From Texas church plant to the Dominican Republic

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Jonathan Autrey was 7 years old when his parents took a vacation to the Dominican Republic. At least that’s what he thought it was. When they returned, his mother showed him pictures of their trip. He saw tin houses and poverty. He couldn’t understand why his parents went there. That’s when his mom hit him with the news they’d be moving there. "God is calling us here," she said.

The news was life shattering. He cried and was angry. Jonathan and his brother left their school, church and grandmother for a country of people they couldn’t understand. The school they attended in the Dominican Republic was taught in English. People were friendly, but it was scary when they tried to hug you. They had no friends, except for Tico.

Tico was different from the other kids Jonathan went to school with. He wasn’t always the best dressed–his mother was a maid. But it didn’t matter. He played with Jonathan and his brother. He was the only one who would accept them. Two years after becoming friends, a family called and told Jonathan’s family to pray. Tico had fallen five flights from an apartment building. They later learned he died as a result of his injuries.

This pushed 10-year-old Jonathan to the edge. He didn’t want to stay in the Dominican Republic. As soon as he was old enough, he was leaving to go live with his grandmother. God had taken away his only friend. While he argued with God, he started thinking about Tico and how scared he must have felt.

“Then the most incredible feeling came over me. For the two years I had known him, I had not told him about Jesus Christ. It was because I didn’t speak Spanish. As I child I always told my friends about Jesus, because I could not fathom them not going to heaven,” Jonathan said. “A lightbulb went on. I knew why my parents were there. God changed my heart in an instant.”

From Texas on a whim

In 2010 Church of Celebration Metro (Aubrey, Texas) pastor Brad Wilkerson got a call from a missionary he supported who wanted to take him on a trip to the Dominican Republic. The missionary had three spots left to fill, so Brad went on a whim. When he arrived in Santo Domingo, he met Jonathan, who was leading the group.

“What I saw broke my heart… the people and the poverty,” Brad said. “I fell in love with Jonathan and his wife Jeanine. We became friends.”

After Wilkerson returned to Texas, he immediately started to develop a trip for teens. A group went back to serve again, helping Jonathan with vacation Bible school and services. They played sports with the kids and hosted Bible studies. It was easy for Wilkerson’s church to get involved. He had built missions DNA into his church.

“From day one you need to go into a new church with the mindset of the Great Commission,” he said. “You don’t exist for yourself. In the second year of our church’s existence we started a missions program and grew our projects from there.”

Together is better

Jonathan was helping lead short-term missions trips while his dad took a year off in the States. When he met Brad something clicked.

“I saw someone who was so sincere and concerned,” Jonathan said. “Brad has such a heart for missions. He sought me out and wanted to help me in any way he could.”

The two stayed in close contact as Brad’s church continued to take trips to the Dominican Republic three times a year. In February 2015, Jonathan sensed God was calling him to step out of the ministry he had been a part of for more than 25 years. He recognized the need for a church in Veron, a small city on the coast near the popular resort destination, Punta Cana. The Dominican Republic had been through a recession and the resorts had jobs. Jonathan knew Christians who moved there for work. They drove two hours one way into Santo Domingo for church.

“This area is just thriving,” Jonathan said. “I saw some churches, but no one is preaching a clear gospel message. Many churches teach salvation through works and not through grace. So we moved to start a church in a place where I didn’t know anyone.”

When Jonathan and Jeanine came to the States in February 2015, Brad had Jonathan cast his vision for his church. He also participated in Converge Southwest training and was welcomed into the group of pastors. Church of Celebration Metro decided to officially launch Iglesia Bautista Celebracion in November 2015. With coaching, training and financial support, Jonathan was welcomed into the Converge family all the way from the Dominican Republic.

“It’s so easy for us to feel alone on the field,” Jonathan said. “I’ve never had anyone in my corner like this before. It’s overwhelming. We see the need and live on the field every day and it’s hard without a relationship like this.”

Brad and his leadership team visited in November to see what Jonathan was up to. Jonathan had rented a storefront for his church, which he started by inviting people he met at the supermarket. Forty people were already gathering there every Sunday. Just a few months later, Jonathan is already out of space with an average of 60 to 70 attendees every week. The future of Veron is bright–Jonathan teaches grace, love and that Jesus changes everything. Brad says on just one trip they saw 30 people give their lives to Christ. He stresses that any church–no matter the agecan find a country to invest in.

“We didn’t have the money for this,” Brad said. “Looking back, we had no idea this would ever happen. Find a country. Find a place to invest. Find a missionary to connect with. We took steps of faith and followed God.”

    Point - Fall 2017

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