Rick Martinez was lying in bed at a halfway house in West Philadelphia. A couple of days before, a Jehovah’s Witness man and a Muslim man debated with Martinez about bowing down before Jesus.
Martinez wasn’t even a Christian, arguing from what he’d heard as a child at his mother’s strict Pentecostal church. So when he said yes, he would bow down before Jesus, the two men laughed at him. They said you should never bow down to a man or a human prophet.
“I had the audacity to get into this conversation to try and prove a different Jesus that I didn’t know,” he said. “I didn’t have a foundation, and I didn’t really have a relationship with him. I only knew of what my mother had said long ago.”
His mom tried to influence all five Martinez kids in his childhood after a divorce when Rick Martinez was about five. But living in a tough neighborhood in North Philly pulled deep on Martinez.
“I wanted to be out in the streets like my older brother,” Martinez said. “He was kind of popular in the streets, and his name was respected.”
So, Martinez got involved in the drug life. First, he was in prison, then out again in a halfway house. Then, he debated how to respond if Jesus showed up.
It wasn’t a long wait
A few days after the conversation outside the halfway house, Martinez was alone in his room. He was lying on the bed when he sensed someone in the room with him.
He knew he’d locked the door. Still, he checked under the bed and in his closet.
“I knew I locked the door, and nobody’s in there,” he said. “[But] I feel like someone’s there.”
Within seconds, the man who had been discussing what to do in the presence of Jesus was bowing on his knees.
“When I sat on the edge of the bed, I felt a strong presence I know was him,” he said. “I ended up literally on my knees weeping and crying. Right in that moment, I felt like I was on the road to Damascus. It was that real for me.”
Martinez committed to the Lord there, on the floor. After that, he started going to church regularly. That’s where he met his wife, Lisette, who was already walking with Christ. They now have two daughters, one 18 who just finished high school and another who’s 13.
His church then was Pentecostal but not as strict as his childhood church. Over time, he has embraced more reformed theological pastors and teachers. Tim Keller, John Piper and R.C. Sproul are among his more recent influences.
Finding Converge and a path back to Philadelphia
While Martinez kept growing in his faith, he also went on a journey across part of America. He moved to Florida and served in youth ministry.
“Everything we needed, we had,” he said. “It was flourishing.”
But, coming back to Philadelphia in 2018 to start a church reminded him there are differences between church ministry in the south and a northern city. One of them is resources, as he said. But another one is recognizing there are a lot fewer churches. And churches in Philadelphia are often smaller.
“A church of 50 people in Philly is amazing,” he said. “Just coming over here, we had some expectations, and we got used to the culture in Florida.”
With their new opportunity and a new culture has also come the unique support and environment Converge creates. The Martinez family chose Converge and went through assessment to start a Converge church in Philadelphia.
How does Converge help new churches?
Part of what Converge does for new churches comes through the Launch Offering, a grant provided by the Converge Cornerstone Fund. The Cornerstone Fund is an investment opportunity for Christians and churches that simultaneously helps fund new churches.
That fund supplied Echo Church with $12,500 as a new ethnic congregation in a multi-cultural neighborhood.
Echo Church met in two locations in the early months, taking what was available to have a space for worship and discipleship. But those places weren’t working.
But the Cornerstone Fund made a massive difference to help them find and choose a truly functional space for the church’s needs.
“The Cornerstone Fund actually gave us the option to look for something that would help us serve the community we were in,” he said.
Compassion and conviction fuel Echo leaders
Pandemic restrictions on gatherings in Philadelphia prevented public gatherings for months. That meant Echo Church couldn’t meet in their new facility.
At the same time, some people in the new congregation had underlying conditions as well. As a result, Martinez said he and the church had conversations regularly about when it was wise and loving to meet.
“It was not about if they can tell us what to do,” he said. “It was more about believing they [health professionals] know what was best.”
So, Martinez and the team moved forward in faith and commitment to shift their new church online. They were trusting God they’d someday be in the building. But until then, they wanted to start and succeed in their mission of being the church of Christ in Philadelphia.
Martinez said they also purchased a boom microphone, lighting for video and a green screen to enable online worship and discipleship using the Cornerstone grant money.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s needed to use social media and do live streaming right and with excellence,” he said.
Now that they’re doing worship in their new building, Martinez said people have asked if they’d stop the live stream.
“Everybody’s on social media, so you don’t know who you might be able to bless and who might be able to bless you from a distance,” he said. “The grant definitely set us up for meeting in person and meeting online.”
Plus, the last of the grant went toward rent money, helping them meet in person after the restrictions were lifted.
“We have the location now, and we have practically everything we need,” he said.
While they were online, Martinez said he saw God at work, even for them as a new church. Being forced online was an opportunity where God drew more volunteers into the new ministry.
Both from outside North Philadelphia, two people made a one-year commitment to the new church, including one from Hawaii. They volunteered to be responsible for all the technical aspects of having an online ministry until next year.
“That’s a big deal and shows their commitment and creates some momentum,” he said. “I’m really excited about that.”
How is the message about Jesus echoing in Philadelphia?
Echo Church is so named because the truth about Jesus and the work of Jesus continues in the neighborhoods around the new community. Martinez wanted to generate the concept in people’s minds that Jesus originated a sound that continues to be heard throughout all of time and history.
When two people commit for a year, he and others hear the echo of Jesus, who is still building his church. When people watch on social media and relationships still get built, Christ’s grace and truth echo. When people gather on Facebook Live and still grow in the faith, the echo sounds forth, and new wine poured out from new wineskins.
It’s the same echo Martinez himself heard years ago, in a locked room beside a halfway house bed. Having bowed down to Jesus, Martinez is ready to help others do the same.
“Our mission is to echo the good news of Jesus, being a church every day to everyone,” he said. “Jesus is the original source and his life and words have been echoed throughout all of time and history. Into the future, it will keep being heard and experienced.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.