. The unfunded congregations each function autonomously but are strongly connected back to the churches where the house church founders attend. This structure provides a beautiful balance, leaders argue – freedom with accountability.
The majority of the people who have started home-based churches have done so after hearing and responding to the call to plant a church during Texas Baptists’ Mission-Shaped Leadership Training, a program along the Texas-Mexico border that helps people clarify God’s call in their lives and respond positively to it.
The effort, which is taking place in Laredo and Juarez, is funded by gifts to missions through the worldwide portion of the Texas Baptist Cooperative Program and funds from the Mary Hill Davis Offering for Texas Missions.
“We need people to respond to the call,” said Mario Garcia, a River Ministry coordinator for Texas Baptists. “If people respond to the call, they will share their faith. That will affect churches and communities.”
The training program is in response to the need for a stronger Baptist presence in a city where 12 Baptist congregations attempt to minister to a community of roughly 250,000 people. Texas Baptists have had one traditional church start in Laredo during the past 18 years and that happened in the past year.
The new approach seems to be effective, Garcia said. People who already know the culture of Laredo are starting congregations that non-Christians are comfortable visiting. The home-based churches have baptized more than 60 people in the last 11 months, enough that Garcia recently retrofitted a trailer with a frame, platform and horse trough to make it a mobile baptismal that the churches can share.
“People are coming to Christ,” Garcia said. “People are being reached. That’s what it’s all about – reaching communities.”
Norma Sanchez was the first person baptized in the mobile baptismal. Tears ran down her face as she shared her story. She had been a prostitute, a drug addict and a neglectful mom. But a friend of hers wouldn’t give up on her and repeatedly invited her to church. There, she heard the gospel and gave her life to Christ. The change has been nearly instant, she said.
“For eight months, I have not prostituted, used drugs or drank,” Sanchez said. “In those eight months, I’m taking care of my children, taking care of their meals, helping them with their homework. I’m trying to help them in everything.”
Sanchez isn’t proud of her past, but she’s willing for God to use it to bring other people to Him. Like those in the mission-shaped leadership program, Sanchez has sensed God’s call upon her life and is attempting to pursue it for the growth of God’s kingdom.
“I want to tell people I was a very closed person who didn’t believe, but Jesus can save you,” she said. “There’s not a better way than to follow Jesus. Jesus can help with everything. I give you my testimony because there are a lot of people who don’t believe. I was a woman of the street. Now people see me and ask, ‘Is it true you are a Christian?’ They are surprised by the change in me.”