Just over 70% of the 70,000 residents of Passaic, N.J., are Hispanic or Latino. That’s almost 50,000 people in this community just north of Newark.
A quick Google search, however, confirms what many in the area already know – there are not many Hispanic Baptist churches in Passaic. But there are many Hispanics open to the gospel.
Federico Fernandez pastors Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de Passaic (First Hispanic Baptist Church of Passaic), and in his 28 years of ministry in the area, he has seen how the community around the church has transformed, and the church along with it.
For years, Passaic was the first stop for many Hispanic families entering the U.S. But most of them did not settle there. This made ministry difficult as the church’s membership was always turning over. At that time the church focused on sending them out prepared to share the gospel and make disciples wherever they landed.
“Fifteen years ago, I was very thankful because a group of people in the church bought homes,” Fernandez recalled. “This meant that they were going to be around for the long run, and they are the ones that through their giving help sustain the work of this church.”
“The main challenge today in reaching people in Passaic is that they have a strong Catholic background,” Fernandez said, “so we have to reach them where they are.”
Most of the Hispanics in Passaic, according to Census data, are Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Fernandez adds that many are undocumented immigrants that have a lot of needs – like learning to speak and write in English and finding safe and affordable childcare.
To engage them with the gospel, Primera Iglesia has leveraged free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and free childcare through Vacation Bible School (VBS) and Faro de Luz – a program similar to Awana.
“We have about 100 adult students per week on campus who come to the ESL classes,” Fernandez said. In the church’s 24-computer lab, the students work in pairs under the tutelage of an English teacher who is also a member of the church.
Fernandez said hundreds of children attend the church’s VBS each year. On the Sunday that VBS culminates, the church often has more than 700 in attendance as the children’s families visit to celebrate alongside them.
“We have several families that always stay after VBS is done,” Fernandez said.
Faro de Luz is hosted on Fridays instead of the typical Wednesday evening slot most churches are accustomed to.
Fernandez explained that Friday is payday for many families, and parents often go shopping on Friday nights. He said, “Instead of dragging their children along, I ask them to drop them off here at the church and we feed them, watch them and disciple them.”
Fernandez is aware of how blessed his church is, and he hopes to continue to use those blessings to reach the community and bless others. The church owns a 23.5-acre property in New York used for retreats and youth camps to which they will soon be adding a gym. Additionally, the pastor’s first home is used by the church to offer free lodging to missionaries.
“God has blessed us and we want to continue to bless others,” Fernandez said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Keila Diaz is Hispanic life correspondent for Baptist Press.)