'And we've just begun!': SW Detroit church opens new chapter as it marks 92 years
Ninety-two years after the First Latin American Baptist Church was founded, the congregation is opening yet a new chapter in a story that has spanned multiple generations and locations.
The church on Sunday marked its 92nd anniversary with a service attended by dozens that included prayers of thanks for a new activity center, testimonials from congregants about what the church has meant to them, and a sermon titled "Reasons for Joy in Christo" delivered by Rev. Jorge Altieri.
The service's program depicted a map of the three locations the church has occupied over the years, and a summary of its history. "92 years. And we've just begun!" proclaimed a banner hanging near the altar of the building the church moved into six years ago.
At that time, the congregation left behind its place of worship of more than 50 years, torn down to make way for the Gordie Howe International Bridge.
The Michigan Department of Transportation acquired the site at 6205 W. Fort St. through the state’s eminent domain.
The church was gifted another building at 2004 Scotten, however, it lacked the space for fellowship and community activities. So they decided to build an activity center next door.
On Saturday, the church celebrated the opening of its newly-constructed, 4,600-square-foot Victory Activity Center. The brightly lit building features a high vaulted ceiling, court with basketball hoops and a kitchenette.
“It's an important milestone in our in our journey,” said Pastor Kevin Casillas. “We lost a huge, beautiful building on Fort Street that we had used since 1960. The building included a gym and a large fellowship area, a large auditorium and all that was destroyed for the Gordie Howe Bridge. We were grateful to be able to find a location in southwest Detroit. That was a very important consideration for us in our move to remain in southwest Detroit where we were born as a congregation.”
First Latin American Baptist Church's roots date back to 1924, when Francisco Esquivel and his wife arrived in Detroit to visit relatives. "Seeing that there was no evangelistic or established work for Mexican Baptists, this family and a small group of believers became concerned and sought the support of the Woodward Avenue Baptist Church and the Baptist Missionary Association of Detroit," recounts a history printed on Sunday's program.
The mission became recognized as a church on Jan. 27, 1930, and was admitted into the American Baptist Association under the name "First Mexican Baptist Church of Detroit." The church — later renamed to what it is today — sold its building as the congregation grew, landing at Immanual Baptist Church on West Fort Street, where it remained until the Gordie Howe project forced it to relocate.
Maria Pierantozzi, 96, provided a video testimonial recalling growing up in the church in the 1930s. She recalled attending Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and picnics, playing the organ, and the constant singing from the children of the congregation: "We had fun. We had choir and we always sang."
Carol Ramos shared her experience with the church going back to the 1950s. She was invited into the church when she was a teenager, and attended from then on, becoming actively involved there. One of the pastors, she said, "saw in me something that I didn't even see in myself: He saw that I could serve the Lord."
Meanwhile, the church held a private gathering Saturday to honor community leaders and financial contributors. Mayor Mike Duggan and his wife, Dr. Sonia Hassan, attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Duggan congratulated the congregation. He was then joined by several youth for the ribbon cutting in front of one of the center's several large electric-powered doors.
"When the church needed to relocate, he could have gone anywhere," Duggan said of Pastor Casillas. "He said 'I'm staying in the city of Detroit' ... The recreation center is going to be a needed addition to this community."
Church member Alejandro Mendez, 28, said he waited in anticipation for the activity center to be completed. Mendez, his wife and their three children, ages 4, 9 and 10, have been members of the church for about a year and a half.
"I was excited," he said. "In the beginning it was a big (construction) mess, but it turned out really beautiful... It has a purpose. We're trying to get more people into sports... to keep them off the streets."
First Latin American Baptist first expanded its basement and then in 2020 began work to demolish a structure next door to build a steel structure activity center. The gym-like facility will host activities such as indoor sports activities like basketball, soccer and volleyball as well community meetings, receptions and cultural celebrations. Youth programs will take place 5:30-8 p.m. every Sunday night through the summer.
The center will serve as a tool to minister to the community, said Joseph Gutierrez, the church's head deacon as well as a member for 72 years, his entire life.
"Our intention is to dedicate this building and make it available to the community," he said. "And it's going to be an evangelistic tool for us to have outreach to the community, to open it up for the teenagers and the families. And that provides us an opportunity to evangelize to them and bring them to the knowledge of Jesus Christ."
The church on Sunday invited members of the public to an open house at the activity center to celebrate the 92nd anniversary.
The congregation relocated to 2004 Scotten Avenue after what Casillas said were intense negotiations with MDOT over the purchase price of the church on Fort Street.
Casillas did not say how much the settlement was, but that he was "we did have to fight to get more than double of the original offer." The church was represented by attorney Alan Ackerman.
The public bridge is expected to open in late 2024.