Renovated theater to be multiethnic church

by Joni B. Hannigan, posted Monday, November 24, 2014 (4 years ago)

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (BP) -- When the house lights dim in South Florida's historic Hollywood Playhouse and the spotlight trains on pastor Martin Vargas, he intends for a message to be center stage: "God knows; He changes lives; there is growth in the truth; and we are fulfilling the Great Commission."

Vargas, a native of the Dominican Republic, appreciates the vision Hollywood Playhouse had for more than six decades in bringing live theater to its community.

But within a few months, Real Church, or Iglesias Real, will share the Gospel in Spanish, English and Portuguese at the newly renovated theater and will serve as a hub for church plants.

"I wanted to plant a church that is doctrinally sound and that has authentic Christians," Vargas said. "If they speak English, fine. If they speak Spanish, fine."

Volunteers at Iglesia Real in Hollywood, Fla., refinish flooring in the former theater that will serve as the church plant’s new home. Worship will begin in the renovated facility in early 2015.
NAMB photo by Joni B. Hannigan
Reflecting on the meaning of the church, Vargas discovered "Real," which in Spanish forms an acronym for, "know God, changing lives, growth in the truth and fulfilling the Great Commission."

When Vargas saw the vintage theater in 2012 -- a vandalized building with broken skylights -- he wasn't deterred. He saw a gift from God.

Just five years earlier, the theater had undergone a restorative facelift. A magazine described the 18,000-square-foot facility as a "full-service venue" with recording and dance studios, a sound stage, film-editing suites and a design shope.

In 2004, Vargas left a lucrative business to start a church in South Florida. Eight years later, with a passion to move the congregation to where they could have the greatest impact, he prayed about the $1.5 million price tag for the two-acre theater property with its 300-seat auditorium.

The timing was not right and soon the bank that owned the property sold it to a Miami man who hoped to restore the declining theater.

"It was hard to compete with cash," Vargas said.

After a two-year search Vargas led his congregation in a 40 Days of Prayer campaign. On the final day, he got a call. The bank wanted to meet. The man with the cash had been jailed on federal charges.

"That Monday was a divine appointment," Vargas said. "I went to the meeting with my realtor, a member of my church, with the thought that, 'I'm just a pastor with no money.' I said, 'If this is coming from God, I need to see God's hand clearly.'"

Vargas could not believe what he heard at the meeting. The bank would lower the selling price to $1.2 million and pay for the installation of new electrical wiring, 17 new air conditioning units and a new roof. The terms came with a "good faith" agreement to wait on part of the down payment and close in 90 days.

The only big expense the banker warned Vargas about was a need to purchase theater seats. At that point, Vargas started smiling. A local synagogue already had offered him 300 seats they no longer needed.

"The banker asked me if I believed in fate. I said, 'No sir, I believe in God,'" Vargas remembers telling him. "Only God could do that."

"I left the building that day with the confidence that the Lord was giving this property to us," Vargas said.

With just three months to raise a quarter of a million dollars, Vargas, and his son Homer, who will lead the English-speaking congregation at Real, started a fundraising campaign. Sacrificial pledges and commitments poured in -- some from fellow believers as far away as Bolivia and Nicaragua.

The bank called and moved the closing date up to June 26. They told Vargas to bring whatever he had in his hands. He still needed about $70,000.

A local restaurant owner gave a large donation. A church member drove by and handed Vargas a check. A BBQ yielded several thousand dollars. Meanwhile renovations began, with members providing skilled labor to return the theater to its former luster.

Send North America: Miami city missionary Alex Comesañas organized a mission team from the Suwanee Baptist Association in the Florida Panhandle to assist through the North American Mission Board's Send North America church-planting strategy.

The Suwanee team was "so impressed," Comesañsas said, they gave Vargas a check for $6,000 on the spot.

It was the final amount needed to complete the down payment. Construction should be complete by the end of the year and the church plans to start meeting in the theater in early 2015.

"This has been a journey of faith and miracles," Vargas said. "When you don't have a problem, you don't see miracles. In every situation, we find difficulties and possibilities. God will find a way."

To learn more about Send North America: Miami, go to www.namb.net/Miami.

Joni B. Hannigan is a writer based in Houston.
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