An El Paso, Texas, area church withstood the opposition of alleged drug traffickers and credit the protection of God as they sought to expand their presence in a strip shopping center in San Elizario, a city of 5,000 in El Paso County.
Iglesia Bautista Dios con Nosotros, translated in English as "God with Us Baptist Church," quickly outgrew the small space rented in 2012 and expanded the storefront. Within a few years, they again needed more room, but the owner of Amigos Bar at the opposite end of the strip center had other ideas.
He wanted them off the property entirely.
"The bar owner said that he did not care for us to be there, even if we were a church," Pastor Marcos Jacinto recounted.
Jacinto replied to the bar owner, "Do what you need to do. God is with us."
The owner indicated he knew "a lot of people in town" who could "do something against the church" to force them to leave, Chuy Avila, church planting associate with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN.
Undeterred, the congregation continued to hold church services, unaware that El Paso County sheriff's deputies, FBI agents and DEA agents were conducting a lengthy investigation into alleged drug trafficking activities at Amigos Bar and other sites in San Elizario and nearby Socorro and Clint.
The El Paso Times reported last year that law enforcement agents armed with search warrants recovered weapons, cocaine and cash from the properties. Amigos Bar was closed, its owner eventually arrested with others.
Amigos Bar was no longer a threat, but Dios con Nosotros continued to need additional space. The answer came in an unexpected way as Jacinto and Sunday School teachers began praying for a solution during a meeting last fall.
"As we prayed we heard a knock at the door," Jacinto said. "It was the owner of the shopping center. He came to offer us the bar space, but we couldn't afford to pay rent on something so big." When the church leaders hesitated, the owner asked them to come to his office the following day.
"He made us an offer of half what the bar paid," Jacinto said. "His exact words were, 'As soon as you sign the contract, this place will be yours.'"
Church members began transforming the 3,000-square-foot-plus former bar into a church. The first services in the new facility were held the weekend before Christmas and attracted many from the neighborhood.
"They had a full house for three days of services," Avila said. "People wanted to know what was going on inside." Avila admitted that the "smell of the bar" was still "pretty strong" in that first service but has since vanished.
Jacinto said the choice of the San Elizario area for the church was deliberate. "We had spent some time praying for guidance, seeking for a place to begin. The Lord gave us this place and the rent was accommodating. Also, we felt that we could relate with the people since we were part of the same culture and economic status."
Local residents have noticed the transformation. "Anywhere we go in the neighborhood, even non-Christians, congratulate us, affirming that God helped us win the battle that we faced with the bar," Jacinto said. "People I had never seen before knew our story. We could feel God with us, which translates to our church name, Dios con Nosotros."
For Avila, "church planting is the most successful tool that the Lord gave us to transform our community with the power of Jesus Christ. If somebody is seeking to go into church planting, don't hesitate to step by faith. The Lord will provide everything that they need in order to support a project."
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention's church planting website is http://sbtexas.com/missions/church-planting.
Jane Rodgers is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.