LUMBERTON, New Jersey (BRN)—Since his days as a young boy, growing up on Corn Island of Nicaragua, Southside Baptist Pastor Fernando Downs understood the calling God placed on his life.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a minister,” he said.
“People often ask me, ‘How did you know that you wanted to be a minister?’ That is not as simple as black and white…I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of things, but God’s call has just been steady, and I thank Him for that.”
Downs left his native home at the ripe age of 16, moving to the Bahamas, where he attended Bahamas Baptist Theological Institute in Nassau. After concluding his schooling there, he made his way to North Carolina to complete his undergrad work, and then to Texas to achieve his master of divinity degree.
In 1974, God led him to Lumberton, New Jersey, to serve as the lead pastor at Southside Baptist Church, where he has continued his ministry for the past 47 years.
“I love to boast about the fact that if you came to Southside, you experience a little bit of heaven – there’s just a variety of ethnicity in our congregation,” said Downs.
Since his start at Southside, Downs has become the longest serving Southern Baptist Convention pastor for the entire state of New Jersey. Throughout his years, he has watched the church be transformed both spiritually and structurally.
“When I came to this area…I wish I could show you outside…it was nothing but farmland all around. We were in an old – we use to call it the old Farmhouse – that was on the property that my predecessor secured for this ministry,” he explained.
“That building was in such bad shape…so, the Lord laid it upon our hearts to do some building. We didn’t have money to build, but God just worked it out one step at a time.”
During that time, Downs sat down with the then Director of Church Loan Division and made a deal with him. In order to hold up their end of the deal and be loaned the money they needed, Southside was required to raise at least one year’s worth of mortgage funds in a year. If the funds could not be matched, then the building and the property would be sold.
“The money was loaned, the church was built, the mortgage was paid, [and] we are debt free—to God be the glory! God just made a way, when there was no way, for us to have this facility,” he cheered.
Downs also shared that the church’s attendance tripled the first day they held services in their new facility.
Along with seeing God work within the corporate level of his church, Downs has seen God transform his life on a personal level.
“I have been here for 46 – going [on] 47 – years, and to be candid with you, I shouldn’t be here,” he said.
Back in 1995, Downs and a friend went on a fishing trip, as they often went fishing together and made an annual trip to do so. As the two were driving back home, Downs switched places with his friend to take a break from driving and rest his eyes.
“When I woke up, it was by an emergency squad that was at my car window…and they said, ‘We’re here to help you because you’ve been in a bad accident.’”
Downs continued: “When I saw the car that we were in, after I was released from the hospital, there was a section where I was sitting, and that was all that was left of that automobile…just the hollow where I was sitting. It was just like somebody took a saw and sliced that car right in two.”
Downs was the only survivor from the tragic accident.
“The driver was dead, and we don’t know what happened, because I had fallen asleep. I was told that the car that we were in went across the median and hit a large truck, both cars moving at 70 miles per hour,” he said.
“That moment changed my life forever, because only God—only God—could have done that.”
Downs also shared a moment where he saw God’s faithfulness prevail in a personal financial hardship.
“When Mrs. Downs and I came to this ministry, one of the things we made a commitment to is that we would be faithful to the Lord in financial stewardship. Sometimes, we did not know how that was going to work out because, talking about living paycheck to paycheck, we lived minute to minute,” shared Downs.
“I remember one occasion when we were really stuck financially, and it was honoring our commitment to the Lord financially or paying the mortgage – it was that choice that we had.”
Downs told his wife to write the check to the church, and that they would find a way to cover the mortgage.
“That was Saturday, the check was written to the church. On Monday morning, when we got the mail, there was a check in the mail…from a friend with a small note…it was the exact amount of money that we needed to pay the mortgage!”
Downs continued to share many moments of God’s faithfulness in his life and the life of his church. He summed up his journey by pointing back to God’s steadfastness through the years.“I could tell you issue after issue that transformed my life, that transformed the life of this ministry, just to say that God is faithful…can’t complain…because God is good all of the time.”
Listen to the podcast interview:
The “50 Stories of Transformation” series, told in honor of the Baptist Resource Network’s 50th anniversary, highlights the many ways God has moved throughout Pennsylvania, South Jersey and beyond. Your generous support of the Cooperative Program makes this ministry possible and fuels evangelism and outreach in our local churches and all over the world! Thank you!