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Minister Lucks Into A Mission

By Rosemarie Dowell | Sentinel Correspondent

March 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

LEESBURG -- It was late 2001 when the Rev. Jorge Rodriguez happened by First Baptist Church of Leesburg and its massive electronic sign fronting U.S. Highway 27.

Rodriguez had moved to Central Floridahoping to start a Hispanic church, so he dropped by and talked with the Rev. Charles Roesel, longtime spiritual leader of the church.

It turns out that Rodriguez was just what Roesel and his staff were looking for.

"They had been praying about starting a Hispanic mission, and I had moved here in the belief that God wanted me to start one," Rodriguez said. He had founded and led a church in his native Puerto Rico for nearly 20 years before moving to Florida.

Soon after that meeting, La Familia de la Fe -- meaning The Family of the Faith -- was formed with Rodriguez as pastor and with the blessing and guidance of First Baptist Church, one of the largest congregations in the county.

With just four charter members, the mission began meeting in the band room of the church's private school each week in March 2002.

Now, on the cusp of its one-year anniversary, the mission is drawing an average of 60 worshippers every Sunday. The church attracts Hispanic worshippers from a myriad of countries and throughout Leesburg and surrounding areas.

"We're growing," Rodriguez said. "We've got people fromColombia,Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Panama."

In addition, Rodriquez leads a group of Hispanic worshippers Fridays at the Church at South Lake in Clermont, which also was a mission of First Baptist at one time.

"We're hoping that one day we'll be able to merge the two groups into one church," Rodriguez said.

Eventually, Rodriguez hopes to offer various outreach programs to the area's Hispanic residents. During their time in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez's wife, Ruth, established a community foundation that served several towns in the district of Bayamon.

The foundation sponsored HIV, spouse-abuse and drug-addiction counseling, offered tutoring for children and had preventive health-care and medical programs that assisted women and children in need, Rodriguez said. "I want the Hispanic community to know that we are here and that we plan to offer programs to help them as soon as we're able to."

Hispanic missions in mainstream Protestant churches are on the rise because of the increasing Spanish-speaking population.

For example, Celebration of Praise Church of God in Minneola began offering Hispanic services about two years ago and hired a Hispanic pastor to lead the group.

Last year, First Baptist Church of Mount Dora voted to include its mission church, Mision Bautista Filadelphia, into its membership, creating an entire Hispanic department.

The mission approached First Baptist's leaders and asked the church if it could remain with it, rather than leave like most mission churches do after a period of time.

Rodriguez said he hopes La Familia de la Fe is on its own within a few years.

"Hopefully, that will happen sometime in the next two to three years," Rodriguez said. "We'll be on our own and have our own property and can start helping our community."

The church will observe its first anniversary during a program at 6 p.m. March 22 in the chapel of First Baptist Church. Beginning April 1, the group will meet at 11 a.m. Sundays in the band room.

"We'll recognize the leadership and guidance of Rev. Roesel and others," Rodriguez said. "They've been invaluable to us."

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