Jesus Navarro hadn’t planned on leaving Texas and moving to Alabama.
But one Sunday morning in 2021 when he was visiting a friend at First Baptist Church Oneonta, he started talking with Steve Sellers. At the end of the conversation, Sellers — director of missions for Friendship Baptist Association — put his hand on Navarro’s shoulder and said, “Lord, if this is the man we’ve been looking for, can You work it out for us?”
Navarro wasn’t sure he was the man, at least not yet. But he did know that God had a tendency of bending his path when he least expected it.
Looking for a better life
Back in 1978 when Navarro was 17 years old, he made his first big move.
“I came to the U.S. by myself,” he recalled. “I had no family. I had nobody. I had the grace of God, but I didn’t know that.
“When I left Mexico, I left it looking for a better life, thinking that I was going to go and make a few dollars. They used to tell us [that] when you go to the U.S. you will literally be sweeping money. That was the mentality: ‘Come over and make a better life.’”
Navarro, who was looking for a leg up, had never been to school.
“My father had to work from sunup to sundown to provide for all of us,” he recounted. “I started working when I was 7 years old. I left my house at 14 to go find a job and help my mom. I’d do a shoeshine. I sold popsicles — I would go up to the school to sell them. That’s as close as I got to a school in Mexico.”
When he got to Texas as a teenager, an elderly couple took him in.
“They helped me find a place and I started working,” Navarro said.
A few months later he found his brother, who had left Mexico eight months before he did, and the two began working in construction.
Navarro made a lot of money and started buying rental properties. He also started dabbling in rodeo.
“I had always liked rodeo,” he recalled. “I became a professional bull rider and started going around to different places — Chicago, California, Houston, Fort Worth — different places to compete in bull riding and bareback. And everything was fine. I was living the life.”
Navarro loved it, but his family didn’t. He had gotten married along the way and started having children, though he was gone on the weekends. “I never cared about how my family was doing,” he said. “I was living the life.”
A brother’s ‘betrayal’
He also began spending his money on liquor. And things began to go south.
“I looked around one day, and I didn’t have anything. Everything was gone,” Navarro recalled. “All the properties were sold, we were behind on bills, and I was still working the same way and bringing home the same thing.”
But every Thursday when he got paid, his first stop was the liquor store.
“I was buying five or six at a time,” Navarro said. “There was not a single day for 15 years that I was sober. I never missed a day of work, and I was never late, but I drank every day.”
One day his little girl asked for pizza, and Navarro got frustrated — he didn’t have the money to buy one.
“And she didn’t say anything. I just told her to go back inside the house,” he recalled. “She came back running and brought me a $20 bill from Monopoly and said, ‘I got money, go buy us a pizza.’”
Navarro felt miserable. He promised himself he would never drink again, since that’s what put him in the position to disappoint his daughter. But he was only able to keep his promise for about two weeks, “and then here I go again, I’d start drinking again.”
But it was around that time that Navarro’s brother — the one who had trained him to ride bulls and break horses — found a permanent kind of change.
“He became a Christian, and he left rodeo. He left all that life,” Navarro recalled.
He wasn’t happy about it.
“For me, it was a betrayal,” Navarro said. “He betrayed us by changing.”
The brothers had grown up Catholic, like most Mexicans at the time.
“When I moved to the United States, I didn’t even know that other churches existed. For us, it was a big deal [to convert].”
And he had always looked up to his brother.
“My brother was my hero,” Navarro said. “I wanted to do everything like he was doing.”
But that didn’t include becoming a Christian. So Navarro didn’t have anything to do with his brother for the next 16 years.
Seeing something different
But around 2000, the two reconnected through something that had been their common ground for a long time — horses. Navarro’s brother called and asked if he could come by to see a new colt.
So he came, and then kept coming.
“And I started noticing something in him, and I said, ‘Why is he so happy? Why does he live a peaceful life?’ I had never noticed it before,” Navarro recalled.
The two became close again, and when his brother expressed a desire to buy his first horse, Navarro pulled some strings with a dealer he knew.
Two weeks later, the horse threw his brother off and landed on top of him. He was airlifted to a hospital but remained in a coma. Navarro blamed himself since he had helped get the horse.
“For 10 days I didn’t go to work. I stayed in the hospital every day because of my guilt,” he remembered. “I felt like the enemy told me, ‘You did it.’”
He only left the hospital once during that 10-day period. While he was driving, he noticed the huge columns at a toll booth he was about to pass through.
“I aimed my truck directly at the concrete column, stepped on the gas and closed my eyes because I wanted to die,” Navarro said. “I couldn’t stand the guilt of seeing my brother dying.”
But suddenly his truck started spinning. He believes it was the hand of God.
“When I opened my eyes, my truck died on me, and I’m in the middle of traffic crying,” Navarro said. “I don’t know why God would spare my life.”
Forgiveness and a new trail
Two days later he stood next to his brother in the hospital and couldn’t hold the words in any longer.
“I asked him, ‘Forgive me, brother. I never meant anything wrong by taking you to go get the horse. I want to straighten out my life. I know I need what you have,’” Navarro recalled. “I remember that I grabbed his hand and his arm, and I bent down and kissed him on the forehead. And he was crying, there were tears coming out of his eyes. When I did that, when I kissed him, I felt like somebody poured a bucket of hot oil all over me.”
He wondered what had happened.
“I didn’t know at that time God put his mark on me,” Navarro said.
His brother died the next day, a Saturday, and the following morning Navarro went to church.
“I went to the church he was a member of, where he was going to be ordained two weeks later,” Navarro said. “And I didn’t want to be recognized, so I sat way in the back where nobody could see me.”
But the whole message was for him, he said.
“When they made the call to come to the front and accept Jesus, I jumped up and I came over, and I said, ‘I want Jesus in my life,’” Navarro recalled.
As the pastor prayed with him, he felt the hot oil feeling again.
“Now I understand that was the Holy Spirit,” Navarro said.
Three days later he started studying at a local Bible institute. About six months after that, he ended up on a trail ride in Tennessee with a man named Leto Curl.
It would be the second time God used a situation with a horse to change his life for good.
Praying for open doors
“I was a baby Christian when I met Leto,” Navarro said. “One day I was sharing my testimony with him after the horse ride and he said, ‘You need to come to my church and share your testimony.’”
It was a Nazarene congregation in Blount County. While Navarro was there, he fell in love with the area and his relationship with Curl got stronger.
“This man became like my father. I started coming over every year,” Navarro recalled.
He did that for the next 20 years as he grew in his faith, became a pastor, planted churches in Texas and trained up more young pastors.
Then in 2021, when he was visiting Curl’s current church — FBC Oneonta — Steve Sellers was filling in for the pastor and something unexpected happened: As he preached Sellers shared his heart for Friendship Association’s churches to reach out to the Spanish-speaking population around them.
“I started thinking about it, and at the end of the service I said, ‘Brother Steve, you know I come here every year, and I’m a Hispanic pastor in Texas,’” Navarro recalled.
Then Curl came up, told Sellers that Navarro was “his boy” and that “one day we’re going to get him here so he can retire here.”
Navarro had already purchased 11 acres of land from Curl in 2017, and he knew his family loved the area. But he had told Curl before, “Leto, you know the only reason I’ll move here, as much as I love this place, is if God opens the doors. I won’t move unless God moves me.”
“I said that to so many people in my family,” Navarro remembered. “‘One day when I retire, I might move over there, but now, no, unless God opens some doors.’”
That’s when Sellers put his hand on Navarro’s shoulder and asked God to open those doors if Navarro was the person He wanted to plant a Hispanic church in Blount County.
‘Only God can do it’
Navarro would have to leave everything behind to start a church in Alabama. He had worked at the same Houston company for 35 years and was just a few years away from retirement.
But God began to pave the way, he said.
At Sellers’ encouragement, Brian Harper, lead church planting strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, reached out to Navarro to see if he would be interested in taking a class on church planting.
The association also worked out finances to help support him and his wife, Leticia.
Navarro said he told his wife it was her decision and she said, “We’ll move.”
That was in March. He told his boss he was resigning because God was taking him to another state, and his boss was so moved by what he was doing that he sent him away with three extra months’ pay.
“God provided, and He provides every day,” Navarro said.
FBC Oneonta also gave him an office and offered their meeting space for the new church — Primera Iglesia Bautista Amistad (Friendship First Baptist Church), which held its dedication service Aug. 27. The name is a nod to the association that got it all started and supports them. It’s fitting in a lot of ways, Navarro said.
“That’s also the base of the church — friendship.”
He builds friendships every day as he travels around the area. His heart breaks as he sees needs, like a woman who didn’t know the ages of her children because she couldn’t read their birth certificates, or another mother who didn’t know how to properly care for her child.
Navarro works to meet those needs, partnering with a local agency to teach classes on topics like marriage and family.
And with everything, he brings Jesus into the conversation.
“That’s the idea: If I can get to these families with this type of help, I can include Jesus Christ,” Navarro said. “Salvation is the name of the game.”
Sellers noted it’s a “blessing to watch what the Holy Spirit is doing to share and show the love of Christ” through the church.
“Pastor Jesus and his wife, Leticia, have an ‘Abraham faith,’” Sellers asserted. “They left Houston, Texas, where they lived over 40 years, to come to Oneonta to reach the Hispanic community for Christ because the Holy Spirit sent them to be Friendship Baptist Association’s Hispanic church planter.
“I am blessed to see someone who is pursuing the Lord’s call with passion.”
Navarro said from his end, it’s all God.
“God is good,” he declared. “I see what I used to do, and I see what God has done in my life and say only God can do it. I can go out there without fear and witness, because if God changed me, He can do it for anybody.”