Mission to Puerto Rico
December 14, 2013
Rev. Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick (M.Div. '96, D.Min. '06)
Joe and his wife Beverly, together with their three children, are Mission to the World missionaries in Puerto Rico where Joe teaches Old Testament and pastoral counseling at various seminaries.
After teaching national church leaders for six years at a Presbyterian seminary just south of Manila in the Philippines, they were invited to teach at a Reformed seminary in Puerto Rico, the homeland of Joe’s mother. Unexpectedly, the seminary closed after a year in order to reorganize with the help of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. At that time, a Puerto Rican OPC pastor with about four decades of pastoral experience suggested that Joe consider ministering to the large Pentecostal community in order to truly impact the culture. Through a number of connections, the Lord opened up opportunities for Joe to teach in Pentecostal church-based training centers. From there, opportunities arose to teach at three strategic Pentecostal seminaries, some of which host international students.
Joe says, “Bev and I marvel at what God has done to bring all this to pass. We thank the Lord for enabling me to earn both an M.Div and D.Min in pastoral counseling from Westminster. Second, we thank God for every church and individual he has raised, to not only support us, but to pray for us. Through their prayers, God has opened the door for us to come alongside the Pentecostal church, whom God is using to plant churches all over the world. Take the Movimiento Misionero Mundial (Worldwide Missionary Movement) as an example. Fifty years ago, God led a Puerto Rican pastor, his wife, and another couple to pray for a church planting movement. Since then, they have planted about 50 churches here in Puerto Rico. On the missionary front, however, about 8,000 workers have planted 6,000 congregations in 60 countries; and God has me teaching at their international base, which is only about four miles from our home! At this point, their leaders recognize that they need to theologically equip their workers to solidify what they have done. Following Westminster’s lead, I come alongside Puerto Rico’s national church leaders the way that my professors served me. We are learning together.”
Joe continues, “To appreciate the host culture to which we are contextualizing the gospel, one must bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of the island is dispensational. Many pastors have told me that they were taught to see the Old Testament as a loose confederation of stories that really have no relevance in the life of the New Testament saint. The OT was about law and the NT is about grace. In our OT courses, however, they see in Scripture that all of God’s sacred Word has Christ crucified and resurrected as its content and focus. My first semester students are always pleasantly surprised to see that every one of God’s OT covenantal promises (both blessings and curses) find their endpoint in Jesus, the heir of every OT promise.”
Dr. Fitzpatrick teaching class in Puerto Rico
Joe has found that one source that the national church leaders love is the Spanish version of Tim Keller’s Prodigal God. He shares, “After watching the DVD in one class, a woman was weeping saying that she was the older brother toward her wayward son who had been in and out of jail. She realized that her self-righteous attitude had driven him away. On another occasion, a former student was visiting a local church, and he heard the preacher speaking about how the older brother was just as lost as the younger. After the service, he went up to the preacher and asked him ‘Did you have Fitzpatrick as a Prof?’ to which he replied, ‘Yes!’ And the student replied, ‘So did I!’ It has been really great to see how students are grasping the message of the Gospel and how they are taking the message to their churches, radio and TV programs. Every Thursday morning I go to one seminary to teach a pastoral counseling course. Since the second week of class, the maintenance man approaches me weekly to buy more copies of Prodigal God, which he subsequently puts in the hands of church leaders studying at the seminary!”
Joe has appreciated the opportunity God has given him to come alongside students and help them to wrestle through Scripture. “Although the students don’t agree with all my exegesis, and occasionally we have lively discussions, they respect the fact that everything I say comes out of a Christ-centered view of Scripture. Each semester, mutual respect quickly turns to Christian love.” Beverly adds, “When I see Joe dealing with these issues, my own confidence in Scripture is built up. It shows me once again that Scripture is big enough to deal with these questions that the students have. And it can provide what they need to bring to their congregations. For example, one pastor had a congregant approach him about his abusive father. The pastor said that prior to Joe’s counseling course he would have simply referred him to social services. However, as he probed further, the youth started crying, pulling out a knife to show him, saying that he had contemplated killing his dad. This pastor was able to enter in and start looking at how the gospel can change this situation.”
Joe and Bev described the challenges of ministry in Puerto Rico. Beverly noted, “Despite the natural beauty and festive culture, there are economic challenges here – the cost of living is high but salaries aren’t. Unemployment here is twice as high as on the mainland. People are leaving since they can get paid much more in the US for the same job. We’re seeing a rise in drug-related violence. But at the same time, we see God at work here – students and friends are ministering to the homeless, prisoners, and youth, and there is a PCA church plant here in San Juan. Our ministry is just part of the larger work that God is doing in Puerto Rico.”
Please join with us in praying for the ministry of the Fitzpatricks, as well as the ministries of other Westminster alumni serving around the world.