Knights Baptist’s new youth pastor, Felipe Ruiz, uses his past to help others.
As a kid, Felipe Ruiz would come home from school to find his living room couches pushed together to form a makeshift boxing ring. His father and uncles made him fight with his brothers inside the arena.
“It was a way of toughening up,” Ruiz said. “We wouldn’t stop until someone bled or started crying.”
The forced matches made him anxious. At school, Ruiz picked fights with anyone who he thought looked at him wrong.
“I always thought I would have to stand up for myself and fight,” he said.
Now 25, Ruiz finds himself surrounded once again. But he’s not armed with his fists.
He’s armed with his beliefs and his Bible. And he’s surrounded by fellow children of God as he starts his role as the new youth pastor at Knights Baptist Church in Plant City.
One of the first times Ruiz set foot in a church was after his parents’ divorce.
He was still in high school and still fighting. When he first stepped across the threshold at Turkey Creek First Baptist Church, he was more focused on getting out of the house than he was on being saved.
Members reached out to him to help him feel more at home. One churchgoer, Dawn Blankenship, picked up Ruiz and his sister after school during the week to take them to church. After the weekday services and youth groups, she would buy them McDonald’s before dropping them back off at home.
Ruiz jokes that, at first, it was the free food that kept him in the pews. But, after a while, his mentality shifted, and his anger and anxiety began to dissolve.
“With Christ coming into my life, that started going away and started fading away,” he said.
On Sundays, Ruiz would walk to church. Turkey Creek deacons would pass him along the way and stop to offer him a ride.
After graduating from Durant High School, Ruiz continued going to church. His friends in faith, Daniel Helms and Matt Williams, mentored him to prepare him for mentoring younger students. Ruiz went on to assist the church’s youth pastor.
In 2012, he was able to preach for the first time in front of the congregation.
“I was so nervous,” he said. “But my mom encouraged me.”
She did more than that. While Ruiz was delivering his sermon, his mom came to the altar and gave her life to Christ.
As Ruiz continued to mentor to students at Turkey Creek, a position for a youth pastor opened at Knights Baptist Church. The church was seeking a young family to mentor youth.
Now married and a new father to a 1-week-old son, Ruiz was recruited by Billy Bellott, the youth pastor at First Baptist Church of Dover. Ruiz’s wife, Haley, grew up attending First Baptist. The couple was later married at that church.
“I feel it was something God had been calling me to do,” he said. “It’s been pretty fun. They welcomed us right away.”
Each week, about 10 older youth, including middle and high school students, come to Knights Baptist Church on Wednesdays and Sundays. The challenge, Ruiz said, is reaching them through the time constraints.
“I have maybe two hours with them in church,” he said. “Only two hours to share the gospel with them and try to open their eyes. How do we change someone’s life within two hours?”
He is focused on reaching youth outside the doors of the church, the same way mentors reached out to Ruiz years ago.
Some, like Ruiz, come to the church on their own accord without parental support. A Knights Baptist bus picks up kids before church and takes them back home.
“It’s amazing to see how these kids want to come, when neither of their parents come,” Ruiz said. “Some want to get out of the house. I hope and pray they’re being convicted.”
To encourage them to continue attending, he makes sure he lives what he preaches.
“You can preach all you want, but unless you’re making people follow Jesus, you’re just another public speaker. You have to live out your faith.”
Contact Emily Topper at [email protected].