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February 1, 2012

Press Photo

BCF students Dorothy Carter and Jennifer Billings brave the weather to greet morning commuters and hand out flyers.

In January, even the Sunshine State can be chilly. Add a damp drizzle and 20 mile per hour winds to the mix, and it can be downright cold. Stand at the base of the Pensacola Bay Bridge at dawn in those conditions, and the word "frigid" comes to mind. But even the extreme conditions could not dampen the spirit of sixteen of The Baptist College of Florida (BCF) students working with a new church start in the Pensacola area.

Each January, BCF and the Florida Baptist Convention partner together to sponsor a church planting practicum somewhere in the state. This year, the hands-on opportunity took them to the Gulf Breeze area of the Panhandle to assist pastor Gabriel Vargas with Iglesia Mision Casa, a Hispanic congregation meeting on the campus of the city's First Baptist Church. "There are approximately 7000 Hispanics living between Navarre and Pensacola," Pastor Vargas noted. "And they need a church to call their own."

Vargas and his family began the work in August, meeting in Gulf Breeze because of its central location among those he is trying to reach. But the work has been difficult. "We are aiming at a moving target," the pastor explained. "The Hispanic population is spread out, and many families are moving in and out of the area." Besides the difficulties with his target group, Vargas is a bi-vocational pastor who works full time for a satellite TV company. Both his time and his patience were running thin when BCF Missions Professor Rich Elligson offered a team of students for a week. An elated Vargas jumped at the opportunity and a joint venture was birthed.

From the first day, the project promised to be an interesting experience. "I could tell it was going to be a challenge for our students," Elligson explained. "The activities planned were basically outside activities, and the weather forecast was not encouraging. Add to that the language barrier and the team's relative lack of cross-cultural experience, and I wasn't sure what to expect. But I shouldn't have worried. As usual, our BCF students rose to every challenge."

The week began by promoting the new church to those commuting around the area. Team members bundled up in their warm clothes and headed to the bridge to hold signs advertising the church and hand out flyers to passing motorists. "It seemed kind of pointless at first," confessed History/Social Studies major Tyler Hildebran. "But when I saw the number of cars that cross that bridge during rush hour twice a day, I realized it was actually a pretty good idea." Those cars contained people; lots of people. Some waved, some honked, a few scowled. But everybody noticed the students and the signs, and that was the plan.

After the morning rush hour, the students loaded onto the bus to explore the surrounding communities. Flyers were handed out in apartment complexes, housing communities, trailer parks, and Latino stores. When doors opened, the students shared the good news of Christ and invited people to Mision Casa. By evening rush hour, the team was back at the bridge, this time with signs spread out in sequence: "Have a rough day?" "Tired? Frustrated? Need prayer?" The final sign advertised "Free Prayer" and directed cars to a parking lot where sympathetic students awaited.

As evening came, the cold temperatures and biting wind returned. "Dr. Elligson told us we needed to be flexible," Missions major Brett Lamberth joked. "But how can you be flexible when you are frozen stiff?" Again, the team wondered if the signs would be effective. It appeared that a thousand cars passed by, but only one stopped.

Millie was a mother of two who had moved to the area some months before to escape a bad marriage and a bad school system. Now she faced a lay-off, and was bitterly discouraged. She saw the signs during the morning commute and hoped the young people manning the signs would be back that evening. She stated that she needed all the "free prayer" she could get. As the group embraced her, they prayed for her, her family and her future. Millie gave everybody a hug, thanked them profusely and drove off. It was a gratifying and humbling experience, the group agreed.

"I guess Millie was our wandering sheep among the thousands," Lamberth quipped. The experience reminded the team of what Jesus said in Matthew 18, "If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off."

The activities for the rest of the week included a movie night, manning a flea market booth, and staging a one day Vacation Bible School, all aimed at the Hispanic community. The project culminated with a worship service together with the members of Mision Casa.

"Overall, it was a great project," Elligson noted. "It combined all the elements we like to see: a challenging setting, the opportunity to do real and significant ministry, contribution to the formation of a new church, the blessing of encouraging one of God's choice workers and his family, and enough surprises to remind us that God is still in control."

Press Photo

BCF students promote the new church at the flea market.