Advance Magazine
Spring 2024

Ripple Effect

Philadelphia. It’s the birthplace of the United States and home of the Liberty Bell, a symbol of freedom. And more than 70 years ago, this city of Brotherly Love began multiplying spiritual freedom and brotherly love through a very special church started by BMM missionaries.

The United States was birthed through struggle, and the same was true for Iglesia Evangelical Bautista (Evangelical Baptist Church). In 1950, health struggles forced Ed and Mildred Schwarz to leave their mission field of Venezuela. Would they give up serving, or would they find that God was redirecting them? 

Ultimately, the Schwarzes found that God was using their health struggles for something greater. Hearing that Philadelphia had a population of roughly 6,000 Puerto Ricans, the Schwarzes relocated there to start a Hispanic church. They called it Iglesia Evangelical Bautista (IEB). The Schwarzes and other BMM missionaries who joined them worked hard to reach their community for Christ. It was difficult at first, but they built up the church steadily. By 1968, more than 200 attended and the church added a Christian school. That year, the Schwarzes turned over the church’s leadership to Pastor Fidias Echevarria, a man raised in the church. 

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Most of Philadelphia’s Puerto Ricans were migrant farm workers flown into Philadelphia from spring until fall. Eventually, many moved to Philadelphia permanently. One of these was Tony Perez’s grandfather who moved to the city in the late 1940s. He raised his nine children in Philadelphia, including Tony’s dad, Manuel.

One day, Manuel’s coworker, Silo, began telling Manuel how he found Jesus Christ as his Savior through his church, IEB. Manuel was curious, but his family had always attended a different church. Manuel didn’t realize that his wife, Emma, also had a coworker from Silo’s church. This coworker, Aleja, regularly told Emma about Christ.

When Aleja invited Emma to the church’s annual picnic, Manuel and Emma brought their family. They were deeply moved by the love and genuineness of the people they met. By this time, Manuel realized that his own church was not representing the Bible’s truths accurately the way IEB was. The Perez family started attending IEB in 1968, and by their second Sunday Manuel and Emma both accepted Christ as their Savior.

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The change in Manuel was extraordinary. He found freedom from the rituals of his former religion, rituals that had done nothing to transform him spiritually. He formerly lived the party lifestyle. Through Manuel’s witness and changed life, his family opened up to the gospel. The first to receive the Lord were Manuel’s parents in 1970. His dad became so convicted during the first IEB church service he attended that he walked the aisle in the middle of the service! The pastor stopped the message partway through to lead him to Christ. God completely transformed Manuel’s parents also. They became the sweetest Christians anyone could meet.

In 1972, Manuel and Emma returned to Puerto Rico, but their witness kept echoing in their families’ minds, reinforced by other family members who had found Christ. Eight out of nine of Manuel’s siblings received the Savior, and many of Emma’s family found the Lord also. Back in Puerto Rico, Manuel freely shared Christ’s Good News. He led a man to the Lord who later went to Bible college and became Manuel’s pastor for 20 years.

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In 1978, Manuel and Emma’s son Tony Perez returned to the US. Although he arrived back unsure of his salvation, he not only received assurance while living with his aunt, but he also received a call to the pastorate while studying science at Bob Jones University. Going on to earn a master’s degree from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, Tony was strongly influenced to consider church planting. It didn’t take much to influence him; he had seen firsthand the impact that church planting could make.

Similarly to the Schwarzes, Tony learned about another city with a large Hispanic population: Reading, Pennsylvania. Tony and his wife, Jessica, planted Iglesia Bautista Betania (Bethany Baptist Church) there in 1990. Since that time, the Perezes have planted two daughter churches: one in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and another based out of the original church—an English congregation that reaches second- and third-generation immigrant families. Tony and Jessica are hoping to plant a fourth church if they can raise a new church-planting team.

The Perez family is just one of many profoundly transformed by the ripple effect of a single mission church. Tony has said, “We just can’t imagine what would have happened in our family or our home if IEB hadn’t been started.” In the city of Philadelphia and beyond, hundreds have found freedom and brotherly love, all through the transformation that Jesus Christ brings one life at a time.

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