I remember it as though it were yesterday. It was a Tuesday evening in 2003, and I was going to church after work. I had come to the USA from Guatemala in 2001. I began working at a restaurant from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. It had been a couple of years since I went to church. My mother used to take my siblings and me when I was younger. Usually, we just went to sleep under the bench when we got there. But I would occasionally hear the sermon before dozing off. But tonight a friend at the restaurant had invited me to go with him to a midnight church service. I had no idea a church had meetings at that time. The purpose of these late night services, which began in 2000, was for inviting friends to church who, because of their work schedule, could not attend any other time of the day.
I walked in to the small church building with only 67 seats, on South Broad Street, in Trenton, New Jersey. The preacher that night was a Puerto Rican, and I think his name was Nelson Colon. It was there in the wee hours of the morning that I heard God’s Word to me and accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior.
The church, Puerta de Sion, began more than 30 years ago. Brother Eugenio Matos, who has passed away, was the first pastor. He led the church for more than 15 years. When I began regularly attending church services, the pastors were a Puerto Rican couple. We had a season of leadership transitions in the church. In 2009, God called my wife of three years, Yaneth, and me to serve as interim pastors.
In the beginning, it was not easy. I was not taught to be a pastor before I started in ministry. I learned about what it means to be a pastor through experience and coaching. A pastor is called by God. That is why I tell our members, “God is who calls, and who he calls, he trains.” I thank brothers like Samuel Lopez and Hugo Garcia for their help and support when I began to pastor. They gave me personal coaching and encouraged me to enroll in the Christian Worker Program.
After a year, we felt God say there would be growth. Members in the church said, “We haven’t filled the 67 seats in the church.” I said, “If we pray for more, will they have any place to sit?” But we also said, “No, we will move because we need to expand. If God is going to grow our congregation, we cannot stay where we are.” So we continued to pray.
Those days in the small church on South Broad Street are gone. In 2012, God brought Iglesia Evangélica Puerta de Sion into this place with three buildings: a church building, a pastor’s home, and an activities building on 308 N. Willow Street, Trenton. We can seat over 300 people for services. We do not have one midnight service anymore; we have three of them – on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday nights. They start at 11:30 p.m. and run often to 2 or 3 a.m. The Sunday midnight service is primarily an intercessory prayer meeting and meets in homes, not at the church building.
We have services everyday of the week except Saturday. We do not stop. There are about 85 youth, who have their own service on Friday evenings. The 130 children between the ages of 5 and 12, have their own service on the last Thursday of every month. They lead the entire service, including seating one another, singing, and preaching.
All of our services are live-streamed on our Facebook page. God has also allowed us to have an internet radio station. The beginning of January was our second year of having this station. Local people as well as people from Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and various states here in the USA connect to our radio station. More than 20,000 visitors have connected to the radio station.
In 2016, I was ordained as lead pastor. It has been a real blessing to work with youth, children, and adults. We all work in the different areas of the ministry: visitation, street evangelism, prison ministry, addiction counseling and a host of other areas. It has not been easy. We barely have time to rest. It can be tiring, but we give thanks to God who gives us the strength.
After 15 years of attending this congregation, I still make it a priority to attend the midnight services. I love them because I was born in one of those services. God has really blessed the church spiritually, numerically, and financially, at least in part because of these services. We are glad about that, and that is the purpose of the midnight service. Sometimes our midnight services are packed, primarily with men. We cannot stop what God has started. But we outgrew the space. If we were to join those who attend the earlier services with those who attend the midnight service, there would be over 700 people. We would not fit in the building.
It has been a year now that we are looking for a larger building. Our vision is to find a new location that can accommodate 2,000 people. But everything comes in God’s timing. The blessing now is that, when we talk about a new church building, everyone in the congregation says, “Amen!” because they saw that God has a purpose and has been with us and has blessed us.
I tell our members, “We need to take care of what God has placed in our hands. Everyone who comes to our church has an experience to talk about. A lot of the time many don’t want to leave. They stay in the building visiting with one another. Only God can allow something like this to happen.”
Hugo Portillo, lead pastor of Iglesia Evangélica Puerta de Sion, pictured with wife Silvia Hernández and sons Joel Portillo Hernández and David Portillo Hernández.