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A Bittersweet Journey

Florida church planters’ vision born in grief becomes a message of hope.

Ask Pastors J.J. and Liz Vasquez to define the word journey, and their answers wend an odyssey beginning with bittersweet personal loss and arriving at the intersection of ministerial vision and hope for the lost.

They named their newborn son Journey, whispering the word in his ear with love and prayers for the seven hours he lived on July 30, 2015. Those seven hours defied doctors, who six months earlier advised abortion due to heart and kidney problems they said would cause the baby to die in the womb within weeks.

A sympathetic nurse told the Vasquez family they were embarking on a journey when they elected not to terminate the pregnancy after hearing that dark prognosis.

But for J.J., Liz, and their older two sons, Justice, now 4, and Zane, 3, the journey didn’t end with Journey Joseph Vasquez’s last breath.

In 2014, the then-youth pastor of South Orlando’s Iglesia El Calvario, and former district youth director for the AG’s Florida Multicultural District, felt called to plant a church in suburban Winter Park, Florida. Journey’s sojourn began as he and Liz, a full partner in the dream, worked to raise financial support, recruit a founding corps of Christians, and locate a place to meet. As an AGTrust Matching Fund church, they went through Launch training to receive funds.

The Vasquezes incorporated their new church and chose a name, originally Hope Story Church. Then came Journey, and just as importantly, miracles minor and major in the lives of those he touched.

“When Journey died, everything changed,” recalls J.J., 30. “We were no longer the same. What we didn’t expect was that other people would never be the same.”

For instance, J.J. notes that a single mother expecting her fourth child decided against having a planned abortion after reading Journey’s story on Facebook.

“People fighting through sickness wrote that even though Journey had died, his life encouraged them that their healing was on the way,” J.J. says.

So, the Vasquezes changed the name of the new plant to Journey Church. But J.J. says the nascent congregation, which will hold its inaugural service Sunday, isn’t so designated because of his lost son.

“It is named for the journey we are all on, and that God can take the worst things, the ugliest things in our lives, and turn them into something great,” says J.J., who holds a master’s degree in ministerial leadership from Southeastern Assemblies of God University and a master’s in divinity from Southwestern Assemblies of God University.

Journey Church, part of the AG Church Multiplication Network’s record 75 launches this month, begins with about 80 mostly Hispanic supporters. J.J. is hoping for hundreds of visitors to attend the first service Sunday inside a refurbished, century-old one-time high school. He hopes the congregation will grow quickly in ethnic, socioeconomic, and generational diversity by attracting attendees from the increasing segment of society without any religious affiliation.

“In the past, without meaning to be, the Church has almost been designed for the ‘insider,’ ” J.J. says. “We want to empathize with that outsider, to explain love and hope to someone who has no church background.”

During a year of prelaunch outreach, Journey Church has held numerous “interest socials,” renting out a coffee shop for an evening and inviting passersby inside for a free cup.

“Some would come in, get their coffee, and leave,” says J.J., author of Hello God: How to Grow Your Ministry and Get Your Kids to Heaven. “But some came in and listened as we shared faith.”

Fifteen of those helping plant the new fellowship became Christians through that outreach. Others committed through the Vasquezes’ Facebook page, J.J.’s blog, or after hearing them explain their vision while gaining financial support from other congregations throughout central Florida.

So, while the journey begins for a new fellowship, there always will be the treasured memory of a baby boy named Journey.

“You have forever changed my life,” Liz wrote in those tough days after her son died, when grief was still raw, the wounds still tender. “I promise I will continue on the JOURNEY of faith and hope that you started me on. Goodbye for now baby, can’t wait to see you again in Heaven.”

Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.