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Beyond the Walls: Opening Eyes and Hearts

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Despite Christianity’s statistical decline in America, churches on mission are finding creative ways to facilitate gospel transformation in their cities. Here, we share the stories of three churches that are spreading the gospel directly and indirectly in their spheres of influence, using holistic ministry initiatives and evangelistic strategies to bring about true, lasting change in the people of their communities.

Opening Eyes and Hearts
First Baptist Church of Aurora Serves the Diverse Denver Community With Eyeglass Clinics

Located fewer than seven miles east of downtown Denver, First Baptist Church of Aurora (FBC) has existed for more than 65 years at the heart of a community that has been rapidly diversifying. Until the ’80s and ’90s, the area and the congregation had been predominantly white, serving three nearby military bases, two of which have since closed. Today on any given Sunday, the church hosts members from 26 different nations.

“The nearest elementary school to our building is called Crawford Elementary,” says Senior Pastor Rico Gutierrez. “And of course, as a school, it’s a good representation of the community. They have 32 nations represented in that school. So that means we’re off by just six nations.”

FBC itself is actually a collection of six individual congregations, called “ministry partners,” each representing a people and language group: a Spanish-speaking group, a Swahili-speaking group, a Filipino-speaking group and three Burmese-speaking groups. Although each group has its own leaders, Gutierrez is the administrator of the six congregations, which all fall under the umbrella of FBC Aurora.

“It’s kind of a dance,” Gutierrez says. “Every part of the church, every part of the building is being used by a group at one time during a Sunday. For example, if someone has Sunday school, then the others have their main service. And then one comes in, one goes out. So through the years, we’ve learned how to dance together.”

As part of their diverse reach, Gutierrez and his team have carried out a ministry that meets a critical need in the neighborhood. Members of the community, some as young as 8 and others as old as 80, gather at FBC or another location, like an apartment complex, to undergo eye exams, get assigned prescription numbers and receive a pair of glasses—and it’s all completely free.

“We’re nearing the 1,000 mark of people we’ve served in the last four years,” Gutierrez says. “One of the great things that we’ve discovered is that doing eyeglass clinics is a visible way of sharing Jesus’ love to the community.”

Many of the participants are immigrants, including a large number of refugees who come from countries where ophthalmology services are scarce.

“We’ve encountered people whose eyes are really bad, who are half-blind or have glaucoma and other advanced eye diseases,” Gutierrez says. “So for the very first time, they’re being diagnosed through our clinics.”

The ministry began as a partnership with a fellow Southern Baptist church, First Baptist Church Arnold in the St. Louis area, which had already been hosting eyeglass clinics for several years. Like Gutierrez’s church, FBC Arnold is located in an area with a high refugee population. Four years ago, Gutierrez reached out to FBC Arnold’s staff to ask about expanding the ministry to the Denver area.

Since then, FBC Arnold has sent several volunteers, including an ophthalmologist, to Aurora for each clinic. Gutierrez and his team promote the clinics by putting up signs on the church lawn and encouraging partner organizations—an elementary school, an African-community coalition, apartment complexes and area churches—to spread the word in the community. Since launching the clinics, Gutierrez says it hasn’t been difficult to find willing partners, both Christian and secular.

“One of the things I’ve discovered is that, as we reach our community here in Aurora,” Gutierrez says, “there are other churches and government agencies and organizations that look for opportunities like this to meet a very real need in the communities they’re trying to reach.”

FBC Aurora has an ongoing drive for prescription and reading glasses, and the team from Missouri also brings several boxes of new glasses they receive from Oasis International, a refugee-services organization. Before each clinic, the glasses are organized into bags and labeled for easy distribution.

During the clinic, volunteers measure participants’ visual acuity with an E chart and then determine what type of glasses they need. Those who require prescription glasses go through a second screening, in which a machine examines their eyes and matches them to a pair of glasses in the clinic’s inventory.

“We like to have three or four options for them to pick from,” Gutierrez says. “At the end of the day, everyone goes home with a pair of eyeglasses that they need.”

In addition to the volunteers FBC Arnold provides, Gutierrez enlists volunteers of his own, and a total of 20 to 30 adults serve at the clinics, helping with setup and teardown, assisting in the exams and ministering to the people who are waiting to receive their glasses. Many participants hear the gospel and go home with Bibles in their own language.

“We’ve held the clinic at places where we’re explicitly told that we cannot share the gospel, but they tell us that if people ask, then we can,” Gutierrez says. “And we’ve done it. We’ve given out gospel tracts. We’ve prayed with people who ask. We are intentional. We want people to know Jesus. And so whenever we’re given the opportunity, that’s what we do.”

Because of the refugee presence, it’s not unusual for Muslims to go through the lines at FBC’s clinics. During one clinic, a group of Buddhist monks showed up. The tangible expression of the gospel is often surprising to those outside the church.

“A lot of them ask, ‘Why are you here? Why are you doing this? We’ve not heard of any group doing this in our community,’” Gutierrez says. “And we just say, ‘Because Jesus loves you, and we love Jesus, and we want you to know that.’

“That’s really where the exciting part kicks in,” he adds. “No matter how long and difficult these clinics are, that’s when we realize it’s all worth it.”

In the fitting area, Gutierrez has participants read John 3:16 in different sizes, forming a direct connection between their physical sight and spiritual understanding. He says one of his favorite moments is when people—especially children—put on their glasses and see clearly for the first time.

“Most of them have been told that they’re slow learners,” Gutierrez says. “But then they discover that their problem isn’t something mental, but something very physical. It’s that they cannot see what’s on the board at school, so they can’t read very well. And in that moment when they try on their new glasses, their eyes grow big and there is a smile on their face. Something clicks.”

Aurora, Colorado
Senior Pastor: Rico Gutierrez
Founded: 1952
Weekend Attendance: 300