New London's Church of the City to welcome new pastor
New London — In the days and weeks after Hurricane Maria struck and devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, the Rev. Jesus Garcia did what he had been doing throughout his career with the church: he jumped in and provided whatever aid he could for his community.
Carolina, Puerto Rico, was his community. It’s where he lived with his wife and two children and where he was serving as senior pastor at Iglesia Bautista de Metropolis, the same church he had attended as a child.
Garcia experienced the hurricane together with local residents and spent his time organizing the effort to rebuild, leading hundreds of volunteers to help clear debris, repair homes and distribute food and essential supplies to hard-hit areas. Most people in the area went weeks without power.
“I was raised in that community. I’m always in the community more than in my office,” Garcia said. “I want to be immersed. It’s the only way of knowing the needs of the people and being effective. It’s what the church does, help and serve.”
Now the 47-year-old has left Puerto Rico and brought his community-minded spirit to New London, where he will lead the Church of the City, a Baptist church that, like his former church in Puerto Rico, shares an affiliation with the American Baptist Churches USA.
Garcia, who served at his church in Puerto Rico since 1997, officially will be installed at 11 a.m. Sunday as the new lead pastor at Church of the City during a ceremony at its 250 State St. home. Garcia is taking over the duties of retiring lead pastor the Rev. Daniel Martino.
Martino, 61, led the church for the past 21 years, starting when the church was known as the Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de New London, or First Hispanic Baptist Church. The church’s first home was in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, but it later constructed a new larger home on Redden Avenue in 2002.
The church flourished under Martino's leadership and quickly outgrew the Redden Avenue space. At the same time, numbers were dwindling at the First Baptist Church, and the two decided on a merger in 2012. The First Hispanic Baptist Church took over First Baptist Church’s State Street location and purchased the adjacent Bank of America building.
That's when the church became Church of the City, which continues to offer both Spanish and English services. Garcia is expected to lead Spanish services, while Pastor Antonio Vargas Jr. continues to lead English services.
Martino said a church committee unanimously chose Garcia as the right person for the job and he wholeheartedly agrees with the choice.
“He’s dynamic. He’s likable. He's a people-oriented person and he's experienced. Pastor Jesus Garcia is a champion when it comes to community engagement. He’s good,” Martino said. “He’s not like me but we have a lot of similarities.”
The two shared a few laughs talking about each other in a recent joint interview.
“I use a tie; he doesn’t,” Martino said.
“He isn’t using a tie now because I’m here, but he usually uses a tie. I think he was born with a tie," Garcia said. "I don't use a tie. They‘re trying to push me, so we’re working on that.”
Garcia joins a church with strong foundations in the community and also one seeking to expand its presence while adapting, like other churches, to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think one challenge of the church is getting back to normal after the pandemic,” Garcia said. “A lot of people stay in their houses. That pushed more churches, including this one, to go online.”
Martino said the virtual services offered by the church are likely here to stay.
Garcia, who has a bachelor's degree in social work and a master’s degree in divinity, is a lifelong resident of Puerto Rico and has visited but never lived in the States. One notable visit to the States came in 2005, when he led more than two dozen volunteers to Louisiana to help communities suffering from the impact of Hurricane Katrina.
He will be in New London for a time without his family. His wife, Bethzaida Perez, is finishing her master’s degree in social work in Puerto Rico. His two kids, Fabian and Alejandro, are both in college, one in the States and the other in Puerto Rico.
For the time being, the church community is his family.
“It has been awesome, very welcoming," Garcia said of the support he's received. "I’m very grateful.”
"One of the things that attracted me to this church is the vision. I don't have to invent everything," he said. "This church wants to keep working with the community. That’s a match for my strengths.”