Jerry Ramirez admittedly finds it hard to say “no”—even to the prospect of building a community development ministry during a pandemic.
Regardless of challenges, Ramirez wants to serve Lubbock, a community he has called “home” since moving there more than two decades ago to become associate pastor of students and activities at Oakwood Baptist Church.
In 2007, Ramirez and his wife Lisa joined First Baptist Church in Lubbock. Shortly thereafter, when Buckner International entered into a collaborative venture with First Baptist Church, Ramirez became the congregation’s minister of missions and Buckner Initiatives.
In 2018, when the agreement with Buckner ended, Ramirez became the church’s minister of global initiatives, and he launched Serve Lubbock as a nonprofit community development ministry focused particularly on providing affordable housing.
At that point, he already was a volunteer chaplain with the Lubbock Police Department, served on the board of Lubbock Impact and had been chair of the City of Lubbock Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. He also serves on the executive board of Texas Baptist Men and Texas Christian Community Development Network.
“I don’t say ‘no’ very well,” he acknowledged.
Plans to provide transitional housing
First Baptist began the process of transferring 10 properties in the neighborhood surrounding the church campus to Serve Lubbock, including two vacant lots and “four red-tagged houses that need to be demolished,” Ramirez said.
Serve Lubbock dreams of providing transitional housing for at-risk families and individuals, charging them rent below market value until they are able to move into permanent homes.
“Change is slow, but we’ve got to begin somewhere,” Ramirez said.
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He hopes to work with Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits, allowing future homeowners to build “sweat equity” as they contribute labor to building their own homes.
“We’re working through the process,” he said, acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic slowed it in some respects.
Making adjustments, building relationships
Early last year, Ramirez planned to take a college group to New York City on a mission trip.
“We had the plane tickets in hand, and the ducks were all in the row,” he recalled. Then COVID-19 made the trip impossible.
So, he and his team redirected their attention, committing themselves to “serve our community and love people in our community—whatever that ended up looking like,” he said.
Ramirez found ways throughout the pandemic to build relationships in the community, in part by using a ministry tool the church developed a couple of years earlier for a different purpose.
A few months after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas Gulf Coast, First Baptist Church secured a disaster relief unit—a 20-foot trailer equipped with a tilt skillet and convection ovens to serve as a field kitchen.
So far, the TBM-trained volunteers at First Baptist haven’t used the trailer in the aftermath of a natural disaster. However, the unit has been utilized extensively in community ministry events throughout Lubbock and the surrounding area.
“We want to be present in our community with our trailer,” Ramirez said.
Prior to the pandemic, volunteers used the field kitchen to cook hot dogs and other treats for neighborhood block parties and at an annual community fishing event for children.
Serving health care workers during pandemic
Working in partnership with other TBM volunteers, members of the church helped serve 3,900 meals to frontline health care workers at the two largest hospitals in Lubbock, as well as employees at a rehabilitation facility.
“Our goal every day is to love as Christ loved,” Ramirez said.
When Lubbock public school students were unable to attend in-person classes, volunteers no longer could continue mentoring programs. However, First Baptist Church volunteers prepared snack packs for children in food-insecure households—more than 2,500 snack bags for students at eight schools in 2020.
On several occasions, volunteers from First Baptist also have served meals to teachers at outdoor appreciation lunches at neighborhood public schools.
Ramirez also led the church to make necessary adjustments in community ministries to protect the health and safety of everyone involved. For example, the annual Christmas store for families in need became a drive-through event.
“It’s a little weird wearing masks and wearing gloves when we’re packing stuff, but it’s still working together, and to see that week in and week out is pretty cool,” said Caleb Bender, a missions intern at First Baptist Church and student at South Plains College.
Meeting needs and showing love
Ramirez acknowledged volunteers missed the opportunity for extensive “one-on-one interaction” with people due to social distancing and other safety protocols, but they remained committed to meeting needs and showing love.
Liz Purser, a missions intern at First Baptist in Lubbock and student at Texas Tech University, noted she missed having the “personal connection with people I was serving,” particularly at big events such as feeding meals to frontline medical personnel. Even so, she gained a passion for working in missions and Christian community development.
“It’s a very fulfilling thing to serve,” she said, noting she hopes to continue to work in ministry after she graduates.
Since volunteers were unable to travel on a mission trip in 2020, the church redirected its resources to work in partnership with other ministries to send a container filled with 1 million meals to Belize.
Closer to home, First Baptist also worked in partnership with Lubbock Impact to serve 10,000 meals to individuals and families in need.
Once the pandemic ends, Ramirez looks forward to being able open the First Baptist Church facility as the host site for visiting mission groups who want to volunteer with Serve Lubbock.
And as increasing numbers of church members receive their vaccinations, more are returning to volunteer roles. In time, Ramirez hopes to put many of them to work with at-risk children and youth in low-income apartments—a ministry modeled after the programs Tillie Burgin has developed with Mission Arlington the last three and a half decades.
“Our people are ready to get back to a sense of normalcy in serving our community,” Ramirez said.
“We love people, and people know when we love them with authenticity—when they see that in our lives.”
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