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The Rev. Esther Gonzalez shared the good word any way she could

Preacher discovered her passion after drawing inspiration from Billy Graham
The Rev. Esther Gonzalez preached on Facebook Live for two years, for hundreds, sometimes a thousand people, watching from around the world. (Screenshot, Facebook Live)
The Rev. Esther Gonzalez preached on Facebook Live for two years, for hundreds, sometimes a thousand people, watching from around the world. (Screenshot, Facebook Live)
Published Apr. 22, 2019
Updated Apr. 23, 2019

“Beloved, let God’s grace be upon you,” the Rev. Esther Gonzalez said in Spanish around Easter last year. "In chapter 25 of Proverbs, we’re going to be studying a few comparisons and moral lessons for us, the believers, because the Bible is for the believers… These are the words written by God for us and for our salvation.”

For the next 56 minutes and 53 seconds, from her home office, the Rev. Gonzalez evangelized on Facebook Live.

After nearly 40 years behind the pulpit, the Tampa resident couldn’t stand for too long anymore. But she could still preach.

The Rev. Gonzalez died on April 1 of a heart attack. She was 87.

The Rev. Esther Gonzalez on a church trip to Canada. Her Bible rested in the bag she held. (Photo courtesy Alba Gonzalez)

The Rev. Gonzalez grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to New York at 17. She married, had three children and worked her way from seamstress to floor lady at one of Manhattan’s apparel factories. She got divorced and later remarried.

The moment that changed her life came at home, as she watched the Rev. Billy Graham on TV.

He said, “You’ve tried everything else. Why not give Jesus a try?”

So she did.

After her second husband died, the Rev. Gonzalez remarried, and she and Juan Gonzalez attended the Pentecostal Church of the Rev. Ray Velez. Soon, she began preaching at the church and writing articles for his weekly newspaper.

After Velez ordained her, she was, often, the only female pastor. Most of the male pastors ignored her in public, said the Rev. Gonzalez’ daughter, Alba Gonzalez.

“But when they would get her in private, they would say, ‘Sister Esther, keep doing what you’re doing.’ ”

The Rev. Esther Gonzalez and her husband, Juan Gonzalez, helped produce a weekly newspaper for their pastor in New Jersey. (Image courtesy Alba Gonzalez)

The Rev. Gonzalez navigated her way through languages, cultures and ideas about what was acceptable for a woman in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

She started holding Bible studies in Spanish in her home. When the crowds grew too big, the Rev. Gonzalez rented a storefront in Newark and started her own church. She and her husband also adopted a fourth child.

She wanted to teach women their rights as Christians and empower them in their faith.

“Here she was, a woman, divorced, everything was against her,” Alba Gonzalez said. “But she overcame, because she didn’t care. She just wanted to have people appreciate what the Bible is, what it can do for you.”

In the late ‘80s, the Rev. Ray Velez, left, moved to Tampa and invited Esther and Juan Gonzalez to come visit. The couple soon decided to leave the cold winters for Tampa. (Image courtesy Alba Gonzalez)

Ralph Romero couldn’t follow every word when his grandma preached and often had to ask his mother to translate, but when she laid her hands on him and prayed, he felt it.

“You could just sense the presence of God,” he said.

In all, the Rev. Gonzalez published more than 80 commentaries in Spanish on the books of the Bible. Discovering Facebook Live revitalized her, Romero said.

The Rev. Esther Gonzalez at Ministerio El Nuevo Pacto in Newark, N.J. Women didn’t often become pastors but that didn’t stop her. (Photo courtesy Alba Gonzalez)

Last year, the Rev. Gonzalez ended her Easter Monday video with a sweet but knowing look and a reminder about the next Bible study.

“...We are going to continue tomorrow,” she said in Spanish, “if God permits.”

“Amen,” someone wrote in the comments.

Before her death, the Rev. Gonzalez told her family not to cry at her funeral. She’d be looking at Jesus, she said, face-to-face. They plan to spread her ashes at sea.

Now, her daughter said, the family wonders: “What is she doing up in heaven?”

Most likely, Alba Gonzalez said, she’s revolutionizing it.

The Rev. Esther Gonzalez outside her Tampa home. She was a mother to four and grandmother to nine. (Image courtesy Alba Gonzalez.)

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird, social trending producer Elizabeth Djinis and Politifact’s Josie Hollingsworth contributed to this report. Want to know more about the Rev. Gonzalez? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see one way her daughter Alba will remember her. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

Read recent Epilogues:

Jim Igler was always near the water or under it, cleaning, teaching, helping

Don Barco was everybody’s best friend (or at least he made them feel that way)

Brady’s Backyard BBQ owner loved a good time

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