Mission work in Venezuela

Henry and Tony, pastors of Most Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Medellín, Colombia, made a second visit to Venezuela last month. The primary purpose for their visit was to carry out face-to-face training and encouragement with four Venezuelan Academia Cristo students working to plant churches in two Venezuelan cities.

Rafael, Luis, Egar, and Jackson are Academia Cristo students working to plant confessional Lutheran churches in Venezuela

The crisis in Venezuela has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. A Washington Post article published during Henry and Tony’s visit states that “Some five million Venezuelans have left the country. [This] has refugees in an exodus that mirrors the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.” The same article states that one-third of the remaining nine million people in Venezuela are struggling to feed themselves.

The realities in neighboring Venezuela are very real to the members a Most Holy Trinity. Venezuelan immigrants are a common sight on the streets of their Colombian city. Some come to stay. Others are just passing through as they look for work and a new life. Most Holy Trinity members gather and give away clothing to Venezuelan refugees passing through. “The Venezuelan immigrants are traveling by foot. Many times their belongings are robbed. We provide them with food and help them obtain free medical attention from a number of nurses,” explains Pastor Henry.

It is encouraging to see how WELS and the Colombian church have been able to partner in this new and growing ministry to Venezuelans. WELS offerings have enabled travel to Venezuela and provided humanitarian relief to people inside the country of Venezuela. The Colombian church sends their leaders on trips to Venezuela (a country currently closed to U.S. citizens) and also completely funds the Medellín ministry to local Venezuelan immigrants.

Pastor Tony of Colombia studying the Bible with Academia Cristo student Rafael in Venezuela

There are real needs in Venezuela and WELS World Missions is working with our Colombian brothers to show Christian love to those who need it. The biggest need we see, however, is the spiritual one. We know that God often uses earthly crisis to draw us to him. Nearly a quarter million Venezuelans follow Academia Cristo on Facebook. This is more than any other country. In the past few weeks, 500 Venezuelans have downloaded the new Academia Cristo mobile app and begun studying in Academia Cristo’s Bible institute training program. Another trip to Venezuela is planned for this summer.

Written by Rev. Mike Hartman, missionary and field coordinator for the Latin America missions team

 

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A lot to love and a lot to work on

As we walked out of the shopping mall, Missionary Abe Degner looked at me and said, “There’s a lot to love. . . There’s a lot to work on.”

That pretty much summed up not just the visit we had just made with a potential church planting partner in that mall, but visit after visit we made in Missionary Degner’s first couple weeks on the ground as a missionary in South America.

Missionary Degner with Pablo, an Academia Cristo contact in Paraguay

There was a lot to love. Visit after visit turned up people who had come to us through our Academia Cristo online classes in Paraguay and northern Argentina and had already gathered groups around the Word that they heard in their classes. Humberto’s group in Capiibury had already investigated a church building. Pablo’s group just east of Asuncion had taken a stand for the truth and separated from a group that taught falsely. Carlos in Machagai, Argentina, had a group that had studied the “Key’s and Confession” from the Catechism, and he had a number of other former pastors who had come out of other churches who were searching with him for the truth. In addition to these students who found us online, we visited a group of new Christians in rural Paraguay who were meeting in a mission house built by a WELS congregation in Sarasota, Florida. There was a lot to love.

There was a lot to work on. There were economic struggles threatening to distract from gospel work. There were some major gaps in biblical understanding. Missionary Degner and I constantly discussed how to tip-toe through the minefield that is planting and building churches that are dependent neither on the missionary nor a constant flow of foreign funds.

There is a lot to love. . . There is a lot to work on.

Missionary Degner (left) and Missionary Johnston (right) studying with Carlos, an Academia Cristo contact in Argentina

I think this likely describes not just our work in Paraguay and Argentina, but throughout Latin America. As 2019 comes to a close there is a lot to love, so much to thank God for. Our more than a million Academia Cristo Facebook followers have translated into thousands of opportunities to make disciples who make disciples of others. We have had students in live, online classes from every country in Latin America. In addition to groups we were already working with, this year we saw new, on-the-ground gospel opportunities in Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. By the end of the year and by God’s grace, we will have three teams of two Latin American missionaries established in strategic locations—north (Miami, Florida), center (Quito, Ecuador) and south (Asuncion, Paraguay)—so that we can take advantage of all the opportunities which are being placed before us throughout the region.

There is a lot to love. . . There is a lot to work on.

Although we see things trending in the right direction, not just in the amount of new contacts but also in the growth of groups we have been working with for decades, will we realize our plans to see gospel-focused, biblically-sound churches planting churches throughout Latin America? Will those who have that incomplete understanding of biblical doctrine cast aside false teaching and embrace the truth? Will our new app allow us, as we hope, to better respond to the thousands who are coming to us for biblical instruction? Will our team in Paraguay be able to figure out life in a place where no WELS missionary has gone before?

Our Latin American mission team moves forward, ready to work to answer these questions in 2020 comforted by the fact that we are loved (a lot) by our gracious Lord. Please thank God for all he has given us to love. Please ask that the Lord of the harvest blesses that which we have to work on.

Written by Rev. Andrew Johnston, Missionary for the Latin America missions team

Learn more about mission work in Latin America at wels.net/latin-america.

 

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The gospel produces fruits… upon fruits

Koilo Vidal lives about a 5 hour drive from Quito, Ecuador, in the city of Quevedo. He has a small farm—about 9 acres of different fruit trees.

I’ve never been to Quevedo, and I’ve not met Koilo face-to-face yet. A few months ago, Koilo signed up for our online courses through Academia Cristo. He connected to the classes twice a week and absolutely loved them. He was so overjoyed about the classes that he said he wanted to send me a gift of fruit. I didn’t think he was serious. . .  but he was! He sent the packages and I picked them up at a distribution center in Quito . . . two boxes filled with 66 lbs of oranges, watermelon, and papaya (pictured above)! What a tasty gift! And from someone I have never met. The gospel produces. . . fruits!

The gospel is producing other fruits in Koilo too. I sent him a digital copy of the Catechism, and he stayed up until the middle of the night studying it. “I just love these classes I’m taking,” he told me, “and I knew from the very first sessions when the teacher kept repeating, ‘Let’s go to the Bible for the answer.’ I knew I was in the right spot.” He told me how the classes were already helping him in his conversations with neighbors. “When my neighbors press me on issues such as tithing, fasting, and other issues, I can defend myself more and more with the Bible. I never knew that before. I also love how the teachers always pray ‘in Jesus’ name’. That way of praying was completely new to me, and I loved the explanation.”

By God’s grace, Koilo continues in the classes. We pray that they be a great benefit for him, his family, and his neighbors.

The gospel produces fruits . . . upon fruits. 🙂

Written by Rev. Nathan Schulte, missionary in Latin America

To learn more about world mission work in Latin America, visit wels.net/latin-america.

 

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Faces of Faith – Sebastian

It was a moment parents dread: an early morning phone call from the hospital.

“Your son has been in an accident. It’s critical. The doctors don’t think he’ll make it. Come right away.”

Sebastian had always struck me as a responsible teen. Respectful, polite, hard-working, active in the church – the kind of child that makes parents proud. One night he and a friend were riding Sebastian’s motorcycle home from a party. A different motorcycle blew through an intersection and struck the vehicle Sebastian was driving. He and the friend riding behind him went flying. Sebastian’s body cushioned his friend’s fall, but the pavement cracked Sebastian’s helmet and caused severe head trauma.

Sebastian’s parents, Henry and Eliana, are good friends of mine. Pastor Henry is a missionary in our sister synod in Medellín, Colombia. He is called to help others start churches in Colombian and Venezuelan cities. I heard of the accident from Henry and immediately left for the hospital. What do you say when a brother in the faith and his family are going through a severe test? We lived in different cities. I was unsure whether Sebastian would be alive when I arrived.

Sebastian presenting at his new church in Ibagué

After hours of travel, I got to see the family and shared my favorite Psalm with them: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord…” – Psalm 121. I assured them, “The Lord is with you. He is watching over you.”

“The first three days were critical,” recalls Pastor Henry. When he arrived at the hospital, Sebastian’s skull was cracked and his brain was visible. “After a few days they disconnected him from the machine to see what would happen.” He began to breathe on his own.

After a week, with a bandaged head, the medical team sent Sebastian home. He spent another month in bed, with his mom serving as his primary care provider. The next months his parents retaught him how to dress, eat, speak, and carry out basic skills.

Prior to the accident, Sebastian was studying to be a motorcycle mechanic. However, the trauma his brain suffered made school impossible. His mind found it hard to focus. Nearly three years passed. No longer a teenager, Sebastian grew more and more frustrated. He felt like a burden to his family. He began to struggle with depression.

Then one week, Pastor Henry was making his regular rounds and dropped in on a mission congregation in Ibagué, Colombia, which is about seven hours away from where he lives. Worship there is held in a hotel. Victor and Paulina work at the hotel and are leaders in the new church. Chatting after church, they mentioned to Pastor Henry that they were looking for someone to help them manage the hotel. “As a joke,” Henry recalls, “I told them, ‘You should hire my son.’” What a surprise when Victor and Paulina made the trip the next week to interview Sebastian for the position!

Arrangements were made, and in March of this year Sebastian moved away from home to live and work at the hotel with Victor and Paulina. “It’s been a huge blessing for everyone,” Pastor Henry says. “Sebastian is able to help start a church and stay close to God.”

Sebastian at his new church in Ibagué

I asked my friend, Henry, if a particular Bible passage brought them comfort during these past three years. “Yes brother, it was the one you read to us during the most difficult moments, Psalm 121.”

When David wrote those words some three thousand years ago, he had no idea how they would comfort a Colombian called worker family during their most difficult challenge. But God knew. Sebastian may never fully recover from the injuries he suffered during that early morning accident, but he can know God is watching over him, just as he watches over all his children.

Written by Missionary Mike Hartman, field coordinator for the Latin America missions team

 

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How great is the need?

No, you are not looking at people wearing purple Ku Klux Klan robes.

It’s Good Friday in the center of Quito, Ecuador. Two thousand people line up for a procession that winds through the streets from noon to 3pm. Almost all of them wear purple. Some carry huge wooden crosses with beams the size of telephone poles. Some carry statues. Some strap cactus crosses to their bare backs. Others whip themselves or have others whip them. Others clamp chains to their feet and drag them along.

Why are they doing this? I asked a lady who had participated in 11 of these events. She eagerly told me that there are many reasons someone might choose to participate. You may have some big sins to pay for or you might want to ask God a really big favor. In that case, you would need to participate 7 years in a row.

I was sad.

Good Friday in Quito, Ecuador

She actually said “pay for your sins.” All days are bad days to try to pay for your sins, but the irony of trying to do so on Good Friday was hard to hear. Equally disturbing was the attempt to convince God to answer prayers on the day when Jesus won for us complete access to our loving Father who always is eager to hear us. If one thing was certain from my observation of this Good Friday procession, it is this: many hurting people who are desperate for relief live here.

About halfway through the procession I saw a young woman who had been carrying a cross. She had collapsed by the side of the road. A team of Red Cross paramedics was attending her.

I was sad.

I thought about all the reasons the girl may have chosen to carry that cross. I thought about the guilt and the deep desire she had. She wanted something so badly. She was hurting. Even worse, I imagine her failed attempt will probably heap even more guilt and shame on her.

I was sad.

I wish that I could have been able to talk to her. I wish I could sit down at a coffee shop and just listen. To her and to all of them. I wish I could have had the opportunity to talk about Jesus. But at that moment, I couldn’t. Not with her and not with many others. I didn’t have the opportunity.

But maybe I’ll have the opportunity someday.

Traveling around Quito (not to mention all the rest of Latin America), I pass many apartment buildings. “How can I get in them? How can I talk to those people?” I ask myself. In most instances, I can’t.

I might not be entering, but the Word is. Through social media, thousands upon thousands of people learn about Jesus and have opportunity to sign up for online classes (or on-the-ground classes in some cases like Quito). Then I get to talk to them. Then I get to tell them about Jesus.

I am happy. The Holy Spirit is working.

Written by Rev. Nathan Schulte, missionary on the Latin America missions team based in Quito, Ecuador 

To learn more about mission work in Latin America, visit wels.net/latin-america.

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Swords and Selfies

Less than thirty years after Martin Luther’s death, in the town of Riobamba in the Spanish territory known as the viceroyalty of Peru, and at the foot of what was then considered the world’s highest mountain, a man simply known as “the Lutheran” arrived. The story goes that he was suspected of being Lutheran because he talked about being saved by Jesus without a word about the Virgin Mary or any of the saints.

Coat of Arms in Riobamba

“The Lutheran” didn’t last long in Riobamba. The townspeople’s suspicions quickly turned into hate, and then into action. With the fervor that accompanied the festival of Saint Peter, the man who represented salvation by grace alone was dragged into the town square in front of the cathedral and hacked to death with swords. When word of the action reached Philip the IV of Spain, the king he was so impressed with the enthusiastic execution carried out by the people of Riobamba that he granted them the great honor of a royal coat of arms for their town. The year was 1575.

443 years later, fellow Lutheran missionary Nathan Schulte and I walked into the town square of the same village (now in the country of Ecuador). We saw the same facade of the church in front of which “the Lutheran” had been executed (the rest of the building was destroyed in an earthquake, but the ornately carved stone facade that presided over the martyrdom in 1575 still stands today). High on the municipal building at the center of the town’s coat of arms, a Lutheran face looks out over the square with two swords pointed towards it.

And we took selfies.

But I didn’t go all the way to Ecuador for a selfie. I made the trip (I live with my family in Mexico) to take part in a little of the work there in Ecuador and join Nathan and Phil Strackbein (the other missionary who lives in Ecuador) in a full day of planning of how the precious message of salvation by grace alone would be taken to the people of Ecuador. Our missionaries have only been in Ecuador for six months, but, so far, they are being met with more open doors than swords.

Carlos Fernandez and his wife Graciela study the catechism with Missionary Johnston in Argentina

My trip last month not only took me to Ecuador, but also to Paraguay, Argentina, and southern Mexico. At those stops I met people who, as they take classes online or in-person, were sharing it with others. I spent two entire days studying with a man in northern Argentina who, at the end of my last day, showed me the lot he owns where he plans to build a church and where the pure gospel will be shared. I visited the humble home of a man in southern Mexico who filled his small living room with family and friends so that we could talk about Jesus.

As I had the privilege to move freely and study the Bible with people in Latin America, I couldn’t help but think of “the Lutheran” of Riobamba, perhaps the first Lutheran in this part of the world. How could I complain about staying in an accurately-priced $13-a-night hotel room or spending half a day in a Paraguayan bus station when I compared what I had to go through to those who have gone before? By God’s grace, 501 years after the Reformation, we have an open door for the gospel in places where once we did not. Through online classes, on-the-ground missionaries, occasional visits and, above all else, by the power of the life-changing gospel, people are telling people, disciples are making disciples who make disciples, and the name of Jesus is being shared in Latin America.

Written by: Rev. Andrew Johnston, Missionary in Latin America

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Gospel Networking in Latin America

Sorry, I know “networking” went from being a trendy word to cliché a while ago… but we’re not talking social networking or business networking. We’re talking about GOSPEL networkingIt’s connecting people to the gospel and to each other as much as possible. These partnerships mean we can get more done together than we could as isolated, separate ministries.

Yes, it’s true that many of the connections start online here in Latin America. Academia Cristo has 1.1 million Facebook followers. 1,800 people have asked to receive Bible-based training to share Jesus in the past three months (June-August 2018)… but the end goal is not a virtual, online church. The goal is to see more people trained to share Jesus wherever they’re living. This social and digital networking leads to on-the-ground ministry – aka local gospel networking.

Gospel networking in Venezuela

Ideally, that eventually means new churches are planted with Seminary-trained pastors in worship buildings that serve as tremendous blessings. We pray that gospel networking leads to that.

But in many cases, it doesn’t start like that. A guy finds himself the de facto spiritual leader of a few families. He works a full-time job. They meet wherever they can to study the Bible, pray, praise, and enjoy a meal together as Christian brothers and sisters. No budget, no church building, no ordained pastor. Is that a church? Trained by Academia Cristo, he then passes this gospel message and training on to his group. They take that message of Jesus’ sweet love out to their ‘colonias’ (neighborhoods). The gospel is being proclaimed, taught, and connections are being made for the kingdom. Is it okay if gospel networking leads to that?

From L to R – Jackson, Henry, and Tonny

In August, two Lutheran missionaries traveled to Venezuela for ten days to assist and advise Venezuelan pastor Jackson on the mission opportunities there. Only this time the missionaries are not American WELS missionaries – they’re Colombian: Tonny and Henry. Venezuela is a complicated place right now… There are stores with no food. Want a taxi ride?  You need a suitcase full of cash, since the money there is almost worthless (if you can find money at all). Most ATM’s in Venezuela are empty right now. Transporting ten pounds of food or more is considered “drug-trafficking.” Missionaries saw state police rob people of basic necessities – flour, food, etc… The three-man mission team went almost two days without eating. Pastor Jackson tries to break up a dispute and a guy draws a pistol. Why would Jackson, Henry, and Tonny get in the middle of that hot mess?

Gospel networking. The gospel of Jesus Christ.

People are hungry for something solid. When they meet Bible-based, Confessional Lutheran teaching, they want to connect their own network of people to that treasure. The chain of disciples continues. Pastor Jackson has a gospel network now, consisting of several groups that he is training and influencing via the internet and visiting in-person whenever possible.

This week in Academia Cristo ¡En Vivo! (Christ Academy Live), our online leadership training program, we have over 200 people participating in live online courses from 21 different countries.  With many of them, we say, “Who knows where this will lead?” But we trust that God’s Word will not return to him empty.

Gospel networking in Venezuela

In Guanajuato, a small city in central Mexico, Academia Cristo Facebook publicity grabs people’s attention to find those who want to be part of a church plant that only studies the Bible. Two families turns into seven families pretty quickly in Mexico. Why? People hear the gospel of eternal life in Jesus and want their family and friends to know about it – gospel networking on a local level.

In Quito, Ecuador, missionaries partnered with WELS members through short-term mission groups (WELS Mission Journeys) to launch a Christian Training Center and make initial on-the-ground gospel connections in the area.

Latino leaders meet to talk international Seminary-training. Can we do this work better together across borders in Latin America?

Gospel networking.

Gospel networking, both digital and local, leads to more people to heaven and the eternal network where we will be forever connected to our Savior and to each other. That’s what we’re doing in Latin America. Thank you for your prayers and support, brothers and sisters in WELS.

So just a thought for you… It’s pretty great, the clear gospel message we have as Christians and as Lutherans. Wouldn’t it be awesome to try something like Academia Cristo to reach the almost two billion English-speakers on the planet, most of whom live outside the U.S.?

Jesus said he would be lifted up, and he would draw people in to himself. It’s fun to see Jesus keep his promises.

Written by: Rev. Joel Sutton, Missionary for the Latin America missions team

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At home in Mexico

My husband Jorge is from Huamantla, a city of 50,000 at the foot of a volcano called La Malinche, where every year two dozen bulls thunder through the streets, and artisans cover six miles of local thoroughfares with elaborate carpets made of flowers and colored sawdust.

I am from pleasant small-town Wisconsin, that beautiful green country of cows and cornfields and cold winters, where bratwurst has been elevated to an art form and Friday night fish fries and the Packer games are considered sacred traditions.

The story of how we met is something only God could have arranged.

Our paths crossed for the first time in the arid industrial city of Torreón in northern Mexico. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a sojourn from urban metropolises to dusty rural roads and back again.

Jorge grew up in a Catholic family but came into contact with the Lutheran church as a teen, and eventually became a member. At the urging of his pastor, he decided to begin pastoral studies. This choice led him to Torreón, where the seminary was then located. In the meantime, I was studying to become a Spanish teacher at Martin Luther College. Word came that there was an opportunity to teach English in Mexico through WELS Kingdom Workers. Very interested to be immersed in a Latin American country and at the same time use my gifts to help the local church, I applied and shortly after, was accepted. Where in Mexico was I headed? You guessed it: Torreón.

Jorge and I were friends right off the bat. We visited all the museums and parks Torreón had to offer. He introduced me to some strange new foods. I may have asked him one too many questions about Spanish. Before a year had gone by, we were engaged. After finishing college (me) and seminary (Jorge) we got married in the beautiful colonial city of Puebla. Jorge was assigned to serve in Mahahual, a remote beach town six hours south of Cancun. It was a charming and tranquil place to live, sandwiched between the jungle and the sea. God blessed us with a little girl while we served there. Several years later, Jorge accepted a call to serve in city of León, Guanajuato, where we currently live. The changes were drastic; we traveled 1126 miles to our new home, from sea-level to nearly 6000 feet above sea-level, from a tropical to a semiarid climate, from the Caribbean coastline to the Sierra Madre mountain chain.

Folks often wonder what is like for me to live in Mexico, after having grown up elsewhere. Though perhaps cliché, life is slower here. You can spend a morning meandering through the town plaza, listening to organ grinders and feeding the pigeon flocks. At the same time, you can spend months trying to get one piece of paperwork registered by the local government.

As newlyweds, we traveled with only three suitcases and a few boxes of books to our name. Though we still live with very little by American standards, we daily witness people with much less. This is humbling; the abundance in the United States is a blessing I can no longer take for granted. To all of us, on both sides of the border, our Father sends us the manna of food, of friends and opportunities. He gives us so many gifts, Himself above all.

We live very deeply in the culture, as a typical Mexican family would. Most of my day is spent talking and working in Spanish. The experiences God has given me are beyond what my younger self could have imagined, from making chileatole (a savory corn and chili pepper soup) and tortillas with my mother-in-law, to giving birth in a rustic cabin because there were no hospitals nearby. I didn’t realize when we married the magnitude of the change I was embracing. I find the differences to be even more striking as I watch our daughter grow up. She chatters away in Spanish, eats tamales and thinks every party has a piñata. Mexico runs through her veins.

This life can, at times, be lonely. There are cultural moments in which I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Years pass without seeing any family members face to face. I miss births and deaths, weddings and graduations, often communicating from a cramped internet café. I mourn the milestones missed, and yet this serves to remind me that I am really homesick for heaven, that far-off Country. All of these places we have lived – Torreon, Mahahual, León – these are all temporary cities as we continue our sojourn home. One day we will be together again at His feet.

As we lay down our roots here and yet keep our eyes heavenward, we have confidence that Christ will keep us. Whether He shields us from heartache or permits sorrows to enter our lives, we shall not fear, for our God is good and He is in control. I confess with the Psalmist, ¨The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.¨

Kerry Pamperin de Briones, Mexico