Over in Jackson County, drive out from Glenville a few miles through the wooded hills that wrinkle the land, and you’ll come to a Baptist church building under construction.
BSC photo by Mike Creswell
Pastor Felix Villarreal and his wife, Pat, hope to hold the first services at La Primera Iglesia Bautista del Amor – the First Baptist Church of Love – sometime this spring. Like the church’s name, the efforts to finance and build the church have been an effort of love.
That’s not an unusual thing in North Carolina, but this particular building has an interesting story.
It is being built by a Hispanic Baptist congregation with just 25 members and one determined pastor, Felix Villarreal, who says miracles have been required for the construction to have happened at all.
The church is called La Primera Iglesia Bautista del Amor – the First Baptist Church of Love.
Villarreal, 63, still talks with a soft South Texas twang he brought from the McAllen area where he was born and raised. His Mexico-born father was crew chief for migrant farm workers, and as a boy, Villarreal moved with his family as they followed crops back and forth across the country.
After his father died, though, his family faced harsh living conditions in migrant camps, and at age 15, Villarreal decided he had enough. He pursued his natural gifts of working with his hands and being able to figure out how things worked to become a cabinet maker. Like many Hispanic and Anglo pastors, Villarreal is bi vocational.
He met Pat, his future wife, in Florida; 43 years of married life and two sons followed. Almost all that time, they have lived in western North Carolina.
“I love it here,” he said with a glance toward the surrounding mountains that dominate the Glenville-Cashiers area.
Starting some 15 years ago, Villarreal was one of the first Hispanic Baptist pastors in western North Carolina to partner with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in church planting and other ministries. He is still much involved with convention life.
A turn at teaching Sunday School years ago led him into ministry, and he eventually became a pastor. His never-ending hunger to be a missionary and evangelist eventually led him to start taking mission trips.
That also led to a lesson in God’s faithfulness. Once, he turned down an invitation to go on a mission trip because he had no money. But when those who did go returned and talked so excitedly about what they had seen God do, he cried like a baby because he had missed it.
The next time a mission trip came along, he still had no money but committed to go. God provided the cash he needed. He still averages two trips a year to Mexico, areas as diverse as mid-country Veracruz or Tabasco to the south. He still trusts God to cover his expenses.
Over the years, as he pastored in and around Jackson County, he noticed that several times he got a group assembled as a church while they met in borrowed or rented buildings. But growth repeatedly stalled because they had no permanent meeting place. God told him to build a church building.
Years ago, he tried to buy a particular piece of property out from Glenville, but it was tied to a luxurious and expensive house he could not dream of buying. A bank he applied to would not even return his phone calls.
But more recently, he was called to build cabinets for the new owner of that same house. In casual conversation, Villarreal told the owner he had once wanted to buy the land beside the house to build a church on, but couldn’t come near affording it.
“Well,” the man said, “I will sell it to you.” He even agreed to finance the transaction for 2.6 acres of prime land located between two expensive, gated communities.
A deal soon followed and, now a landowner, Villarreal set about getting a church building constructed.
“I told God, ‘If you want me to do this, I have no money,’” he recalled. “We didn’t have a cent,” he specified.
But an appeal to area churches, where Villarreal’s long years of faithful service were well known, brought in $34,000, and soon they were ready to break ground.
It actually started with digging ground, as Villarreal and volunteers dug footers for the foundations and did the basic block work. “We have several members who are experienced block layers,” he said.
A group called Builders for Christ brought in several dozen workers from North Carolina and several other states. In a week, they were able to build the floors, walls, trusses and roof. An architect who drew plans for the building was amazed at how quickly the new building took shape.
Windows that had been replaced in a house remodeling project were given to him. Local merchants donated or provided equipment at low cost.
After such a promising start, though, they ran out of money. Construction stopped. “Lord, what are You going to do?” Villarreal asked.
The answer came from the architect. An anonymous donor had committed to finance the rest of the building.
“The Lord has been a blessing, an encourager. He has been my shield and my strength,” Villarreal says, blinking back tears of joy. Several potential barriers that would have stopped construction melted away, again to the amazement of the architect.
He points out to visitors to the sanctuary how the ceiling will have offset lighting and seating at first for 78. “If we fill it up, wonderful! We’ll go to two services,” Villarreal said.
The basement will include a kitchen and fellowship area, along with space for a pantry to stockpile food and clothing for the needy.
Now that most of the basic construction has been done, the project now is within Villarreal’s cabinet and carpentry skill level. He and other volunteers are steadily working on the new building.
By February, the wiring and ductwork for heating and air conditioning were in. Two door sets, one front door and one interior entryway, are inside and waiting to be installed. A sign with the name will be installed out front. A bank along the road was used to fill in for a level parking area.
Villarreal anticipates holding the first service in the new building by late spring. He is pretty sure it will be a big event. It may be later as he plans another mission trip into Mexico around Easter.
People routinely stop him and Pat as they walk around Glenville and Cashiers, asking how the building is going. “There’s a lot of excitement about it. It’s an unusual thing for us Hispanics,” he said.
For Villarreal, the construction has just shown him again how faithful God is and how readily He creates the miracles needed to accomplish His purposes.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Mike Creswell serves as the senior consultant for Cooperative Program development with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)