Pastor lives to start growing Hispanic ministry



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Pastor lives to start growing Hispanic ministry

Nov. 10, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011  
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0574}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

A popular country song recently carried the message “Live like you are dying.” The Rev. Rafael Ortega is doing just that.

Diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and told he would die without a liver transplant, Ortega put his life, ministry and future in God’s hands.

The Rev. Rafeal Ortega (left) and Jorge Muchado, a member of Tabernaculo de Refugio, the congregation Ortega leads. Photo by Thomas Routzong, Photo #06-464.

Just a few short years ago Ortega visited Village United Methodist Church in North Lauderdale with a friend. Soon after he had completed the membership class, joined the church, become involved in the church’s ministries and taken the district Lay Speaker course. After that, he was often asked to preach during services.

While Ortega was getting to know the church, the church was “praying about starting a new Hispanic ministry,” according to the Rev. Brad Farrow, who was serving as local pastor of the church at the time.

“Our South Florida church was in a multi-cultural community (Caribbean, Spanish, Haitian, Anglo), and the congregation was a true reflection of our community,” Farrow said. “There were three small Hispanic churches in our area, but there was no United Methodist Spanish-speaking ministry.

Unfortunately, Farrow’s congregation had no Hispanic members. Ortega says he remembers being the only one.

No long after Ortega became very ill and was diagnosed with hepatitis C. “I recalled one Sunday evening when he preached,” Farrow said. “He was so weak that he could hardly stand, but he delivered a powerful message about God's healing power.”

After giving his message Ortega collapsed in the front pew. Farrow and about 20 members immediately prayed for and laid hands on Ortega. “We all prayed for healing with an emotional outpouring of love for this man of God,” Farrow said.

Ortega’s doctor advised he would die without a liver transplant. Confined to his bed, Ortega became weaker each day. The church was very concerned for him, his wife, Gloria, and their family. They prayed regularly for the Ortegas, and Farrow often spoke to the congregation about Ortega’s situation.

“Rafael had been in our church for less than two years, but he had made an impact on our congregation with his preaching, good humor and faithfulness. Our people grieved over his seemingly hopeless situation. Clearly, he was greatly loved by all,” Farrow said.

Ortega was admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, and his brother agreed to give half his liver to save Ortega’s life. Unfortunately, the surgery was postponed because of a health problem Rafael’s brother was experiencing.

Farrow visited Ortega and told him he believed God was going to raise him up to lead the Hispanic ministry at the church. Farrow said Ortega weakly whispered,  “Pastor, if God raises me up, I will lead that Hispanic ministry.”

Soon, news arrived that a healthy liver had become available and the life-saving surgery would occur Easter morning. “By the time our sunrise service started the next morning, everyone knew that the surgery was taking place at that very hour,” Farrow said. “We prayed for the surgeons, those assisting and the family. But most of all, we prayed that God would raise up Rafael on that Easter morning.”

Less than a year later, Rafael planned and organized the church’s first Hispanic worship service. More than 100 people attended and they raised $1,000 for a family in financial need. Soon after the service averaged about 60 attendees each Sunday.

Farrow nominated Ortega for the Florida Conference’s 2004 Denman Award for laity, and Ortega was named the winner.

The Rev. Dr. Mont Duncan, executive director of the conference’s New Church Development office, said he consulted with Ortega and church leaders about next steps — becoming a mission and then a church, funding issues, organization. 
 
He says he “truly felt their desire for a strong, United Methodist Hispanic congregation in this neighborhood.” “Rafael has a remarkable story to tell,” he added. “He is truly a man of faith and walks by faith, not by sight. God is blessing his ministry weekly.”
 
The ministry now averages more than 100 people in attendance and operates as a mission church under the name Tabernaculo de Refugio — the Tabernacle of Refuge. 

In 2005 Ortega was licensed as a part-time local pastor and appointed to Tabernaculo de Refugio as its pastor. “I thank God,” he said. “Villages United Methodist Church is growing. We are growing. … ”

“We started when I was the only Hispanic person in the church,” Ortega added. “Pastor Brad said he was looking for someone with a heart for the Hispanic people. I thought I was on my way to heaven. I was very sick. God saw things differently, and I am here by the grace of God.”

Ortega says more Hispanic families are moving into the area around the church and that the church needs to be “open to them.” “They are a very religious people and they have a sense for that Greater Being. My job is to show them the way to the cross,” Ortega said. “God has called me to share the gospel and win souls to the kingdom. I’m just a little flashlight pointing to the sun.”

And Ortega says people are hungry for the truth. “People want something different from what they have in the world. Why should we offer them the same thing they have in the world? Why should the church try to copy the world?” he said. “We need to offer them something that will transform and change their lives. God offers them love, joy and peace. Jesus is the answer to their needs.”

Tabernaculo de Refugio worships at Village United Methodist Church in North Lauderdale, which enables both congregations to reach out to the community's Hispanic residents. Photo by Thomas Routzong, Photo #06-465. Web photo only.

Ortega said the average age of his church’s members is lower than the average in most United Methodist churches. His congregation has only two members who are older than 70. “I haven’t even done one funeral yet,” he said. “I have done a number of baby baptisms, though.”

Ortega also boasts the church’s expenses have, “from day one,” been paid by members of the congregation. “The district has not had to invest one dime in us,” he said. “God has provided it even as poor as my people are. … Still, God provides for all our needs.”

Though health complications sometimes arise, Ortega’s health is good most of the time. He faithfully serves his growing congregation with a smiling face and loving heart. Tabernaculo de Refugio continues to meet at Village United Methodist Church in North Lauderdale.

More information about the church is available by calling 954-721-3920.

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This article relates to New Church Development/Hispanic Ministry.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla. His columns appear in the Naples Sun Times newspaper and Faith & Tennis magazine.




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