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At 87½, Manuel De Jesús Cruz, senior pastor of Bethel Spanish Pentecostal Church in Lakewood, New Jersey, has no notions of retirement.
In fact, the church just plunked down $790,000 for 23 acres to build a new facility. That’s $790,000 in cash, which is quite an accomplishment considering the congregation couldn’t even raise $3,000 for roof repairs when Cruz arrived as pastor 29 years ago.
Of course, Cruz took over the church when only 18 people attended. Now 750 show up every Sunday.
Cruz eagerly accepted the pastoral job that nobody else wanted, three years after immigrating to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic, Cruz served as superintendent of the Assemblies of God. When he arrived in the U.S., he went to work in a factory.
The pastoral opening seemed fraught with warning signs: the church met in a dangerous high-crime area. A split had left the congregation reeling, with only a few attendees remaining. The building itself had crumbled to the point where the county threatened to condemn the structure unless repairs began immediately.
Cruz figured the church roof could be fixed first, and that good faith effort would stave off governmental action. An estimate for the refurbishing came to $3,500.
“For us that was a huge amount,” Cruz recalls. “We didn’t have anything.”
So, Cruz asked the Spanish Eastern District for a loan. The office agreed to lend $3,000. Somehow, the congregants raised $500 among themselves for the rest.
Bit by bit the church made necessary renovations, and the congregation grew.
“People evangelized, discipled new believers, and did community outreaches,” Cruz says.
Today, 17 Hispanic nationalities are represented at Bethel Spanish Pentecostal Church. Most are from Mexico, with many being poor immigrants.
Cruz can relate. In the 1980s he wanted to move to the U.S. for a better life for his children. Larry Cederblom, then a missionary to the Dominican Republic with Assemblies of God World Missions, aided his cause.
Now, Cruz, Candida, his wife of nearly 60 years, their five daughters, three sons, 25 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren all live in the U.S. Cruz says all his children are serving the Lord.
Firstborn Rodys Morales is the full-time ordained associate pastor at Bethel Spanish Pentecostal Church. For the past 15 years, Morales has counseled, preached, and taught. She estimates three-fourths of the congregation are Spanish-only speakers.
Her 44-year-old brother Isaac S. Cruz is pastor of Iglesia Bethel Pentecostal in Lakewood, one of three Parent Affiliate Churches that Bethel Spanish Pentecostal Church has started.
Manuel, who is still spry, says he will stay in the pulpit until his dying day. He preaches thrice some Sundays — at Sunday School, the regular service, and at one of the daughter congregations.
“The Lord provides the energy,” Cruz says.
As soon as the county government approves permits, construction will begin on a new building only a block away from the existing location. Cruz anticipates the new sanctuary will seat 1,200.
The ministry efforts Cruz has exerted in the past three decades are a blessing, according to Manuel A. Álvarez, superintendent of the Spanish Eastern District.
“He’s hungered for winning souls for the Kingdom,” says Álvarez, 58. “He took a dying church that was in pieces and didn’t care what it looked like. Now there is a strong church, and he’s still building.”
IMAGE - Manuel A. Álvarez (left) is impressed with the energy of Manuel De Jesús Cruz.