Former Oakland Heights Baptist is now home to two Hispanic congregations

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 25, 2015

By Susan Shinn

For The Salisbury Post

It doesn’t matter what language you use to praise the Lord. He certainly understands. And he certainly hears the music emanating from the former Oakland Heights Baptist Church on Newsome Road these days.

The Hispanic praise music is loud. And joyous. And uplifting. The two dozen or so worshippers gathered on a recent Sunday evening smile and sing and clap and raise their hands high. An equal number of young children run around the sanctuary before they’re taken to the nursery.

The congregation of Oakland Heights recently gave its facilities to two Hispanic congregations. The New Life congregation meets there on Sunday, Thursday and Saturday evenings, with prayer service on Tuesday evenings, and the Faith in Jesus congregation meets there on Sunday mornings.

The sanctuary is plain but pristine — and paid for. The two congregations collect modest offerings to pay for utilities and upkeep.

Teodulo Ramos Rivera serves as New Life’s pastor. The congregation meets on Sunday evenings because he works on Sunday morning. He and his wife have seven children.

After several songs by the praise band, one young woman comes forward to give her testimony.

“Four weeks ago, I got a job,” Maira Flores says. “I was a busboy and they just moved me up to hostess. Little by little, God is working with me. I want to thank God for everything he’s done in my life. He’s always loved me from day one.”

“I want everybody to know the power of God,” says Antonio Balles, who is Maira’s father, “what can happen when we believe in him and trust in him.”

Balles says that he recently was told he was getting a raise at work, but two months went by without it.

“I felt let down,” she says. “My manager told me he thought the boss had received the request. I spoke to my boss that same day. He apologized. He said, ‘From this day forward, I guarantee you, you will have a raise.’”

He continues, “If we believe that’s written in the Bible, these promises will come to us. Believe in God. All the promises in this book are real.”

Another woman, Iris Henandez, speaks of being hospitalized for kidney stones. She had to have emergency surgery, but the ordeal brought her closer to her family, and to her son, whom she hadn’t seen in more than 15 years.

“It’s not my time to be with him because he’s got bigger things planned for my life,” Hernandez says. “He has made a tremendous change in my life. He has changed by heart. When God says he’s going to do something for you, he does it for you.”

Rivera preaches a simple but powerful message: You have to believe.

This evening’s sermon is from Numbers 14:8-12. Do not rebel against the Lord, these verses warn. The Oakland Heights hymnals and Bibles remain in the pews, but worshippers carry their own Spanish-language Bibles, or follow the readings on their phones.

“It doesn’t matter what you think,” Rivera says. “Things are possible for you. In Luke, we read that nothing is impossible for God. Hallelujah! Amen! Nothing is bigger than God. The presence of God comes in fire. The people in the desert had no food and water. They did not suffer hunger or thirst.”

Rivera reads from Mark 9:23 — “All things can be done for the one who believes,” and from Mark 16:14, in which Jesus upbraids the disciples for their lack of faith.

“Don’t leave the way you came,” he says.

Following the sermon, the drummer comes forward, and the worshippers surround him with prayer, laying their hands on him.

On July 4, the congregation held its first service at the new facility.

“I would like to have church seven nights a week,” Rivera says, “but I have to work.”

He continues, “I’m glad to have this place. It’s a miracle. That’s all I can say.”


A conversation with Jonas Perez

By Susan Shinn

If you want to know how your church can be successful in the 21st century, you might want to have a conversation with Jonas Perez.

Perez, an architect in his native Venezuela, is these days all about building churches. He teaches Spanish at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and a private school in Locust, and he’s the director of missions for the Rowan Southern Baptist Association.

He’s also studying for a doctorate in church revitalization.

In case you’re wondering when he studies, he listens to CDs of his textbooks while driving to his other jobs.

Perez reports that some 400 churches across America are closing daily. Congregations struggle about how to reach people in an age of technology and short attention spans.

Yes, he says, the golden days of churches were in the 1940s and 50s.

“People said, ‘Let’s go to church,’ and everybody went,” Perez says.

At the time on Sunday mornings, church was pretty much the only game in town.

No more.

“Jesus was very contemporary,” Perez says. “He used illustrations to teach kids and fishermen. If Jesus were here, he’d be using a lot of resources to teach.”

Even with the bells and whistles of technology in many of today’s services — especially contemporary worship services — people typically go to church because a friend invites them.

Locally, Perez is reaching out to the community.

“The field is big here,” he says.

And he has high hopes for the new two Hispanic congregations — Faith in Jesus and New Life — worshipping at the former Oakland Heights Baptist Church on Newsome Road.

He was out mowing the lawn one day at the Baptist Association when Clyde Lipe came to see him.

“I want to give you a church,” Lipe said.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Perez says.

Lipe had attended the church since 1969.

“Attendance had gotten down real low,” he says, with only about a dozen members remaining. “We’re all elderly people, and we couldn’t make a go of it. I wanted the church to stay a Southern Baptist church. That was important to me. We have a lot of Spanish-speaking people in our town and in Oakland Heights.”

Lipe now attends Faith Baptist Church, where his daughter is a member. At Oakland Heights, he’d been responsible for mowing the grass and opening and closing the church for worship. The church, he says, is completely paid for. It is an unassuming, but pristine facility.

“I’m 84 years old,” he says. “I can’t do what I once did. We had a great church, and a lot of people have come through the doors.”

Lipe is pleased that tradition will continue.

Perez pastors the Faith in Jesus congregation, and Teodulo Ramos Rivera is the New Life pastor.

The Faith in Jesus congregation worships on Sunday mornings, and the New Life congregation worships on Sunday, Thursday and Saturday evenings, with prayer services on Tuesday evenings.

“Hispanic people work jobs you and me don’t want to do,” Perez explains. “The pastor doesn’t have Sunday morning off.”

Perez says of the New Life congregation, “They’re very devoted to the Lord. They’re such a loving group of people. It’s the love that brings in more people.”


Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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