From Short-term Missionary to Church-planter in Puerto Rico

By Lou Irizarry

My mentor, pastor, and friend Ray Maldonado and I go way back to the 1990's when I was the youth pastor and church administrator at the then Humboldt Park Vineyard (now known as Urban Vineyard). By 2004, I was living in Tampa, Florida, and then speaking to Ray on the phone one day he mentioned that he was part of the Puerto Rico Partnership and was going on a mission trip. I quickly asked if I could go. His “Yes!” begins my story. To tell you the truth, I only wanted to go because I had never been to Puerto Rico and my father was from there.

Fast forward to February of 2005: I sat on the plane ready to land in Puerto Rico for my inaugural trip. And God spoke to me for the first time in Spanish. He said, "Mira a mi gente!"  Which means “look at my people.”  As I heard this, an overwhelming sense of his love for the people and His island poured over me.

On that trip we focused on helping the single La Viña (Vineyard) at that time, located in Mayaguez.  It was a great experience, and I fell in love with Puerto Rico.  I was hooked!  I have to admit, I was not hooked to move or live there, but to do short term missions trips on a regular basis.  I became part of the missions team lead by Ray for years to come. I missed only one trip from 2005 on.

Around 2012, Ray and I were talking about the next trip, and he mentioned we would be doing something different. This trip’s agenda would lead us to different cities on the island. The list of cities had been laid out by Marvin Suarez, pastor of La Viña de Mayaguez, as places he felt needed a La Vina church plant.  I was very excited, again not because of "the call," but rather seeing more of the island and seeing what God would do.

The idea was to visit a city, meet a “person of peace,” do some prayer walking, and see what God had to say about each city. When we visited Aguadilla, a 30-minute drive north of Mayaguez, I felt God stirring love within my heart for this particular city--more than any other city--but more than that, God began to pour out to me and my little team many words and much excitement of what He desired to do there.

As we gathered, getting ready to leave the city, I told God, "You need to find someone for this city, because it's great, and what You have for it is great!"

He said, "How about you?"

Oh, no, not again! I walked right into that one, and it was too late. I knew exactly what He wanted. I called my wife that night. When I told her, she didn't sound shocked.  She said, "It has to be God, because I know you don't want to move to Puerto Rico."

My wife Annie and some friends returned to Puerto Rico with me to assess the partnership and city’s needs with Marvin and Carmen. We did some prayer walking and scouting in Aguadilla. We were all hearing “Yeses.”

It took a while for us to settle some things in the States, and because of this I still visited Puerto Rico annually on Ray’s missions trips, plus Annie and I made some additional trips to pray.

February 2015 became my final trip with Ray. I bought a one-way ticket! Annie and our children, Julian and Savannah, joined me in June after I found us a place to live.

I was part of the Mayaguez church for over a year before starting a small group in Aguadilla. Due to the culture, we needed to have a Sunday service. Our first Aguadilla church plant service was in September of 2016, and what a joy it was to be joined by Ray and his missions team that day.

As of the writing of this piece, we have about 25 people and saw our first baptism this year. This church of people is very active in our community: working with public schools, food banks, and other community services. I'm praying to start a college ministry this year and a military ministry too.

I can't wait to see what God has in store next for Aguadilla and Puerto Rico.