By Lindsay Peyton
Before worship began, classic cars paraded out of the barn perched on an 18-acre piece of property located just north of 1-10, west of Mont Belvieu and Baytown. Parked temporarily in the grass were collectible trucks, Mustangs, GTOs and a Corvette, as the inside of the building transformed into a church.
It’s no ordinary garage, Rev. Luis Ramirez explained. Inside, there’s enough room for at least 200 people. There’s also a sound system, tv screen, lights for a laser show, a tiki bar and disco ball. “It’s a great event venue,” the pastor said.
Owners RD and Ginger Burnside are making the space available to members of a new faith community. For now, the group is going by the name United Methodists of Baytown and Mont Belvieu.
Once the church is chartered – and the congregation has more time to develop its own unique identity – a name will emerge. Ramirez will ask, “How do you want to be known? Who you are and what you represent should be your name.”
The first gathering, held on Jan. 15, was a potluck. “I just wanted it to be a time for people to meet, to celebrate and to eat together,”
121 people attended the first Sunday. “We were having church,” Ramirez said. “There was such a spirit in that group, and everybody felt it.”
He, too, could feel the love in the air. “I am so blessed, so privileged to be able to do this,” he said.
Ramirez has been a pastor for years – and has started new churches before. “But in so many ways, this is different,” he said. “It’s a traditional church, but it’s also a new church. It’s a plant, but it’s also a merger. And there’s something new and refreshing about it, something I’ve never done before.”
For the past two years, Ramirez served as pastor of Cedar Bayou Grace UMC. The congregation voted to disaffiliate last October.
For Ramirez, however, leaving the denomination was never a question. “From day one, I knew I wanted to stay United Methodist,” he said.
All of the other nearby churches were disaffiliating, Ramirez said. Parishioners who wanted to remain United Methodist would call him, knowing that he had opted to remain with the denomination.
Individuals phoned from from Crosby, Dayton, Pearland, Baytown and Mt. Belvieu, some even as far away as Kingwood. Ramirez offered to listen and pray with them.
Ramirez was committed to pastoring his own congregation until it officially disaffiliated from the UMC. “I wanted to honor Cedar Bayou Grace and make sure they were in the best place possible for their new pastor,” Ramirez said.
In the meantime, District Superintendent Dr. Vincent Harris and Morris Matthis, the Texas Annual Conference’s Director of New Faith Communities, were brainstorming. Matthis called Ramirez, and said, “We would like you to start a new church in Baytown.”
“The answer was yes,” Ramirez recalled. “I was excited about it. This was a special calling for me.”
Individuals who felt displaced had already started a Facebook group called “Abide.” It was a place to connect, to commiserate and to share grief. “There was a sense of abiding, of waiting and being patient,” Ramirez said.
These members would become the core of a new community, starting Jan. 1. First, Ramirez and his family had to move from the Cedar Grace Bayou parsonage, then find a new home and make the move.
He was still in boxes, as plans for the new faith community began to percolate. First, a website was created for the United Methodists of Baytown and Mont Belvieu. People started transferring their memberships from disaffiliating churches.
There are people from all backgrounds who have joined. “It’s multigenerational,” Ramirez said. “It’s people of different races, some are liberal and some more conservative.”
And that excites the pastor. “The church is not about similarities; it’s about being united,” he said. “When we disagree, yet love each other, that’s the witness of Christ.”
Already youth are getting involved. A choir has also started to form. Ramirez said he expected maybe five people to join, and instead 20 signed up for the first rehearsal.
The first few meetings of the United Methodists of Baytown and Mont Belvieu were dedicated to deciding on essential ministries. Ramirez explained that reaching children and youth had to be at the root of the congregation, as well as committing to outreach and mission.
“There are 100 different ministries,” he said. “We can accomplish all of them, but first we need to start with the essentials.”
Then, the first official worship was held on Feb. 5 with 112 people attending. Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey is scheduled to visit on Feb. 12 and will help bring in new members. Connecting with the Bishop and District Superintendent is important to Ramirez. “The congregation needs to see them as their pastors too, with spiritual authority and grace,” he said.
Ramirez explained there will be a time for healing, building relationships and laying the foundation of the new church. “In the near future, we will ask how God is calling us, what we are going to do,” the pastor said. “There’s nothing more healing than reaching out to other people who need Christ.”
Ramirez said that stepping up to the challenges of building this new faith community is strengthening his own faith.
“Yes we have a challenge ahead,” he said. “But the measure of grace and joy is equal to the challenge. With it came 121 people ready to put their hands on the plow and not look back. In that case, I’ll take the challenge any day.”