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Followers Flock To Island Church

By Cristina Elias | Sentinel Staff Writer

July 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

When Magdalena Bonilla moved to Orlando four years ago, she knew she would be able to continue attending the church that had inspired her as a teenager in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

"If Pastor Otoniel Font hadn't been here in Orlando I would not have [moved here]," said Bonilla, who sings in the church choir. "The only thing I had here was the church."

The Fountain of Living Waters Church started in Carolina, and is yet another Puerto Rico institution that has made its way to Florida to become one of the state's largest Hispanic ministries. With more than 1,500 members in Florida, the Bible-based ministry seems determined to expand wherever Puerto Ricans go.

Next stop: Poinciana, where the ministry started a congregation earlier this year. The congregation is led by the Rev. Eric Diaz, who attributes the ministry's expansion into Poinciana to another of Living Waters' properties, a radio station called Genesis 89.1 FM (WWKQ).

"It's been a year and a half since we had been considering opening a church in Poinciana," Diaz said, "because 65 percent of the calls that come in through the radio station do so from Poinciana."

Font said his father, church founder Rodolfo Font, had a list of almost 5,000 people who had attended church in Puerto Rico and realized many of them had moved to Orlando.

To bring those members back into the fold, Otoniel Font and his wife, Omayra, arrived in Orlando in 1994 and started the church on John Young Parkway. It serves about 800 people and operates as the ministry's main Florida base.

Living Waters, which finished phase one of an expansion plan for the Orlando church in the spring, has received Orange County's approval to expand again. The 20,000-square-foot project is expected to cost up to $1 million.

The church's eight- to 10-year plans include developing its 75-acre site into Gospel City -- a center for its Florida ministry capable of seating as many as 6,000 people in its sanctuary. The campus also would include a sports complex, shops and interactive attractions.

In addition to its strong presence in Orlando, which includes services in English, Living Waters has churches in Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

But the growth of the ministry doesn't end there. Living Waters is about to build a 27,000-square-foot church in Pembroke Pines. That Broward County church would cost up to $3 million.

In addition to the radio station, Living Waters also tapes television programming broadcast throughout its churches and Christian stations in the United States and Latin America.

Living Waters opened nearly 28 years ago and counts more than 25,000 followers throughout its 35 churches in Puerto Rico and many more in the mainland and Latin America.

They include 15 in New York, California, Wisconsin, Georgia and Texas. It also has 25 churches in Latin America countries, including Peru, Argentina, El Salvador and Mexico.

"We have been very lucky. God has helped us to administer our church well," Font said.

"We believe that God wants man to be financially prosperous," Font said, naming a handful of some of the church's well-to-do members in Orlando and Puerto Rico, including politicians and entrepreneurs. "Our church's mission is to enable individuals to make a positive effect on this world."

And for members like Bonilla, the church's message of financial self-sufficiency has a lot to do with the reason why she is part of it.

"Why would you want to be a burden to society," she said, "when we can look out for ourselves?"

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