Panhandle church invests in Hispanic community

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by Barbara Denman, Florida Baptist Convention

November 7

When he first arrived as pastor of First Baptist Church in Bonifay, Shelly Chandler recalls seeing only a few Hispanics living and working in his rural Panhandle community.

But that has changed, he said. Now, he sees them every day—in stores, restaurants, hotels and playing soccer in fields. The Hispanic community is growing, he said, by “leaps and bounds.”

When a 4,000 square-foot building located just a block away from the church was given to the downtown congregation, Chandler knew God had opened the door for them to reach these Hispanic men, women and children with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

“I believe if we are going to reach the nations we must also reach Florida,” Chandler said. “As the Panhandle becomes more diverse, we need to get on the front side and give them the Gospel.”

Tallahassee pastor Juan Ocampo grew up in Bonifay, attended high school there and played sports, but he never had any desire to return to his hometown.

But God had other plans. Six months ago, while serving as pastor of Comunidad Cristiana Cristo Fusión in Tallahassee, Ocampo became involved in a prison ministry in Bonifay, traveling 90 miles from the capital city each Wednesday. One of his favorite stops was the Mexican restaurant in town.

“God had continually pressed on my heart to come back for the prison ministry,” Ocampo said. “Then He began stirring my heart again to survey the community for a new church.”

When he learned that Chandler, too, was interested in investing in a new church “we felt God leading us to this work.” Together, with others, they prayed on the steps of the First Baptist Church.

“God has brought us full circle,” Ocampo added.

“I believe that God has led me to plant this church in Bonifay because an established Gospel presence–along with a Hispanic Southern Baptist presence—never existed within the Hispanic community of that area,” he said.

“One of my passions and convictions is to plant churches in towns with Hispanic communities where a Hispanic church has never existed.”

The church, Comunidad Cristiana de Bonifay, is set to launch Nov. 15, after months of renovating the former office building into a place of worship. The remodeling has been a labor of love for Ocampo’s congregation and other Hispanic congregations in Tallahassee, volunteers from the sending church, and others from the surrounding associations—West Florida, Walton County and Holmes.

Funding for the new church included a $20,000 grant from the Florida Baptist Convention. The money will be used for start-up costs and salary, when added to tithes and offerings, Chandler said.

Ocampa will continue to serve the Tallahassee church he planted; preaching there on Sunday morning; then traveling to Bonifay, to preach in the afternoon worship service.

Chandler believes this will be the first of many open doors to plant other Hispanic congregations in the region. “I believe we are ahead of the curve.”

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