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Faces of Faith – Diosnel

Diosnel Castro Perez is from Curuguaty, a small town in rural Paraguay. He works as a security guard in a ceramic factory just outside of the capital, Asunción. Like many Paraguayans, he can speak Spanish, but his first language is Guaraní. In 2019, Diosnel was searching online to learn more about God. He tried four different Bible training programs, but he didn’t like that their teaching wasn’t based on the Bible. Then he found an Academia Cristo video on YouTube. He signed up for live classes in October 2019. Over the next year, Diosnel finished all 13 courses of the first level of the training program. At times, he was enrolled in three courses at once, “They taught in a way I could understand. It was like a light went on”.

Diosnel was also sharing what he was learning with others: family, friends, coworkers. It even got him in trouble: “My boss told me not to talk religion at work,” he said, “but that didn’t stop me.”

Now, Diosnel is receiving training to plant a church. “What I like about Academia Cristo is they don’t just teach you the Word. They teach you how to teach others.” He already has a group of about ten people that regularly study with him, but he wants it to grow. And he has more plans: “I want to be a missionary one day, to teach God’s Word in other countries.”

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God’s work across the globe

Things are slowly starting to get back to normal. There are less restrictions on social gatherings. There are more opportunities to return to usual activities. This is also true in our world mission fields. In June, Missionary Andrew Johnston got to spend ten days meeting face-to-face with believers throughout central Mexico. The goal of this trip was to encourage Academia Cristo students who are currently gathering groups of people around God’s Word. Check out the timeline below to see what Missionary Johnston did during his trip.

Bible study group with Javier (second from left)

Saturday, June 12. After arriving in Mexico City in the early afternoon, I journeyed to the far southern edge of Mexico City to visit Javier. Javier is a furniture salesman who gathers four different groups of people to study God’s Word. After meeting one group at his home, I was asked to lead a Bible study. This group has already finished an Academia Cristo course called “The Four Concepts.” This course provides an overview of sin, grace, faith, and works.

Sunday, June 13. I traveled to a factory in the northeastern edge of Mexico City where Artemio, an Academia Cristo student and now confirmed Lutheran, gathers a group of about eighty people. I was asked to preach and participate in the confirmation of nine members. In the afternoon, I joined Javier at Ricardo’s house where I got to meet Ricardo’s family and friends. Ricardo owns a small pharmacy. He and his wife had questions about the validity of their baptisms (they were baptized as infants in Catholic churches). We took the opportunity to study baptism as a group and reaffirmed their baptisms by repeating the promises of God. Afterwards, we returned to Javier’s house where we met with another one of his groups who are studying online.

Monday, June 14. Meeting early at the bus station,and I took the five-hour bus ride to Zacapoaxtla, Puebla, a small city in the mountains. At the bus station in Zacapoaxla we were met by Pastor Samuel. He drove us to Huitzitlan, a small town about two hours from Zacapoaxtla. It turns out that Samuel is also a taxi driver. At a church with a big Luther seal outside, Artemio and I met with Samuel and church president Pedro, and we heard their story. Samuel’s father-in-law had been the pastor. When he died, Samuel was named pastor, but had received very little training of any kind. Samuel was interested to hear about Academia Cristo and wants to give it a try. After being invited to eat at Samuel’s house and meeting his wife Rebeka, we headed back to Zacapoaxtla. On the way, we stopped in Huahuastla to visit a man named Floriberto, the pastor of the Lutheran church in that village. Floriberto seemed interested in Lutheran training with Academia Cristo.

Tuesday, June 15. Artemio and I spent the morning with Pablo Tamanis, the pastor at the Lutheran church in Zacapoaxtla. Pablo and his wife kindly received us in their house and made us breakfast. Saying good-bye to Pablo, Artemio and I retraced our steps back to Mexico City having a good conversation on the way.

Arturo, Maricruz, with their daughter, Romina, holding her baptism certificate

Wednesday, June 16. After using some free time in the morning for two online meetings, I visited Arturo (vice principal of a school) and his wife Maricruz (a teacher). We talked late into the night, working through several doctrinal questions. When the discussion of baptism came up, they shared that their 13-year-old daughter Romina hadn’t been baptized. They asked what would stop us from baptizing her. I almost felt like Philip with the Ethiopian Eunuch. . . So, we studied baptism with Romina and baptized her that night. We are praying that, God-willing, we will recognize doctrinal agreement with them in September and talk about steps to gather a group.

Thursday, June 17. Today, I headed to visit Javier again. We walked through a goal setting process that we use with advanced students to help them grow in their faith and start a Lutheran group. I also officially presented Javier with a doctrinal agreement certificate.

Friday, June 18. I boarded a bus to San Martin Texmeluchan, Puebla, in the morning. There I met Gabino Sanchez Sanchez (yes, that is a double Sanchez). We enjoyed a couple hours of conversation over coffee and parted ways agreeing that we would spend more time together during my next visit. On this visit, we plan to work through our doctrinal agreement process.

Marli holding her doctrinal certificate

Saturday, June 19. On Saturday, we got to gather several Academia Cristo students together. Pastor Carl Leyer was also present to help with these meetings. It was very encouraging to get to meet with students from different backgrounds and with different stories all in one day. In the evening, Pastor Leyer and I traveled to Cuernavaca to meet with Marli, her husband Luiz, Edna, and Maricela (and their driver Roberto). Marli is a very active Academia Cristo student. We were graciously received by Luiz and Marli in their home.

Sunday, June 20. After breakfast, we went to work on setting goals with Marli. She is working on sharing Jesus with lots of people. She has two children’s groups, she meets with groups of police to share the Word, and other things. Marli is now committed to starting a women’s group.

Monday, June 21. We had an early appointment at a police station near Cuernavaca. The department psychologist has asked Marli to share the Gospel. We met with a group of 16 people, including at-risk kids, moms, and police officers. We led a Bible study on the story of Zacchaeus, It was a great opportunity to share the Gospel with a very engaged audience. After a meal at one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to, Carl and I prepared to fly out the next day.

What do a pharmacy owner from Mexico City, a taxicab driver in a rural mountain village of Huitzilan, and a woman from Cuernavaca have in common? They, along with many others throughout Mexico and Latin America, are receiving training through Academia Cristo to gather a group and teach that group the truths of God’s Word. They are being equipped to share the gospel. They are being encouraged to share the peace that only comes from Jesus. We thank God for these students, and we thank God for the opportunity to visit them.

Written by Matt Behmer, world missionary on the Latin America missions team based in Quito, Ecuador.

 

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Perfect timing

The timing seemed awful. Missionary Joel Sutton and his family and I had only been in our new mission field in Paraguay for a few months. We had just found housing, but it certainly didn’t feel like “home” yet. We were really looking forward to changing that: getting to know our neighbors, traveling a bit in the country, making connections in the community.

Then the pandemic hit. Paraguay´s government issued a “total isolation” policy. We could leave our houses to get food or medicine, but that was about it. So much for our plans of getting established in a new mission field! From our perspective, the timing of the pandemic couldn’t have been much worse.

But God’s timing is always perfect. We were locked in our homes, but so were people all across the world. Many were scared and searching for answers. The Latin America missions team had just rolled out a new, Academia Cristo Bible study app for smartphones. . . and downloads surged. Sign-ups for our online Bible training courses surged too. Zoom classes with 10-20 students before the pandemic were now filled with 40-50. God was reaching more souls with the gospel all over Latin America!

One of those souls was Lester Soto from Managua, Nicaragua (pictured above). He had downloaded our app just after the pandemic hit and signed up for our live classes in April. When I met with him after class one day via Zoom, he admitted that he had been putting off his relationship with God for a long time. But God had used events in his life to lead him to search for the truth, and he found us online. More importantly, his Savior found him. “I was lost,” Lester said. “But now I know Jesus did everything for me. I have a spiritual peace I’ve never had before.” He told me he wanted to join one of our churches. When I said we didn’t have a church in Managua yet, he said he wanted to help start one.

Over the course of the pandemic, Lester was able to take 11 online Bible courses with us. He’s now gathering a group in his home to share with them what he is learning. And he’s not the only one: I could tell you about Eduardo from Bolivia (pictured), José from Ecuador, Benjamín from Colombia, and others—all of whom found us during the pandemic and are now working to plant churches where they live.

It might not always seem like it to us, but God’s timing is always perfect. The Christmas story reminds us of this. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, miles from home, with a barn for their hotel room. That doesn’t seem like the best moment for the Savior to be born! But there in Bethlehem was precisely where and when God had promised it would happen (Micah 5:2). In God’s eyes, the timing was perfect: “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son…” (Galatians 4:4)

In our case, having just arrived in a new mission field did not seem like the best moment for God to allow the pandemic to happen. But just ask Lester, Eduardo, José, Benjamín, or any of the countless others across the globe that God has used the pandemic to reach or grow with the gospel. I’m sure they’ll all tell you. . . God’s timing couldn’t have been better.

Written by Rev. Abe Degner, world missionary on the Latin America missions team who resides in Asunción, Paraguay. 

Want to learn more about world mission work in Latin America? Visit wels.net/latin-america to learn how Academia Cristo, an online training tool used by the Latin America missions team, is reaching millions of Spanish-speaking people with the gospel.


 

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Faces of Faith – Zoilo

Zoilo Vidal lives in Quevedo, a city about 5 hours away from Quito, Ecuador. He has a small farm with about 9 acres of different fruit trees. In May 2019, Zoilo signed up for online Bible courses on the Academia Cristo website. He connected to the classes twice a week and absolutely loved them. “I knew I was in the right spot from the very first session, when the teacher kept repeating, ‘Let’s go to the Bible for the answer.’” He was so overjoyed about the classes that he sent our missionaries in Quito a gift: two boxes filled with 66 pounds of oranges, watermelon, and papaya. The gospel produces. . . fruits!

By God’s grace, Zoilo continues in the classes. He has downloaded our new Academia Cristo app and excitedly calls the local missionary every time he finishes a new self-study level. He finished the first two levels in 10 days—An Introduction to the Bible and Forgiveness. We pray that all the resources be a great benefit for him, his family, and his neighbors.

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The sleeping shrimp

“Camarón que se duerme…” I said. Immediately a chorus of 20 voices responded, unprompted and unscripted, “Se lo lleva la corriente.”

Many had broad smiles—either joy at a shared knowledge of the common saying or, maybe, they were laughing at a familiar Spanish phrase spoken with a gringo accent. (I, personally, prefer to think of them as “knowing smiles.”)

“The shrimp that falls asleep gets carried away by the current” is the meaning of the common Spanish phrase. It turns out that the phrase is so well known that students in my online class from Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico all instinctively finished my sentence.

People are swept up in the coronavirus current right now. If you think it’s bad where you live, you should see Latin America. In Paraguay, our missionaries are allowed to go out of their homes only to buy groceries. In Ecuador, you need to elect one member from your household who is the only one allowed to go out for food. In Colombia, many members of a sister congregation have red flags outside their home as a signal that their household has no food and no way to get it.

The coronavirus current has swept the globe. Many are carried away, consumed with fear for their physical and financial well-being.

It was into this current that our WELS Latin America Missions team, together with Multi-Language Productions (the artists formally known as Multi-Language Publications), launched a new app. The purpose of the app was to deliver basic law-gospel, biblical instruction in Spanish to the masses. The plan was that those who finish the classes offered in the app proceed to live, online classes from members of our team. At that second level, then, we would further instruct in sound doctrine and train people to share what they learn while also identifying those who want to plant churches and welcoming those who stand with us to confess a oneness of faith.

The app originally was to be released in September of 2019. It was the first of its kind, so production didn’t go as quickly as we had hoped. September turned to December and then to February of this year. After a soft start, finally, in March, a half year after we originally had hoped, we were ready to go full tilt.

About the same time the app was set to release, the coronavirus and associated shut-downs made their way around the globe.

It turns out, at least for our work, the timing hasn’t been bad at all. We were prepared to do online instruction, so we were ready to handle the “shelter in place” aspect of the pandemic. Also, it seems that people whose way of life was tumbling in the fast-flowing waters of quarantines and shut-downs were looking for something to hold onto.

Since the launch of the app, through the end of April 124,000 people from every Spanish-speaking country have downloaded the app. They have begun to flow through the courses presented on that platform—38 videos, each about 7 minutes long, followed by a short quiz. To date, 248 people have watched every single video and taken a corresponding quiz and, after finishing, have signed up for live classes with our missionaries. We hope to see that trickle of app course finishers change to a flood in the weeks and months to come.

It is hard to say how much, if any, of these numbers are due to a release that coincided with a global pandemic. This much we can say for sure: the one who blesses beyond all that we can ask or imagine worked things out precisely the way HE had planned.

It was with a group of those students who had “graduated” from the app that I met live and online, and with whom I talked about the shrimp. From across the Americas we shared a laugh about a common phrase. More importantly, we marveled together at a seemingly common Galilean who lived and died and then rose again and whose resurrection guarantees peace, forgiveness, and life eternal to all who believe in every place, time and circumstance. That’s something for “any shrimp” to hold onto no matter how fast the current flows.

Written by Andrew Johnston, world missionary on the Latin America missions team

 

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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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