The Rev. Hugo Oropeza insists that being a pastor wasn't what he planned to do with his life.
“It wasn't my station at all,” he said.
But now, 15 years later, Oropeza is the pastor of a thriving church that's working hard to provide guidance for the local Hispanic community.
“My mission is to see a positive influence from the Latinos in this community,” he said.
He also stresses that his church was not born of division as many churches are — breaking away from another church, often over theological or ideological differences — the Primera Iglesia Hispana de LaGrange “was born of God's heart.”
Evangelist the Rev. Tom Owensby from LaGrange's Rosemont Baptist Church created the spark that led to the church's founding. He'd been preaching in Toluca, Mexico, and issued a challenge for the Mexicans to send a mission to the Hispanic community in LaGrange.
The arrival of the missionaries coincided with the end of the Oropezas' — Hugo and his wife, Sandy — work with Freedom Sound Ministry, a LaGrange-based music ministry led by Rev. Frank Gonzales. Coming just a day after their contract with Freedom Sound ended and with the support of Rosemont Baptist, the Oropezas immediately set to work organizing a ministry for the LaGrange Hispanic community.
The Hispanic community in Troup County has grown tremendously in the last 15 years to nearly 3,000 people. And the First Hispanic Church reaches out to help them in matters both spiritual and worldly.
Originally meeting in the Rosemont Baptist gymnasium, the church now meets in the old, Romanesque Revival styled Unity Methodist Church building on Truitt Avenue near the old Unity Mill.
“We support Latinos within the community by providing programs to help people here,” Oropeza said. Because some Hispanics are undocumented they cannot obtain drivers licenses, therefore “one outreach is transportation.”
Another program aids the transition into American culture by introducing Hispanics to the American law system and the English language. Church programs also help with addiction rehabilitation and domestic violence.
“My concern as a pastor is to guide the transition from culture to culture,” he said.
The transitions in Oropeza's life are just as interesting. Raised a Catholic in predominantly Roman Catholic Mexico, Oropeza experienced a crisis of existentialism at the age of 8.
“When I was 8, someone died in my family,” he begins. The stolid, traditional Catholic funeral service with its candles and chanting bothered him. “It was a scary experience. I approached my mother and asked, 'will that happen to everyone?'” Her affirmation that everyone would die disconcerted him for a few years. “When I would think of it, I would get so, so sad.”
At the age of 13 when a friend invited him to a church service, “I heard the Gospel and received Jesus into my heart,” Oropeza said.
Eventually, he connected with the music ministry of the Rev. Frank Gonzales based in LaGrange, and that's what brought him and his wife to the city, where they found themselves ministering to the Latino community.
While working in LaGrange to create strong ties within the Hispanic community, Oropeza works to create cross-cultural connections between the different communities here and he and his church are also working to strengthen the bonds between LaGrange and the world.
Recently, the church sent a mission to Mexico that covered nine Mexican states in 18 days.
“We ministered to 300 souls and brought about 60 people to Christ,” he said.
Oropeza emphasizes that “even though we are a small church, we have a strong conviction about the Lord.”
“God had a plan for this community, for His Glory and this church was born of God's heart,” he said proudly.