MIAMI, Fla. — There’s an unglitzy side to Miami you’ll never see depicted on “CSI Miami.”
Sure, there’s the flaunted wealth, the big beach-front homes, the flashy cars, the fast boats, and glamorous life-in-the-fast-lane for the celebrities and superstar athletes who live here.
But Miami is a city of paradoxical extremes. While the city has been ranked the third-richest in the United States, it also has more citizens — about a third of the population — below the federal poverty line than any other U.S. city except Detroit and El Paso, Texas. Miami is the seventh largest metro area in the U.S., with over 5.4 million people.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Southern Baptist missionary Al Fernandez, 50, loves Miami like only a man born and raised there could. As a native, he actually witnessed the start of the huge influx of Cubans, Latinos and other Hispanics into Miami in the early 1960s.
Al’s parents were already planting churches in the Miami area when Cubans began flooding into Miami to escape the Marxist dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Al accepted Christ when he was only six, and felt called to the ministry at 15.
“But it took me 15 more years to let go and to allow God to work in my life,” he says. “I’ve been here all my life, grew up Southern Baptist and feel this is the place God has called me. I feel uniquely gifted to work here.”
Al, who earned a B.A. degree at Florida International University, Miami, and an M.A. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, is married to Noemi, also a Cuban by birth. They have two sons and a daughter.
Director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s “Urban Impact Ministries” in Miami, Fernandez is one of some 5,500 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. He is among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 1-8, 2009. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like Fernandez.
“Urban Impact is a ministry that was established three years ago,” Fernandez says. “We felt there was a need to establish a stronger Southern Baptist presence in South Florida. We felt we really needed to have an impact on our churches, pastors and associations in a complex urban setting like Miami. We want to impact Miami with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
His work depends on a close partnership among three key associations in South Florida: the Palm Lake Association in the West Palm Beach area; the Gulf Stream Baptist Association just north of Miami; and the Miami Baptist Association in metro Miami. Fernandez has three distinct areas of responsibility: urban church planting, urban leadership development and urban evangelism.
Bi-lingual, Fernandez believes God has uniquely equipped him to minister in South Florida.
“I grew up in Spanish-speaking churches so I understand the context. I’ve also pastored in English-speaking churches. It’s like God has allowed me to be a bridge across the different cultures and nationalities in Miami. Like the Apostle Paul said, I believe I am all things to all people.”
Miami has the largest Spanish-speaking population in the Western Hemisphere outside Latin America. Miamians who use Spanish as their first language make up 67 percent of the population. One might think that would make Fernandez’s job easier. But language doesn’t tell the whole story.
“The No. 1 challenge is Miami’s diversity and multi-culturalism,” he said, stressing that not all Hispanics are alike because they come to Miami from different nations — Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, etc. “Hispanics from different countries may all speak Spanish but still have different customs, traditions and cultures.”
Fernandez said the three Baptist Associations include 540 churches, three hundred in the Miami association alone.
“We need a sense of unity and cooperation within our churches and associations,” he said.
And we need each other because it doesn’t matter how large a church is in Miami, no one church can reach all the people in this environment. We have to work together.”
Another reason for Miami-area churches to come together — especially in today’s gloomy economic recession — is money and resources, according to Fernandez.
“South Florida is a very expensive place to live, and many of our pastors and churches are struggling because it’s not a cheap place to live and minister. Miami is a city of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ You see the entertainers and the athletes who live here, yet you’ve got average people who have to work hard every day in their jobs just to survive. These dynamics make it hard to minister here,” he said.
Gary Johnson, executive director of the Miami Baptist Association, says Miami’s high property costs also translate into the small number of Southern Baptist churches who own their own facilities in the area.
“Only one-third of our churches own their own property because property is so expensive in Miami,” Johnson said. “A third of our churches are less than 10 years old. Many have to rent from another church, or meet in warehouses or in store fronts. A big issue is always property — either you’re trying to keep it or looking for some.”
Johnson said his Miami Baptist Association — which celebrate its centennial this year — is comprised of some 300 churches and missions. About 100 are English-speaking, 100 are Spanish and 100 speak Creole (Haitian). The balance is Chinese, Russian and Portuguese. Seventy percent do not use English as their first language.
Two thirds of the local pastors, Johnson says, are bi-vocational, so churches tend to be small.
“The average size church in Miami-Dade is 45 members,” said Johnson. “Churches are small and they don’t have a lot of money. It takes all their money just to pay the rent.
“Al’s strength is that he’s from here and people in Miami tend to trust someone who’s from here,” Johnson said. “Al’s not only from here but his dad was a pastor and his brother, Otto, is a pastor so he’s well-rooted in Miami. When Al comes to a church or visits a group of pastors, he’s already earned their respect and the right to be there,” said Johnson.
Fernandez believes that Miami’s continued growth in Hispanic population and culture foreshadows the way the United States will look in the future.
“What you see in Miami today is what you’re going to see in the rest of this nation in the next 20 years. No matter where you live, it’s coming. So whatever we learn here as Southern Baptists, using Miami as a laboratory, the principles will be the same and will work elsewhere in the country. For instance, there’s a big interest in urban ministries because cities are getting bigger and the outskirts are getting smaller.
“We need to realize that the Apostle Paul used a strategy calling for him to stop in big cities because that’s where the most bang for the buck is, where you get the best results,” Fernandez said. “I think as Southern Baptists, we need to change our strategies and understand that in the future, we need to know how to minister and be effective in these large urban settings.”
But while Fernandez said Southern Baptists have historically been good at reaching rural to mid-size cities and towns, “Baptists have not been as effective in the large urban areas,” he added.
When asked how valuable the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is to his work, Fernandez said he couldn’t even describe how valuable it is.
“The reality of these ministries is that they cost money. And one size ministry does not fit all. We need a lot of resources to do the work of the Lord in South Florida.”
For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.