TAMPA — It took Rev. Francisco Castro at least 10 minutes to make a relatively short walk from the entrance of the church to his seat at the front near the pulpit.
As he made his way Sunday through La Luz del Mundo, the church he founded in 1973 on N. MacDill Avenue, many rose from their pews and hugged him or shook his hand or shared a simple smile.
Castro, 74, preached his last sermon in the church in October and was back for a retirement celebration.
“My pastoring is finished today, but the ministering is going to continue,” said Castro who spent 52 years as a minister. “Ministers never retire. They retire when they pass away to be with the Lord. so to me, today is the end of this chapter. Now the Lord has another chapter for me. New things for me in the days ahead.”
New pastor David De Jesus and his congregation thanked Castro and his wife of 51 years, Aida Castro, for setting the church’s foundation.
“We’re very happy because the foundation is so solid,” De Jesus said. “This is a church of love, a church that knows what its job is as a church, a church that does a lot of evangelistic outings. … I respect Pastor Castro. I admire him so much. We’re united in love.”
In addition to numerous songs performed by church members and family and several slideshows depicting family and church events, Mayor Buckhorn, who has known Castro for at least two decades, spoke. He also delivered a proclamation, making the it Rev. Dr. Francisco Castro Day in the City of Tampa.
“This pastor, for all of these years, has gotten up every day to make a difference,” Buckhorn said. “And he couldn’t have done it without the wonderful First lady of this church.”
Buckhorn then told a story from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah when Isaiah answered God’s call to be a prophet.
“And Isaiah raised his hand and he said, ‘Send me, Lord,’” Buckhorn said. “Francisco Castro, every day, has said, ‘Send me, Lord.’ For decades he has said, ‘Send me, Lord.’ When you needed him, he said, ‘Send me, Lord.’ When this city needed him, he said, ‘Send me, Lord.’ And now it is his time to relax, to enjoy life.”
Relaxing has not been a part of Castro’s life for quite some time. In addition to creating the church in Tampa, he has helped build at least 60 churches in South American countries, including Guatemala, Honduras and Santo Domingo.
Castro’s introduction to ministering came when he was a student in his native Puerto Rico. A man who murdered his mother when Castro was 11, ministered to him. Castro forgave him and embarked upon a career in the ministry.
Castro’s last sermon to the church was in October and he has since spent time visiting two sister churches in the state. He also recently returned from a trip to Honduras.
“It’s emotionally hard for him because he wakes up on Monday thinking he has to be here,” his daughter, Diane Mercado, 49, said. “Or they’re still calling him at the hospital and they want him to come visit. So the adjustment is still really hard.”
Castro’s other children — Nathan Castro, 50, Nedinia Cancel, 48, and Jonathan Castro, 39 — also attended the ceremony.
“Not only has he given to his blood family, but also to his spiritual family,” Nathan Castro said. “That’s his love.”
Castro took the three hour program in stride, but emotions got the best of him at the end. It was just after Jairo Olivella, a member of the church for 18 years, spoke.
“It’s not easy after 18 years of being in this church to say farewell to the pastor,” Olivella said. “I want to say Pastor, we will not forget you. To the congregation, keep on praying for this man of God.”
As the two men embraced, they each became emotional. Castro them became chocked up during a prayer.
The day was also a celebration of the work Aida Castro performed. She told the crowd, during a lighter moment, she had reservations about the man she would later call her husband of five decades.
“But he stole my heart and now, to today, I want to tell you that I love him very much,” she said.
The church erupted with laughter.
When asked how he was able to sustain a career at the church for 40 years, Francisco Castro said there was only one way.
“Because the grace of God,” Castro said. “Otherwise, I would have never been able to do it.”