When the Rev. Rafe Vigil arrived at New Horizon United Methodist Church in Southwest Ranches in 2014 to become its new pastor, it felt like coming home. As a Dade County native and graduate of Miami Sunset High School, he knew the area well.
He wasn’t quite as familiar with his new church family, and from his first impressions, he knew they had some challenges ahead of them.
“I saw a church with a lot of potential, but mediocre energy,” he said.
New Horizon was a solid congregation. Membership at the mid-sized church on the eastern edge of the Everglades was consistent. Its location — in fast-growing Broward County northwest of Miami — guaranteed a diverse local population comprised of suburbanites fleeing the cities, newly transplanted immigrants and families.
With all that, Vigil saw greater possibilities for the church’s ministry.
“There were so many opportunities for evangelization,” he said. “But the outreach wasn’t as robust as it should have been. Our plan from the beginning was to motivate our members to get more involved in ministries outside our own four walls.”
That included priorities of special interest to Vigil: children, youth and young adults. He and his wife, Amy, the parents of three sons, have gone to the Dominican Republic in the summers since 2001 to serve in an orphanage. He is also board chairperson for the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home.
Vigil believed putting the emphasis on congregational growth alone was not enough. The mission, as he saw it, was an active congregation taking God’s message and work into the community.
With hard work and strong leadership, that vision has taken shape at New Horizon, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.
While many churches stalled during the pandemic, Vigil says New Horizon has been energized.
Among its accomplishments was the Sept. 26 dedication of its newly built mission building, a 5,000-square foot space made possible by a $1.4 million loan from the Florida United Methodist Foundation’s Development Fund and a $750,00 pledge campaign by church members. The funds also helped pay off a 2011 foundation loan.
The new building means no more cramming into triple-wide trailers or setting up temporary cubicle space for staff and ministries in the main sanctuary. It means more space for storage, gatherings, ministries and community outreach programs.
“There were so many opportunities for evangelization. … Our plan from the beginning was to motivate our members to get more involved in ministries outside our own four walls.” — Rev. Rafe Vigil
The church also saw a spike in its very successful Nourishing Lives ministry, founded by the Rev. Peytyn Tobin, New Horizon’s associate pastor and the nonprofit’s executive director. The program — with a mission to “feed, lead and read” — was in greater demand because of school closures.
Students from food-insecure homes needed an outlet to receive prepared meals more than ever, so volunteers in the Nourishing Lives network worked closely with school districts to ensure a continuation of services. What began as a “Pack a Sack” initiative in 2008 that sent home nutritional food packages to a few dozen low-income students on weekends is now feeding some 200 families with 400 children every week.
The outreach is made possible through individual and corporate donations, grants, local organizations, church volunteers, and a network of high school students enrolled in Key Clubs.
Another step forward was the church’s merger with Everglades Community Church in the far western suburbs of Pembroke Pines that had struggled with both membership and finances. It is now a missional outpost for New Horizon and includes a warehouse used for food distribution, Scout meetings and Nourishing Lives outreach.
J.J. Rivera, a fraud investigator for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, is one of a handful of Everglades members who began attending at New Horizon after the merger. As a longtime Everglades congregant, he admits the breakup of his church, which started in a pastor’s living room two decades ago, was painful.
“We were a thriving church at one point, with as many as 200 members. We were family,” he said. “But we went through a series of pastors. Some worked out, some didn’t. The challenges just got too overwhelming.”
He knows that he, his wife and their 15-year-old daughter, Mikayla, could have gone elsewhere to find a new church home. They settled on New Horizon because of their hands-on experience with Nourishing Lives. At the height of COVID-19, when both he and his wife were working from home, they took advantage of their situation to volunteer with the program.
Rivera says he was particularly impressed with the impact Tobin had on his teenager.
“Peytyn is something special,” he said. “She has a real gift for nurturing young people. And face it, if you don’t get them on board for service and keep them coming for service from college on, you can’t grow as a church. She recognizes they are the future.”
Rivera believes New Horizon has the solid foundation his former church didn’t. But to continue to thrive, he said, it will need to stick with its commitment to bring youth and young people into the fold and keep them engaged in service.
“You can’t take things for granted. You’ve got to keep building on the foundation,” he said. “Sitting in the pews on Sundays and just writing a check isn’t enough. It’s all about manpower. We’ve got some awesome leadership with Rafe and Peytyn, but that’s just part of it. No church will survive without getting that congregation to stay involved.”
Vision for the future
The new mission building will play a key role in launching more ministries and encouraging more members to engage, says Paul Pannier, a 20-year New Horizon member and chairperson of the building committee. The 14-month building project gave the Fort Lauderdale architect an opportunity to serve as both a planner and designer.
While it took a financial commitment from the congregation to get it off the ground, the loan from the foundation sealed the deal.
“The foundation believed in us. We have a very robust membership that is committed to making this happen,” Pannier said. “But having the financial backing of the foundation and its support of us taking this necessary step make a big difference.”
This was the second time New Horizon received a foundation loan. It owed about $40,000 from its original $1 million loan from 10 years ago. That debt was retired out of the proceeds from the second loan.
“We feel very fortunate to have this option, instead of going to the bank,” Pannier said. “We know the foundation is invested in our vision to expand and grow the church. We’re not just customers — we are partners.”
All the potential Vigil saw in New Horizon when he first arrived is coming to fruition.
With the explosive growth of Nourishing Lives and its expansive reach in the community, the merger with Everglades, and the new mission building, the pastor believes the church has blossomed and its possibilities endless.
“Our church is ‘multi’ in so many ways,” Vigil said. “Multicultural, multi-generational, multi-socioeconomic, multi-racial. We’ve got old-time ranchers who work side-by-side with a Jamaican grandmother, newly arrived Venezuelans, transplants from Miami and young families who are new to church life.”
Vigil embraces diversity. He also embraces change and flexibility, especially after navigating the challenges caused by the pandemic.
“I went to seminary in the 1980s with an electric typewriter,” he said. “So yes, times have changed. I learned early on that if you’re going to move forward, you can’t get stuck in a rut or hang on to tradition alone. It’s time for the greater church to accept we’re in a rebirth and to go with it.”