This is a reprint of an article that was in the
Saturday, January 1, 2005 edition of the Amarillo Globe News.
Man of the Year: Rev. Jesse Cortez
Pastor gave life to the Lord and his efforts to homeless
By KAREN D. SMITH, amarillo.com
A blizzard blanketed springtime as the Rev. Jesse Cortez delivered one of his most eloquent eulogies for the least of his brethren.
A homeless woman’s newborn had not survived, and a handful of mourners had braved the storm.
“In just sitting there and listening to him, you would’ve thought that church was packed with some of the most popular, famous people in the world,” Diann Gilmore, executive director of the Downtown Women’s Center said of the funeral last spring. “For five of us sitting in his congregation, he gave a beautiful service for this child that did not live.”
The act was typical of a man who devoted his life to serving the most downtrodden of society.
The Emmanuel Church of Amarillo pastor, who died Nov. 5 at the age of 67, focused on feeding and clothing the poor, providing job training to the jobless and ministering to those in prison – far beyond his day-to-day responsibilities to his church flock. For all that, Cortez has been selected as Amarillo Globe-News Man of the Year for 2004.
“When a community helps those that are most in need, it makes everyone stronger,” said Amarillo Globe-News Publisher Les Simpson. “Jesse Cortez is one of the reasons why Amarillo is such a great place. He recognized the needs and made a difference in the lives of those who just needed a boost.”
After years of pastoring in Washington, D.C., Virginia and California and conducting evangelistic revivals nationwide, Cortez found what many who knew him said was his passion, helping the homeless. In 1971, he founded Casa de Vida, a homeless shelter at Santa Barbara, Calif., which eventually grew to include facilities on a 50-acre ranch in Buellton, Calif., and two more residence programs in Goleta, Calif.
Upon returning to Amarillo in 1984 to join his father in ministry at Emmanuel Church, Cortez continued his work with the homeless by establishing Samaritans Outreach Ministries, a food and clothing pantry. In later years, he became involved with Kairos Prison Ministry, which sends teams of Christian laymen into prisons to reach inmates.
Though he had earned degrees in public oratory and theology, they did not prepare Cortez for the countless sermons he gave throughout his life, his widow said.
“He fasted and prayed a lot,” Beatrice “Bea” Cortez said. “He believed you need to seek the Lord when you’re speaking to people. Sometimes the Lord would give him notes and notes and notes. He was always open to the Lord to listen and be sensitive to what God would tell him.”
A man of constant prayer. Studious and meditative. Quiet, softspoken, eloquent. There seems no shortage of adjectives that friends use to describe him.
“He gave everything he had,” Gilmore said. “He gave everything to the poor and those in need, and he was just someone to admire and hope that we can be just a little bit like him.”
Gilmore began a 20-year-plus friendship with Cortez when he prepared to move Samaritans Outreach from Emmanuel Church to the new Tyler Street Resource Center. At the time, Gilmore worked for the Catholic Family Service Inc. Inter-Faith Hunger Project, which also was to be housed at TSRC.
“Jesse didn’t get paid to do this. He was a true community volunteer.” Gilmore said. “He did everything
Beatrice Cortez said her husband never wavered in his trust in the Lord.
“He always lived by faith,” she said. “I never saw it shaken.”
The pastor’s steady belief is something to which Tony Freeman can attest. The Cenveo Trafton Printing sales manager served many years as president of the Samaritans Outreach board.
“We always struggled with money,” he said. “Jesse’s faith in the Lord providing was just unshakable. The rest of us were kind of like, ‘Where’s our rent going to come from?’ and Jesse just said, ‘It’ll appear.'”
Cortez’s eloquent pleas, coupled with a reluctance to ask for money at all, are remembered by many who worked with him.
“The rent that he had to pay down at Tyler Street was always difficult to come by,” said Charles Warford, once a Samaritans board member. “But Jesse had a manner of expressing to us how difficult it was, and sometimes you could hear so much compassion in his voice as he told the story.”
Freeman recalls a time when Cortez described the plight of a woman and hesitantly asked for money.
“I thought he was going to say she needed three months’ rent or something. He said her gas was going to be turned off, or he wouldn’t ask,” Freeman said.
The bill amounted to less than $10.
“Jesse never asked for a lot, but you just wanted to give him far more than he asked for,” Freeman said. “That’s just the kind of person he was.”
Cortez’s giving heart often meant he had to be persuaded to receive instead, said Vicki Covey, director of community services for the city of Amarillo. Rather than ask for funds at meetings in which agencies seek emergency shelter grants, Cortez tried to give his funds to other programs in need.
Covey recalled when Cortez started Project Foothold, buying landscape equipment and tools, and matching homeless individuals in need of job skills with people willing to train them. Frustrating situations arose, but the only complaints Covey heard Cortez utter were deep sighs.
Freeman said Cortez often had reason to be disappointed. He knew some people learned to work the social support system and perhaps didn’t truly need assistance.
“He never sat in judgment and said, ‘I don’t think you need this,'” Freeman said. “He made the comment one time that some of them probably are (abusing the system), but if you don’t help any of them, you’ll miss the ones who need it.”
Cortez also believed those in need had to help themselves.
“If a person went to a job interview, he needed to be clean, shaved, have a haircut, his clothes cleaned and pressed,” friend April Johannsson said. “Jesse didn’t believe being homeless was an excuse to look slovenly. He was going to help them learn how to compete.”
City Housing Administrator Patty Hamm said Cortez constantly searched for ways to help people.
“He could not rest until he had everyone taken care of,” Hamm said. “I know when he lay down to sleep at night things were probably still rolling around in his mind of people he saw during the day.”
Cortez sought God’s blessings over all, Freeman said.
“For a while, nobody knew it, but Jesse would sit up in the window over the entrance (to the Tyler Street Resource Center) and pray for each board member as they came in. … I always felt like he was the heavenly father type.”
In recent years, Cortez had turned some of his attention to ministering to prisoners, a desire he expressed in interviews in the mid-1980s.
“I think the Lord was leading him more into the prison ministry,” said Tommy Tucker, who met Cortez on a Walk to Emmaus, worked with the pastor in Kairos and participated with him in Bible study groups. “Knowing that he was a pastor, (prisoners) were just real hungry to visit with him.”
Cortez appreciated efforts of laypersons to do good works, Tucker said.
“I think sometimes we tend to separate our laity and our pastors, and Jesse said it was never supposed to be that way, that we were all in ministry together and that God had a purpose for each one of us,” Tucker said.
The pastor believed his purpose had not yet been fulfilled when he survived a stroke 10 to 15 years ago, his wife said.
In addition to his church and Samaritans Outreach work, Cortez had taken a night job to ease the burden his small congregation had in maintaining the church and supporting him, Beatrice Cortez said.
“He didn’t want to put pressure on the people of the church to take care of him,” she said.
“He said if something needed to be done in the church, do that first. If something is left, then bless him.”
Cortez battled back from the stroke, learning again to walk, tie his shoes, drive with one hand.
“He trusted God, and God brought him back, and he thanked God for what he could still do and that God didn’t take his memory about the Word and the Scriptures away,” she said.
Beatrice Cortez has the unwavering faith her husband had, believing he’s now in heaven.
“God could have brought Jesse back if he wanted to, because he did before,” she said. “Jesse finished what the Lord called him to do.”
Man of the Year:
The Rev. Jesse Cortez
Born: Amarillo, Texas
Family: Wife, Beatrice “Bea”; sons, Baron, Trevor and Orzaindro; daughter, Manoa; four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren
Education: Degree of proficiency in public oratory, Emporia State Teachers College, Emporia, Kan.; bachelor of theology degree, Southern California Community Bible College of Long Beach, Calif.
Career & Service Highlights: Church pastor and superintendent positions in Washington, D.C., Virginia and California; led evangelistic revivals across the United States; founded Casa de Vida residence housing for homeless persons at four locations in Santa Barbara, Buellton and Goleta, Calif.; joined his father, the Rev. H.E. Cortez, in ministry at Emmanuel Church of Amarillo in 1984; founded Samaritans Outreach Ministries Inc., a food pantry and clothing closet for the homeless that has expanded to include job training and other programs.
Praise: “He gave everything he had. He gave everything to the poor and those in need, and he was just someone to admire and hope that we can be just a little bit like him.” – Diann Gilmore, executive director of the Downtown Women’s Center