Panama-born guest preacher Fermin Whittaker, executive director of the California Southern Baptist Convention, challenged the audience to a more committed walk with Christ. A nine-member praise band led by the pastor's son, Abner Segundo, began the service with a session of contemporary Spanish worship songs.
Among pastors and leaders representing diverse ministries were Enio Aguero, national disaster relief chaplain coordinator with the North American Mission Board, and Victor Samuel Gonzalez Grille, an oncologist and past president of the Western Cuba Baptist Convention.
"I bring greetings from your Cuban brothers and sisters," the Cuban leader told the worshippers. "The Holy Spirit is still very active in Cuba with the people yearning for the Word of God and the salvation Jesus brings to us." Other visiting pastors and leaders were also present representing diverse national ministries.
Suarez, who started the church 35 years ago, recently was called to succeed the retiring Mir, who said with humor that Suarez "gave me this church, now I give it back to him."
Suarez, who is leaving the faculty of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, introduced three doctor of ministry students from the Kansas City campus: Francisco Muniz, Johnny Muzquiz and Marcos Elizondo.
Whittaker began his sermon by sharing his testimony and how God had always supplied his needs. He recounted how God led him to his wife Carmen, saying, "Carmen was not a Christian. I led her to Christ and then asked her to marry me. We have been married 44 years."
After his seminary studies in Canada during the '60s, Whittaker said he became pastor of a church in Los Angeles with "a total membership of seven elderly ladies. I told God that this was not my church. I wanted to pastor the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles. God said, 'You are right. This is not your church. Your church is across the street in the park. That is your congregation.'"
Realizing there were no youth in church, Whittaker said he asked a youth at the park, "'Why won't you come to the church?' He said he did not even speak Spanish. God told me to go bilingual -- to preach the Gospel in both languages. The church exploded. The youth finally said that they could be comfortable in church."
Whittaker turned to the story of blind Bartimaus in Mark 10:46-52 for the main points of his sermon. He chastened the desire of some Christians who are willing to go across the world to preach Christ but are not willing to cross the street to do the same. "You have to walk not across the world, but first across the room. We need to walk across the room to reach our families. We need to cross to the room where we eat and share together. Jesus walked across the street to get to Bartimaus."
Many churches "have left the word mercy out in the parking lot. We come to church very well dressed and we do not see those in need around us," Whittaker said.
"Why are Christians living negatively? Why are we living like snakes and not like eagles?" Whittaker continued. "We are up to our heads in negativism. When we lose mercy for ourselves, we lose mercy for others."
After noting distractions that often confront a person seeking Christ, like those faced by blind Bartimaus, Whittaker said, "Jesus stopped. He stops whenever he hears the cry of the person that needs him."
After praying and issuing an altar call, at least 20 people came forward to make a decision to follow Christ and give him their needs.
Mir closed the ceremony with a prayer and a declaration of faith: "We have a church that loves the Word of God. We preach, teach and live the Word of God."
Ismael Ventura, a native of El Salvador and deacon of the Laurel church, "felt honored that on this occasion the SBC was in Baltimore and grateful that so many people shared this day with us. As a Hispanic, I feel proud of being a Southern Baptist since the Baptist churches are teaching the Bible in a clear and effective manner."
David Raul Lema Jr. is associate team strategist for theological education ministries with the Florida Baptist Convention.
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