ALCOA — Marcario Vasquez didn’t expect to meet Jesus at an informal dinner in a trailer park. In fact, he wasn’t even looking for Jesus. Turns out, he didn’t need to. Jesus was looking for him.
“I’ve never had much interest in religious things or reading the Bible or anything like that,” Vasquez said. “But it was obvious the things Esdras was saying were speaking to my heart.”
“Esdras” is Esdras Sunun, a landscaper by trade and a layman at Iglesia Bautista Jesucristo es El Camino (Jesus is the Way Baptist Church) in Alcoa. Sunun is part of his church’s efforts to implement 1-5-1 Harvest church plants, an initiative of the Tennessee Baptist Convention which is supported by the Cooperative Program. The strategy is for churches to intentionally move into their communities and find ways to connect for the purpose of starting a Bible study group.
“We are seeing literally hundreds of new Bible study groups planted in just the first eight months of this year,” said William Burton, ethnic church planting specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. “This isn’t just among the ethnic populations in our state. That’s all peoples. That’s what’s so exciting about what we are seeing through the 1-5-1 Harvest strategy. We are able to help equip churches to better understand how to connect beyond their walls.”
In the case of Jesucristo es El Camino Baptist Church, the church’s leadership has employed a dual strategy by offering opportunities at the church — such as a music academy that brings in several people who are engaged in a short Bible study — and then other emphases beyond the church’s walls such as community dinners, English as a Second Language classes, and other opportunities. The effort is bearing fruit. The church baptized nine new believers Aug. 10 and Burton said he weekly receives pictures from across Tennessee where multiple people are being baptized and were reached with the gospel beyond a church’s walls.
“Many of the people who come to a group will never come to the church,” said Victor Baez, pastor of Jesucristo es El Camino. “For various reasons that is something that they just won’t do, so through the 1-5-1 strategy we are taking church to them. We have a number of groups started around the Knoxville area and we train the leaders of those groups on Thursday nights, then they lead their groups with the ultimate intention of sharing the gospel.”
Sunun, 28, is one of those leaders. he came to America from Guatemala when he was 15. Although he grew up in a Christian home there, he wandered from his commitment to Christ once in America and out from under the guidance of his parents and church family — a problem many Hispanics experience when arriving in America and with new-found freedoms. However, Sunun eventually met Baez and became heavily involved in discipleship and the church. A deeper understanding of The Great Commission moved him to action.
“Jesus said to ‘Go’ out into the world, therefore that is what my family and I are trying to do,” he said. “We started a couple of years ago just inviting our neighbors in our trailer park over for friendship dinners. We’ve had more than 20 people — sometimes 30 when you add children — and we just spend time together out in the yard. We were able to have conversations with them and present the gospel. We didn’t have anyone come to Christ except Marcario and his wife, but we had those two and it certainly made it all worth it.”
Sunun baptized Vasquez Aug. 10 in a lake near Oak Ridge.
“I am so much more happy in my life now,” Vasquez said. “I would have never gone to a church — a lot of people won’t. There are various reasons for that but it is important to give people the chance to hear the gospel. Like my wife and me. We were just visiting some friends who were going to the dinner at Esdras’ house and we went too. Thanks be to God that we did. That’s where we met Jesus.”