LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The “Run for the Roses” is well-known at Churchill Downs, but for assistant chaplain Yurian Cabrera, the “roses” of the Kentucky Derby come second to seeing faith blossom at the famed racetrack’s fruit of ministry.
Cabrera, a 29-year-old native of Cuba, is a church planting missionary and part-time pastor of Iglesia Bautista Senda de Luz in Louisville.
Serving as a chaplain at the racetrack is yet another of his passions.
“I just love the smell, the track, the horses and, most of all, the people who work here,” Cabrera smiled broadly, a dark goatee highlighting bright cheeks.
Early in the mornings, he relays a “Minute with God” over Churchill Downs’ PA system in both English and Spanish as a devotional for track workers.
“It is a very brief reminder that God is real and that He cares about the workers here at the track,” Cabrera said.
More than 700 Hispanics, mostly from Mexico, Central America and Cuba, work in some capacity at the track. Many live within the stable area, or “backside” of the track, with others in nearby apartment buildings.
A beautiful on-site “Christ Chapel” at Churchill Downs provides a place for Cabrera to hold services in Spanish on Monday evenings. Local churches and ministries provide supper, while worship and praise music is provided by local musicians and church groups.
Kentucky Derby winner Pat Day supports the ministry and is a frequent guest speaker at Christ Chapel. He told Baptist Press he became a believer after experiencing the emptiness of worldly success and coming completely to Christ.
“God changed the mirrors of my life into windows,” Day said. “God is doing a wonderful work in this place.”
On Thursday nights at the chapel, Cabrera shares a practical Bible study followed by a family friendly movie in Spanish, with plenty of time also provided for fellowship and one-on-one ministry.
The chaplaincy program provides for the workers’ material needs through an on-site clothes closet ministry which also supplies basic care needs. Additionally, the outreach offers English classes; workshops on legal issues; counseling; and family and children’s activities.
Renier Rosales, 23, one of the workers who walks and trains horses at the track, recently left Cuba where his family remains. Rosales counts on Cabrera and the church family at Iglesia Bautista Senda de Luz to help fill the void.
“I like the church meetings here since I can do my work and minister to my co-workers at the same time,” Rosales said. “I thank God for Pastor Julian since he is always there to help me.”
But Cabrera’s ministry is not tied to the walls of Christ Chapel. He visits the workers on a daily basis and knows them by name. He keeps up with the names of the horses they train and follows some of their records. “One of the men we shared Christ with used to be a big-time drug dealer and user in Guatemala who came here running from the law,” Cabrera said. “Today that man is currently coming to all of our services and activities here at the track.”
On the weekends, workers are encouraged to worship at one of several local Hispanic Baptist churches. Since most of the workers do not drive, Cabrera led his church to start a new work across the street from one of the back entrances of Churchill Downs.
Pastor Ernesto Font, one of the ministers at Iglesia Bautista Senda de Luz, started Iglesia Bautista Victoria last February with 15 people. As a result of June 15-20 Crossover evangelistic efforts prior to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Louisville, nine new converts have asked for baptism into this growing fellowship of believers. Font noted: “It is very easy for the workers at the track to cross the street and visit our church.”
Cabrera is optimistic about the future of the Good News in a place where the thoroughbreds run.
“I want to continue what was started,” Cabrera said. “Our church is fasting and praying for God to start a revival in our city.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Lema is director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for the Americas in Miami and a correspondent for Baptist Press.)