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Lubbock pastor finds renewed ministry at the altar

April 12th, 2017 / By: Jane Rodgers | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

LUBBOCK For Robert Cortez, pastor of Lubbock’s Thrive Family Church, big things happen in October amid tears at the altar.

Saved at age 15 in a Dallas church when he fell down, crying before God at the altar. Decades later, in his mid-50s, Cortez again found himself awash in tears at a church altar, ready to quit the ministry entirely.

Although his saxophone skills earned him the promise of a “full ride” to then Texas Tech College if he finished high school, Cortez left home at 15. 

The family dynamics were tense; his parents had separated and Cortez started skipping school. 

“I became disrespectful, a disruptive kid,” he recalls. After authorities nearly arrested his father for his son’s truancy, Cortez hitched a ride to Dallas with a friend who dropped him downtown at 4 a.m. “without a penny in my pocket.” 

He walked around the city for 13 hours. Using Dallas skyscrapers as landmarks, he managed to find his aunt’s house. It was Wednesday night, and his aunt insisted he accompany her to church. 

At the conclusion of the service that evening, Cortez “felt the altar calling [his] name” and went forward to pour his heart out to God. “Tia, something has happened to me. I feel clean,” he told his aunt. 

“You got saved,” his aunt replied.

Afterward came a reunion with his mother, then preaching to the homeless on Dallas streets, and eventually, evangelizing throughout South Texas with his brother. The teenagers traveled, conducting revivals and supporting their ministry with income as shoe salesmen.  

Cortez’s schedule was daunting: morning hours of prayer, afternoon Bible reading and study, preaching at night. He learned when he studied the Bible more, his sermons improved.

He returned to Lubbock, where he met and married his wife, Sylvia. As a newlywed, he felt “the push” to start his first church. His wife agreed. 

Fast forward 40 years. After pastoring churches in Lubbock and Lamesa, Cortez faced a crossroads in October 2013. Grace Beyond Walls, the church he had founded 10 years previously, had suffered two splits and dwindled, kept afloat chiefly by the Spanish language FM station operating out of the facility. The church needed an affordable building.

Times were tough. The Cortezes could not even afford medicine for Sylvia’s asthma. “I listened to her wheezing one night, and I felt less a man,” Cortez says. He planned to send out resumes, get a job and quit the pastorate.

The next morning, the Cortezes arrived at the church before their morning radio show. They unlocked the sanctuary door and approached the altar on opposite sides. No words came. They just cried. 

“After awhile we get up, get all happy and do the morning show,” Cortez says. They decided to keep the church going till January.

A phone call later that morning from Jerry Newman, worship pastor of Southcrest Baptist Church, changed everything. 

“Do you still need a building?” Newman asked. “Come talk to me.”

Cortez hung up the phone and headed to Southcrest without telling Sylvia why. It turned out Southcrest had received a church facility as part of an estate. 

“Pastor [David] Wilson thought it would make a great Hispanic church,” Cortez explains. In a two-hour meeting, Cortez explained his church’s revamped strategy, plans for English language services, and a name change to Thrive Family Church. Southcrest presented him the keys to the building.

Cortez assembled his few congregants that evening and told them, “God has smiled on us.” The men rushed home for equipment and returned to cut the grass. Remodeling, painting and refurbishing followed. Before the transfer was finalized, Southcrest replaced the church’s aging HVAC system. 

“God covered our mouths and filled our eyes with tears. He saw this coming. He didn’t let us quit.”

—Robert Cortez, pastor of Lubbock’s Thrive Family Church

“God covered our mouths and filled our eyes with tears this morning,” Cortez told Sylvia. “He saw this coming. He didn’t let us quit.”

Today Thrive’s congregation numbers 175, filling the building. A praise band plays contemporary music. Sunday school is held on Wednesday nights. Sundays are devoted to the worship service and begin with fellowship over doughnuts and coffee at 9:30. 

Cortez’s sermons are shorter, cut to 25 minutes. Worship begins at 10 a.m. and ends a little after 11 a.m. Eighty percent of the members have been believers under five years.

Each fall the church holds a backpack drive, complete with bounce houses, hot dogs and a praise band at the school playground next door. This year, in partnership with Southcrest, Thrive distributed 500 backpacks containing Bibles and school supplies. 

When Earl Dickey from the Children’s Home of Lubbock stops by the church to pick up 100 extra backpacks for the orphanage, he hugs Cortez and says, “Y’all are living out what is written in James, caring for widows and orphans in their affliction.” 

The children’s home also benefitted from Thrive’s 2016 Christmas toy drive. With 500 dollars donated by members and help from a major toy retailer, Thrive purchased thousands of dollars of toys for neighborhood kids. The surplus went to the children’s home.

Cortez calls the toy experience a “modern day loaves and fishes story.”

Something similar happened the first year of Thrive’s existence, when they invited the surrounding neighborhood for Thanksgiving dinner. They planned for 125, fed 200, and somehow had food leftover for members to take home.

Cortez’s journey between altars also included retail stints. In the 1990s he managed Family Christian stores in El Paso and San Diego, pioneering the purchase of Spanish product, becoming the chain’s first executive head of Spanish purchasing in Grand Rapids. Family Christian went from $250,000 in Spanish sales to 1.9 million his first year.

Returning to Lubbock when his wife’s father grew ill, he opened a Spanish language Christian bookstore, and after a “long sabbatical” from church involvement, found his way back into the pastorate.

Radio remains a constant. Today, FM 87.7 The Fountain—the third station Cortez has operated—broadcasts 24 hours a day from Thrive Church.

Cortez beams as a pastor fulfilling his calling as he leans forward and speaks into the microphone, “This is 87.7 The Fountain ... thank you for making us part of your day!”