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GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Pastor Fernando Otero

January 5, 2011 10:34 AM
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Pr. Fernando Otero was ordained on December 4, 2010. This profile is one in a series designed to help everyone become better acquainted with our leaders.

 

Welcome! You’re a native New Yorker but you didn’t grow up Lutheran. Tell us a little bit about your background.

I’m Hispanic, born in East Harlem. I was brought up in the Roman Catholic church during the time when Latin was spoken. I had no idea what was going on. I got the idea that saints were those who went directly to heaven, after they received a vision and were transformed into perfect beings. All the rest of us got to go to purgatory. I had decided as a teenager that I was going to be one of those saints to receive a beatific vision. It was going good until one Saturday: I went to Confession, I confessed my sins, and I felt so holy. Until a young teenage girl passed by and that was the end of my holiness! I felt I could never be holy enough to please this God. I became angry with him. Then I became an agnostic, then an atheist, then a revolutionary. For a time I endeavored in that journey but I felt like I was missing something in my being.

 

When I was around 18, I heard a gospel message from this old Pentecostal man who was preaching throughout the neighborhood playground from a megaphone. He was talking about Jesus and his words strangely warmed my heart. I decided to learn more--I was taken by Jesus Christ, that just accepting him meant that I would be accepted straight to heaven! Finding assurance of salvation was very important to me: most of my friends are either dead or in jail, due to gang warfare and the prevalence of heroin at that time. I entered that denomination and studied with the preacher. However, I found that there was no assurance of salvation. You still had to strive for perfection! I cried out to God, "I would really love to serve you, but you’re impossible! You’re impossible to please!"

 

So how did you come to find the Lutheran church?

I wanted to know who started this Protestant movement. I had read the Bible—in the Pentecostal church—from cover to cover but I didn’t know any theology. I sought Luther. I read Bondage of the Will and Freedom of a Christian. Luther gave me the language that I’m a saint and a sinner simultaneously. I understood: before God I am righteous, yet I fail him every day, yet he is with me. I tried to tell my Pentecostal friends about Luther but they didn’t understand. My wife Linda and I had thought that we had to be perfect. But Lutherans are given this duality, this freedom, and it’s wonderful. Luther showed me the importance of the sacraments, how assurance of salvation is received through the sacraments. My struggle had been similar to Luther’s. I hated God. But I thank him for being patient for me. I’m really happy. My wife too. We’re both Lutheran now.

 

What brought you to consider a call to rostered ministry?
This is my second career. I worked on Wall Street as a reconciler. I was a lay-counselor for many of my co-workers who often said that I should be a minister. I didn’t want to be pastor. Pastors don’t make money! Not that I wanted to be rich, but I had a family. I resisted the call but finally a co-worker who lived in Princeton insisted that I fill out the Princeton Theological Seminary application she had in her hand. So I decided to go. I met Lutheran pastors and I began to dialogue with them. I studied Luther, the Reformation, and I thought, "This is the best—this is what I want to do."

 

Tell us about the congregation you’re serving.
St. Paul’s is the best kept secret in Parkchester. We feed about 400 people a month. That’s no exaggeration. We sponsor self-defense classes for women and children, house AA, diakonia, two chapters of AARP, community board meetings, a Bronx NAACP branch, an African Presbyterian Church, and a daycare/afterschool center which will open in the new year. The congregation is multicultural: African, African-American, Guyanese, and a few Latinos, with about 100 people at worship. Due to economic concerns, the building was neglected for a while, but now we’re giving the property a "face-lift" and making it more inviting. The people who left us St. Paul’s were a visionary people. They weren’t rich. They banded together out of the love of God, to leave this building as an inheritance. I want to give them honor. The idea I’m trying to plant here is what legacy will we leave? We have received an inheritance. What will they say of us?

 

What are your goals at St. Paul’s?
Most of our people are not cradle Lutherans. We have people who love God but they’re not familiar with the basics of Lutheranism. If you ask them, "Why are you a Lutheran?" they say, "That’s a good question. I really don’t know." I’d like to remedy that. By the grace of God, I also would like to reintroduce the church to its mission statement (signified by the acronym W.E.S.T), and make it a Welcoming, Equipping, Sending, and Transmitting church.

 

I’m only six months into this but I am excited. I want to give special kudos to a church I served for two years as a mission developer: Messiah Lutheran Church in Flushing. These people were so gracious to me and they taught me more about being Lutheran. The Lutheran presence is what’s needed in this community. In the Bronx, everything is either/or. Either you’re a sinner or a saint. People don’t understand the love of God. I want to help them understand. Look at this abundance we have!

 

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