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OKLAHOMA CITY: AFTER THE BOMB : Minister Died as He Lived: Offering Help : Victims: Rev. Martinez left a troubled past to start a church to aid Latinos. He was in Social Security office assisting an immigrant when bombing occurred.

April 28, 1995|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — When the poorest and most-troubled members of this city's Spanish-speaking population needed help and comfort, they came to the Rev. Gilberto Martinez.

And if they didn't come to him, he came to them--in the jails, on the barrio streets, at the racetrack and even over their radios.

The onetime drug user and nonbeliever had left a secure teaching job to open his own evangelical church and tend to the needs--both spiritual and material--of a population that can feel lost in this sprawling city in the heartland of an adopted country.

And it was only natural that the 35-year-old pastor at El Tabernacle De Fe Church had accompanied Emilio Tapia, 50, a landscaper and Mexican immigrant, to the Social Security Administration office at the Albert P. Murrah Federal Building on the morning of April 19 to help him untangle a problem with his benefits.

In an instant, both lives were lost. Martinez left a widow and five young children with no insurance and no inheritance, save the legacy of a father and husband who felt he was called by God to be of service.

"He died doing what was the heartbeat of his life: helping people in need," said fellow Assembly of God evangelist the Rev. Greg McClanahan, who met Martinez in Oklahoma City and accompanied him on missionary campaigns in Mexico.

If there is a common thread among the lives of those who died violently that day, it is that of expectations dashed, of promises and dreams that never will be fulfilled.

There was so much Martinez wanted to accomplish.

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He wanted to expand the congregation of his church, he wanted to continue his work in reaching out to the city's jail population and its burgeoning number of street gang members, and he was eager to accept an invitation to lead an evangelical mission to El Salvador.

"Wherever the Spanish-speaking people needed him and needed the Lord, that's where Gilbert wanted to be," said Neva Kendall, who first knew Martinez when he was part of the Faith Tabernacle Church off Interstate 40.

At first Martinez would bring a handful of Spanish-speaking faithful to Sunday services at the predominantly Anglo church. The small band would huddle in the back pews, with Martinez providing translation.

But as his following grew, he realized that the unmet spiritual needs of the Spanish-speaking population were such that he needed his own church. Faith Tabernacle leaders, impressed by Martinez and his unflagging spirit, helped arrange for him to take over an empty church several miles away in one of Oklahoma City's more racially diverse neighborhoods.

"He motivated the Hispanic people to know the Lord and work hard," said Juan Araya, a maintenance worker.

"He had a kindness and gentleness that made you happy," said Marvin Lewis, a dishwasher at Denny's.

Martinez--known for his boundless enthusiasm, quick smile and restless energy--had gotten the calling to join the ministry later than some. In his sermons, he often mentioned his days in the Army in Germany--when he used drugs and found himself wandering along unknown streets.

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Only when he moved to Oklahoma City a decade ago from his native Brownsville, Tex., did he find God.

"He came to God here at Faith Tabernacle and then realized there were so many others that needed (God), too," said the Rev. C. F. Wilkerson.

He took his faith on the radio for a weekly program. He left his job as a middle-school teacher to spread the word full time. He went to the Remington Park racetrack to preach to the jockeys and grooms.

Many ministers' lives are frugal ones, and Martinez left his family with only a tiny two-bedroom house with a cracked foundation and drafty walls. The youngest child, Gilberto Jr., was born a week before his father's death.

Martinez was eulogized for three nights running at Faith Tabernacle and then at his own church, each time to a crowd of several hundred. A senior Assembly of God minister said that Martinez was part of God's plan for the Latino population of Oklahoma City, and he challenged other ministers to continue his work.

The life of Gilberto Martinez proved that there is "hope in the heartland" despite the bombing and the death, the Rev. Coy Barker said at the funeral.

Martinez's widow, Martha, 29, said she has no hatred for the men who killed her husband. At the funeral, her children--Michelle, 11, Brian, 9, Bonnie, 8, Jillian, 6, and the baby--were given stuffed bears, a gift being bestowed on all the children who lost parents in the bomb blast.

"These people who made this bomb do not have love or fear of God in their hearts," Martha Martinez said in Spanish. "I want the Lord to forgive them for what they have done. My husband is with the Lord.

"People need to guard their heart against hating these men."

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