Rev. Connie DiLeo, a missionary and church pastor in La Hoya, Dominican Republic, enjoys mingling with neighbors during a 2015 Celebrate Jesus mission. Photos from Icel Rodriguez.
The Celebrate Jesus ministry founded 16 years ago in Florida has ceased operations after helping hundreds of churches connect with and introduce Jesus to their surrounding communities. But the model continues to make new disciples through missions abroad.
Recent examples include a Florida Conference team of Spanish-speaking members to La Hoya, a rural community in the Dominican Republic, and a mission trip to East Angola, Africa. Both employed Celebrate Jesus techniques in different ways.
Icel Rodriguez, Global Missions director for the Florida Conference, said those experiences strengthened her conviction that evangelistic outreach should be tailored to specific mission destinations and incorporated into the work that team members do there. She currently is making plans for a Celebrate Jesus-style mission to Costa Rica in April.
Her experience mixing the Celebrate Jesus concept with missions abroad dates to 2006, when a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team combined evangelistic outreach with a construction project in Quisgualagua, Honduras.
Last fall, a team partnered with members of a Methodist congregation in La Hoya pastored by Rev. Connie DiLeo, a Florida Conference deacon and Global Ministries missionary.
Though tailored to fit the needs of the impoverished neighborhoods around the church, the weeklong experience included a hallmark of the Celebrate Jesus tradition: personal invitations to prayer and worship.
“We spread out and visited every single house,” recalled Rodriguez, who led the mission team.
“What was amazing was the welcoming spirit of the people,” she said. “Everybody opened their doors and invited us in. So we went in and prayed. Several people surrendered their life to Christ.”
A Celebrate Jesus mission team comprising members from Florida and the Dominican Republic prepares to introduce surrounding residents to Christ.
Celebrate Jesus mission team members wash the feet of people they met and worked with during a 2015 visit to La Hoya in the Dominican Republic.
All residents were invited to a children’s party at a neighborhood park at the end of the week. The event included face-painting, games, refreshments and a worship service.
In December, DiLeo reported to Rodriguez that the church was preparing for seven baptisms, some of which stemmed from the Celebrate Jesus event.
Alexia Valle Velez, 20, of Orlando, was on the mission team to La Hoya. She said the experience was quite different from a Celebrate Jesus mission she participated in as a girl in Miami, when she attended Coral Way UMC.
In Miami, team members split up and went to homes to offer prayer and invite people to church, she said. She remembered taking slips of paper printed with the invitation.
“In Miami, they said, ‘No, I don’t need prayers,’” Valle Velez recalled. “In La Hoya, they said, 'Yes, I need these prayers.' They didn’t deny it at all. They were very welcoming.”
The visitors from Florida paired with members from the Methodist Church in La Hoya and went door to door to speak to residents and offer small gifts of towels and toiletries, Valle Velez said. The experience not only served as a Christian witness but created bonds between the already practicing disciples who hailed from two vastly different cultures, she said.
One obstacle that did not exist was a language barrier. Having a mission team fluent in Spanish put La Hoya congregation members and residents at ease, Valle Velez said.
“The first night we were at the church, a lot of people didn’t come up to us,” she recalled. “Then Pastor Connie said, ‘Hey, guys, they speak Spanish.’ … And they felt more comfortable coming up to us. They probably felt we were able to connect, especially spiritually.”
The high point of the experience came near the end of the visit, when she and another team member had a nearly simultaneous thought that they should wash the feet of two women from the La Hoya church who had been working with them. The women agreed, and the Florida visitors washed their feet, as well as the feet of a little girl who happened to be at the church when the volunteers returned.
“It was very overwhelming in a positive way to see the way the Holy Spirit broke out,” Valle Velez said. The following day at worship, the girl responded to a call for everyone who wanted to receive God to step forward.
“I had the privilege of washing her feet and praying for her when she accepted God,” Valle Velez said.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “I would definitely go again if I could.”
That’s encouraging to Rodriguez, who said she hopes that positive experiences will lead to more mission participation among Hispanic Methodists.
The team to the Dominican Republic included members from three different congregations, who have been encouraged to share their experiences with others from their home churches, Rodriguez said.
Celebrate Jesus Inc., which had conducted missions in Georgia as well as Florida, ceased operations at the end of August, citing a declining number of participating churches and dwindling funds, according to an announcement on the organization’s website.
“We encourage organizations, groups or individuals to continue the ministry of Celebrate Jesus through other avenues,” the announcement says. “We will keep our CJ website and Facebook page open through summer of 2016 to provide an avenue for sharing glory stories and allow folks to download our training materials.”
A Celebrate Jesus reunion is planned for Florida’s Annual Conference 2016, scheduled for June in Orlando. Details will be announced on the Celebrate Jesus Facebook page.
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.