A rescue mission
A team of young Latin American Christians moves to Colombia to plant a church — and hears a call to serve the suffering in nearby Venezuela.
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Erik Tryggestad | Christian Chronicle
From across Latin America, a team of Christians has come to this border town in northern Colombia to save souls.  

They may save a few lives, too. 

The seven church planters — all graduates of the Baxter Institute, a ministry training school in Honduras — chose the South American city of Cúcuta as the site for a new Iglesia de Cristo, or Church of Christ. Sponsoring their work is Great Cities Missions, a nonprofit dedicated to planting churches in every major city of the Latin world.

The men of the Cúcuta church-planting team: Milton Castillo, José Abel Gonzalez, Ronald Sabino and Luis Vielman. Meet the team members. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

The city of 1 million souls sits across the Tachira River from Venezuela, a once-prosperous nation whose years-long economic decline has become a humanitarian crisis. In droves, Venezuelans cross the border into Cúcuta in search of food and medicine. 

In response, the church planters are filling the shelves of their rented facility with relief supplies.

A few Venezuelans are among the 30 believers who gather for Sunday morning worship in what will be the Cúcuta church’s auditorium. 

It’s a building under renovation — in need of paint, furniture and more plastic chairs before the official inaugural service in two weeks. 

Kelley Grant and Blake Crowell, of Great Cities, worship with the congregation — after spending the weekend helping to launch the relief work.

Milton Castillo leads singing for the Cúcuta Church of Christ — two weeks before the congregation's inaugural worship service. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Milton Castillo, a 27-year-old Christian from La Ceiba, Honduras, leads a cappella Spanish hymns, including “Te Exaltaré mi Dios, mi Rey” (“I will Exalt You, my God, my King”). 

It’s a new experience for Fray, a thin, 38-year-old Venezuelan with slightly sunken cheeks, and Ingrid, a bespectacled 34-year-old with hair pulled into a simple ponytail. The couple didn’t grow up in Churches of Christ and only recently started attending.

For Monica Sabino, a native of Cúcuta and member of the church-planting team, the couple is one key reason God has placed them here “en este momento” (“at this time”).

“I want our Venezuelan brothers to know that, in the midst of this difficult situation, there is a God of love and mercy,” she says. 

As the new church helps ease the Venezuelans’ physical needs, she hopes they can show those suffering across the border “that they are supported, that they are not alone, that we also hurt for what they are enduring.”


‘LITTLE BY LITTLE, LESS AND LESS’
After worship, four Venezuelans meet in an upstairs children’s classroom to talk about their country’s plight. Squatting in tiny chairs meant for younger bodies, they talk about the man-made crisis that grips their beloved homeland. They’re mournful — and angry, very angry — about what’s happening.

And they’re worried about their families.

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“We’re not producing anything anymore. There’s no money. We’re desperate,” says Maritza, whose son, Ronald Sabino, is on the church-planting team. “We don’t know what to do.”

She travels by bus — a journey of nearly 24 hours — from Cúcuta to her home in Venezuela, where her daughter and grandchildren live. After one such journey she burst into tears when she saw her daughter, skinny and emaciated from giving what little food she could afford to her children. 

About 15 years ago, President Hugo Chavez and his United Socialist Party launched its Bolivarian Revolution, invoking the name of the 19th century revolutionary Simon Bolivar, seen as a liberator across Latin America. Chavez strengthened government control of Venezuela’s oil industry and implemented social programs to expand access to healthcare and education. He formed partnerships with Cuba and socialist-leaning governments in the region.

It seemed like “a plan that was very good and very practical,” says Luis, a tall, slender Venezuelan who was baptized 40 years ago and worships with a Church of Christ in the capital, Caracas. The government helped the poor and took care of abandoned children, he says.
Then oil revenues declined, “and we started seeing a scarcity of products,” Luis says, “little by little, less and less.”  


Chavez died from cancer in 2013, and Nicolás Maduro became president. Since then, the crisis has deepened. The country suffers from inflation and shortages of medicine. Infant mortality rose 30 percent last year, and maternal mortality jumped 65 percent, according to Venezuela’s health ministry. Illnesses including diphtheria and malaria — all but eradicated in Venezuela — have returned.

“If you just want to buy flour or bread, you basically have to get in line for two days,” Ingrid says. “You have to leave your national ID number just to wait in line, and the next day you’re just hoping there will be something. Sometimes they put your number in a bag, and if they pick your number you can buy something, but not necessarily.”

In line, Venezuelans face harassment by “collectivos” who threaten to hurt those who refuse to give up their place in line. The collectivos buy the bread and sell it for inflated prices on the black market.

The crisis has driven away Venezuela’s physicians, says Fray, who once worked for a medical software company. When his clients left, he lost his job — and once went for 15 days without food. 

Fray points to two government IDs that document his weight loss. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

He pulls two photo IDs from his wallet, taken about 18 months apart. His cheeks are full in one and sunken — much like now — in the other. He’s lost 17 kilos (about 37 pounds) since his business dissolved, he says.

In Venezuela, college professors and executives have become scavengers, Fray says. They roam farmers’ markets and shopping malls in hopes of finding discarded food. 

Reluctantly, “I took off my tie” and joined them, he says. At one fast-food restaurant, he found a cup of soup that a patron hadn’t finished. 

“I made it last for three days,” he says.

CROSSING THE BORDER
After lunch, as the mission team’s wives take their children home for naps, the men — Abel Gonzalez, Luis Vielman, Milton Castillo and Ronald Sabino — take their guests from Great Cities Missions to the Colombian border. It’s a simple bridge that crosses the river, connecting Cúcuta to the town of San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela.

In Cúcuta, Colombia, a recently completed checkpoint into Venezuela is closed. Border guards have limited access in and out of the troubled South American nation. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

As storm clouds darken the afternoon sky, pedestrians walk in near silence, heads bowed, across the bridge. Most leaving for Venezuela carry two satchels apiece, each stuffed with food and medicine. Customs agents stop and search anyone carrying anything larger. They don’t want products bought in Colombia to be resold on the black market. 

Those walking the other way — from Venezuela into Colombia — carry almost nothing.

Sabino says he and his wife used to drive across the bridge to buy baby formula at a discount in San Antonio. That was five years ago, when he worked with a Church of Christ in Ocaña, Colombia, about four hours away. 

Back then, “it was like one big city,” he says. Borders almost didn’t matter.

Now the Colombian government restricts the bridge to foot traffic. Venezuelans enter on 90-day tourist visas, though some, including Fray and Ingrid, get permission to stay longer. 

Carrying small bags filled with food and medicine, Venezuelans walk across the Tachira River from Cúcuta, Colombia, to San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

Those who can’t pay for places to stay in Cúcuta camp in the city’s shopping centers — in front of signs for Reebok shoes and designer clothes.
The economic crisis also has hurt Cúcuta, which thrived on commerce when the Venezuelan bolívar was strong against the Colombian peso. Now, signs reading “SE VENDE” (for sale) and “SE ARRIENDA” (for rent) appear in windows across town.

The church-planting team got a good deal on its meeting place, rented from a local artist. The building includes a basement full of shelves, intended for handcrafted works that the Venezuelan visitors can no longer afford. 

The young Christians are filling those shelves with rice, flour, toiletries — and baby formula. Great Cities Missions has reached out to Churches of Christ in the U.S. and the church-supported nonprofit Healing Hands International for assistance.

The team never intended for their church plant to be a rescue mission — especially this early, Gonzalez says. 

People in Cúcuta, Colombia, walk toward the Venezuelan border — some carrying food they can’t buy at home. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)

But they did promise to “reflect the love of God, to reach souls for Christ,” he says, quoting the team’s mission statement. Their vision: “To have an impact on the city of Cúcuta through the Gospel.”

They’ve made contact with about 30 Churches of Christ in Venezuela, assessing needs and offering them what they have. It’s a daunting task.

“We can just do a little part,” Gonzalez says. “But that’s what we can do right now.”

NO COINCIDENCE
After Fray and Ingrid, the Venezuelan couple, share their stories in the children’s classroom, Luis Vielman guides them downstairs to the basement and presents them with the church’s first care package of food. 

Ingrid first learned of the new church through Monica Sabino, who was handing out homemade empanadas — meat-filled pastries —  on the street. The church planter told Ingrid about the new work and gave her some Christian literature. 

Ingrid later talked to her father back in Venezuela and learned that he had just met some members of a Church of Christ there — and received the same literature.

In the Cúcuta church building’s basement, Luis Vielman puts together the first care package of food that he and his coworkers will distribute to Venezuelan visitors. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
“No es una casualidad. Es una causa,” she says, making a play on words in Spanish meaning, “It’s not a coincidence. It’s a cause.”

“God is helping the Venezuelan people through the Church of Christ,” she adds. “Everything is done for a reason.”

She and Fray recently decided to be baptized — and to be officially married. Both will happen during the church’s inaugural service — Ingrid’s physical and soon-to-be spiritual birthday. 

She hopes her father can attend.

“It’s something I want to do,” she says of baptism, “to be a part of the kingdom of God.”

Her husband says he’s been angry for a long time — and went through a period when he didn’t believe in God.

Now, he says, “my faith has been renovated.”


TRANSLATIONS: Kelley Grant, Lynda Sheehan 
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