pastor manuel ortiz preaching

The Life and Ministry of an Urban Pastor Manuel (Manny) Ortiz (1938-2017)

It is impossible to speak of the impact Manny has had on urban ministry without taking a quick look into who he was as a man of God. Manny never pretended to be perfect or above anyone else. He saw himself as a sinner saved by the grace of God. His keen awareness of his own failings kept him humble–always giving credit to the Lord for his achievements–and non-judgmental–knowing that God forgave him his sins so he could do otherwise with others. Most of all, he wanted to grow in his love for the Lord. He wanted to know God more intimately and wanted others to join him in that journey.

It is true that Manny spoke all over the U.S. and in many other countries. It is also true that he taught classes in numerous seminaries, Bible schools, and colleges, again both in the U.S. and in other countries. It is true that through these endeavors he influenced many as they served the Lord in other cities around the world. But with all the recognition, with all the requests, with all the teaching responsibilities, his heart was most profoundly that of a pastor of a local congregation.

How It Began

Manny was born in New York City and grew up in Spanish Harlem, a segregated community that abutted many other ethnic communities, causing a type of multi-ethnic interaction. The Lord used this milieu to instill in Manny a strong love and appreciation for his Puerto Rican heritage, an experiential understanding of what it meant to be part of an oppressed and marginalized group, and an ability to exist and work effectively in cross-cultural settings.

Manny did not grow up in a Christian home. The Lord did not bring Manny to Himself until Manny was 30 years old. Almost immediately Manny felt God’s calling on his life, and the very next year entered Philadelphia College of Bible. While there, he and his family lived in the mostly African American projects of Bartram Village, and he was actually ordained in an African American church.

One year after graduation (and only five years in the Lord!) Manny was called to pastor a large Norwegian church in Chicago that was located in an area that was quickly becoming a part of Chicago’s Puerto Rican barrio. He often told people how his lack of spiritual maturity brought about difficulties in that setting, but Manny was a learner and from these experiences he vowed never to repeat the mistake of installing someone into the pastorate before he or she was both spiritually and experientially mature.

Baptism in Chicago
Baptism in Chicago

After four years of floundering in that pastorate, Manny pulled together a team of three other families (including my own) who were committed to the Lord and to the inner city community where God had placed us. Together we planted our first church, Spirit and Truth Fellowship of Chicago, while at the same time giving Manny a chance to be restored in the Lord.

Ortizes and Bakers
Ortizes and Bakers

Manny’s gifts were beginning to be recognized. If I had to list the areas which God placed most on his heart, they would be (1) seeing his flock grow in the Lord individually and corporately, (2) training his congregants in multiple ways, from informally to formally, to be equipped to fulfill God’s purpose in their lives, (3) reaching his community through the planting of smaller churches rather than building one big church, as he always believed that, especially in a city made up of relatively small neighborhoods, smaller churches have a larger impact on the neighborhood in which they are located than a larger church to which families must commute, and (4) working toward community transformation through education, family resources, and other ministries. The leadership he was training was not just pastoral leadership but also leadership for all the other ministries. When Manny’s family (and ours) was called to Philadelphia in 1987, we left behind five churches, two elementary schools, a biblical training school, a family center, and many other ministries, all led by the leaders who had been trained by Manny.

Move to Philadelphia

The community into which our two families moved was multi-ethnic. Manny had not planned on continuing his work of planting churches but believed his new role as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary would be a springboard for training others to do the work of urban mission, including church planting. After six months, we had pulled together a small group that was the seed for Spirit and Truth Fellowship of Philadelphia, and twice we had turned over its leadership to a Westminster graduate only to have him leave after a short time. The Lord was making it clear that He wanted Manny to pastor this new church plant and in 1996 with 25 people, most of whom were in their late teens or early twenties. We purchased an existing church building in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia which is where Spirit and Truth still exists.

Sue Baker and Manny Ortiz with doctoral students and colleagues
Sue Baker and Manny Ortiz with doctoral students and colleagues

Manny brought the same heart and foci to Philadelphia that he had shown in Chicago. Altogether nine churches have been planted. An elementary school, a community center, a legal center, and a counseling center have been established. We have partnerships with a Christian health center (Manny had been on their organizing board), and through some of our church plants and ministries we now have a full-orbed arts program for the community, a bicycle shop training children in the community in repairing bikes while learning of God’s love, participation in a Christian football league, and a high school supplemental program to show our youth alternatives for their lives other than the streets. Members of our church have also established an elementary school and youth program in a neighboring mostly Cambodian community and an after-school and summer camp program in a primarily African American community.

The Future

Although Manny is now with the Lord, his disciples have spread around the globe planting churches, establishing schools, caring for the needy, the oppressed, the marginalized of our growing urban world.

As for Spirit and Truth, we held an emergency elder meeting the day after Manny’s passing and one of the elders said it best: “Manny is gone, but Manny trained us well. It is time for us to use that training to continue our ministry in this community.” Our elders have all stepped up and are providing wisdom and leadership to our church which is still grieving the loss of its beloved founder and only pastor for its first 30 years. We were not in a rush to proclaim new leadership, but we knew that the Lord would not have taken Manny if we were not ready to continue the ministry of Spirit and Truth. In His faithfulness, the Lord did just that and the church is flourishing under new leadership whom Manny had begun training before his death.

pastor manuel ortiz and african children
Manny and Blanca in South Africa

Conclusion

Manny will be missed, but his legacy lives on. Manny was a pastor. It was not what he did; it was who he was. On campus, he was not usually referred to as Professor but rather as Pastor.

During the last eight years of his life he had numerous hospital stays, and the nurses would come to him to ask for prayer because, even though he was ailing, he was still a pastor. He had earned a master’s degree and a doctorate yet the only title he ever wanted used was “Pastor Manny.” Even the children called him that or just plain Manny. He never wanted to retire as he believed God’s calling on his life had no end until the Lord Himself ended it. He was unconscious during the last week of his life, but there were so many (40-50 people a day) coming to be with the family and wanting to see him that the staff asked one person if Manny were a politician. The answer, of course, was no—he was a pastor. People came to sing to him praise songs (even with a guitar), pray for him, and read Scripture to him so that even in his last days, even though he did not realize it, his influence was spreading the gospel to the ICU staff at the hospital.

Yes, he will be missed, but hundreds, maybe even thousands, around the world are praising the Lord because they have had the privilege of being touched by Manny’s words. We all want to join in saying to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23).

manuel ortiz walking down sidewalk

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