Oscar Romo, ethnic ministry pioneer, dies

CUMMING, Ga. (BP)--Oscar I. Romo, a pioneer in ethnic evangelism and church planting for the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board), died Friday, Jan. 16, of pneumonia related to Parkinson's disease.

A memorial service for Romo, who was two weeks shy of his 80th birthday, was held at John's Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., on Monday, Jan. 19. Featured speakers included Fermin Whittaker, executive director of the California Southern Baptist Convention.

Two years ago, during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, Romo was honored by Hispanic Southern Baptists for his nearly 50 years of strategy development and work with ethnic groups, dating back to his first pastorate in 1948 until his retirement from the mission board in 1995.

During that era Southern Baptist ethnic congregations grew from less than a thousand to 9,000. Romo's groundbreaking work helped establish the convention as the nation's most ethnically diverse faith group -- a position it maintains today.

Bob Sena, a church planting coordinator for NAMB, knew Romo for nearly 40 years.

"I first met him on a sidewalk at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, in the 1960s," Sena recalled. "At that moment, I noticed something unique about this man. He was my mentor. God used him as a human instrument to open every door, directly or indirectly, of every ministry I've ever been involved in."

Sena said while Romo was proud to be Hispanic, he was committed to the Great Commission of reaching all people groups, not only Hispanics, and thus had a global impact. Although people groups are integral facets of NAMB and the International Mission Board strategy today, Sena said Romo was on the leading edge.

"Oscar would say to me, 'Bob, don't forget ... while you are Hispanic, think beyond yourself. We must reach all people because they all need the Gospel,'" Sena recounted.

"He was a pioneer for sure," Sena said. "But unlike some pie-in-the-sky guys, he was also practical and focused on finding, training and encouraging ethnic leaders to serve in key positions in Southern Baptist life."

Sena said only a few hours following the announcement of Romo's death last Friday, he and other NAMB colleagues received e-mails from the leadership of the Cuban Baptist Convention, expressing condolences and reminding them of the significant impact Romo had on Baptist leadership and ministries in Cuba.

NAMB's David Terry also worked as an assistant to Romo for nine years back in the '80s.

"He was quite a visionary," Terry said. "He understood the changing nature of the United States and North America and had an awareness of not only the Hispanic culture, but the cultures of Eastern Europe, Asia and the Caribbean countries. He believed you had to strategically prepare and plan ahead, and cultivate relationships."

One of Romo's most significant contributions was the creation of Ethnic Leadership Development centers (ELD centers as they became known) that brought Bible training to ethnics of all backgrounds and helped them build leaders within their communities.

"Many of the people we were working with were new Christians, had a limited grasp of the English language and no theological training," Romo told Georgia's Christian Index newsjournal in 2007. "If you told them we were going to have the Lord's Supper on Sunday, they would say, 'Great, when do we eat?'"

Stan Smith, state director of missions for the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania-South Jersey, said much of what he practices today in developing strategy was learned through working with Romo.

"Dr. Romo taught that while large meetings were important, it was sometimes far more important to spend time drinking a cup of coffee with someone to build a better relationship and find some common ground. There were times when more could be accomplished through working through the 'gatekeepers' in a community, the people who made things happen behind the scenes, than working through established but ineffective bureaucratic processes.

"He also taught that it wasn't as much about what you did today that was important, but about what you did today that will have an impact on tomorrow," Smith said.

Survivors include his wife, Merry Purvis Romo of Cumming, Ga.; a son, Nelson Romo of Arlington, Texas; a daughter, Miriam Romo Reynolds of Cumming; and three grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Zoe, in 1991.

In lieu of flowers the family has requested that donations be made to the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary's Contextual Leadership Development Center in Mill Valley, Calif.


Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board. Joe Westbury of The Christian Index contributed to this article.

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