A mission to the heart of Bolivia: During weekend of violent protests, a new church begins
Arms outstretched, as on the cross, the alabaster Christ stands atop San Pedro hill, looking out over this bustling city, nestled among the Andes Mountains of central Bolivia. The people of Cochabamba gather at the Cristo’s feet to pray for prosperity and healing.
The stone Jesus stood silent as angry mobs threw rocks and burned tires in the streets recently. A disagreement between Bolivia’s president and one of its governors sparked a wave of protests. After nearly a month of marches, the protests turned violent, claiming two lives and sending hundreds to hospitals.
The worst of the fighting happened three days before a team of missionaries planned to celebrate the inaugural service of a new Church of Christ. The 10-member team spent a year making contacts and forming relationships in Cochabamba. The launch was to be the culmination of the missionaries’ work.
Church members in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, where Churches of Christ were planted nearly 40 years ago, planned to make the 200-mile journey to Cochabamba to celebrate the new congregation. But protesters, attempting to stall the country’s economy, barricaded the mountainous roads connecting the cities.
“The blockade will stop us, but it won’t stop God,” said Roberto Iskenderian, minister for the Tres Pasos church in Santa Cruz.
Twenty-three members of the Austin Avenue church in Brownwood, Texas,which supports the missionaries, spent almost 12 hours in the departurelounge of the Santa Cruz airport waiting for a flight to Cochabamba.Bloody images of the fighting flashed across the airport’s TV screens.
When the Texans finally arrived in Cochabamba, they spent the day in their hotel, watching as protesters roamed the streets.
“I would think that this might be a good time for us to be down here preaching the gospel,” elder Grover Beakley said as he stood on the hotel’s third-story balcony. The smell of tear gas tinged the air as police in riot gear passed, one of them whistling When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.
Roland Bowen, Austin Avenue’s education minister, planned to take the church members to the Jesus statue for a devotional. Instead, they gathered in the hotel’s dining room, where Bowen, a former missionary to Chile, talked about the challenge of reaching an angry people.
“In Latin America Jesus is seen by most men — like these guys in the streets — as a wimp,” Bowen said. “Why? Because people took sticks and stones and beat him and he died.”
Instead of showing them only the dying Christ on the cross, church members need to tell the Bolivians about the resurrected, triumphant Christ, Bowen said.
“These people need to be worshipping,” he said. “Instead of wielding sticks and stones, we want them to bow the knee in praise.”
FROM BLOCKADES TO BIG SMILES
“These protesters — they don’t do overtime,” missionary Butch Sandoval assured the church members.
And they don’t work weekends, either.
After days of demonstrations shut down most of Cochabamba’s businesses, the city came alive that Saturday. Cars filled the streets, and Bolivians lined the sidewalk cafes as sunlight broke through the overcast skies.
Energized and eager, the church members gathered invitations to the Sunday service and distributed them in the public squares. Even rifle-bearing national guardsmen, sent to restore order in Cochabamba, took brochures — though one soldier tossed his aside while another fashioned his into a sophisticated paper airplane.
Undeterred, the church members handed yellow balloons with smiley faces and the words “Cristo te ama” (“Jesus loves you”) to children — some wearing torn T-shirts and others with mp3 music players around their necks.
“What a thought that just two days before people were hurting and killing each other in the same streets,” missionary Gary Bull said.
Some of the balloons, though they’d lost most of their helium, reappeared at the Sunday morning service. About 100 people — half of them first-time visitors — heard Sandoval preach about the supremacy of Christ.
Cecilia Pap had a permanent smile as she hugged and kissed the visitors. She and her husband, John, live in Santa Cruz but spend much time in Cochabamba, Cecilia’s hometown. The couple’s 8-month-old daughter, Brianna, made her way through most of the Austin Avenue members’ arms before the service ended.
The Paps first learned about the missionary team through its Web site, www.cochabambaforchrist.com. So did Vicente Castillo. Baptized at age 15, he had almost given up on church, partly because “I didn’t have a place to worship,” he said. After studying with the team, Castillo rededicated his life to Christ.
Before the missionaries arrived, a small group of Christians met at the home of Antonio Vargas. Baptized about eight years ago, Vargas and his family were having a difficult time growing the church by themselves.
“It’s marvelous, because we’ve been waiting and waiting for a group to come,” Vargas said, straining to be heard over the noise of the crowd lining up for a fellowship meal.
In addition to the two-story church facility, the missionaries rent an outreach center in downtown Cochabamba where they teach English using the Bible. One of their students, Omar Sanchez, attended the dedication.
“These people are great,” he said, in flawless English. “All of the lessons we’ve had are about the Bible. I really want to learn English, and I want to learn more about the Bible.”
Gayle Walker, a Spanish teacher in Brownwood, said she was thrilled to see people at the dedication she’d talked to in the streets of Cochabamba the day before.
“The receptiveness and openness of the Bolivian people were amazing,” she said. “The soil is fertile!”
‘SEEING THE NEED FOR CHRIST FIRSTHAND’
“It was an incredible encouragement for so many from the Austin Avenue congregation to show up,” missionary Drew Custer said, adding that the church has a “real passion for the kingdom of God to be proclaimed and spread.”
The Texas congregation chose Cochabamba from a list of “unreached cities” after consulting with missions experts including Ken Hines, a former missionary in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, and Santa Cruz.
The church recruited the families — Gary and Laura Bull, Drew and Jamie Custer, Jeff and Katie Forbess, Joshua and Julie Marcum and Butch and Patricia Sandoval — and helped train them for seven months before they left for Bolivia in January 2006.
During their time in Texas, the missionary families befriended many of Austin Avenue’s members, including Jeff and Danielle Turner. The Turners’ 5-year-old son, Joshua, has prayed for the missionaries — about 4,500 miles away — since age 2.
“When we left for Cochabamba, he knew we were going to see ‘Drew, Jamie and Mr. Butch,’ and to tell other people about Jesus,” said Jeff Turner, a hospital administrator in Brownwood.
“I think that will have a lasting impression on him as a person and on the way he views missions,” Turner said.
The church used funds from its annual missions contribution to pay for the members’ airfare.
“We think that it is important that our congregation really know our missionaries on a close, personal basis before they are sent to the field,” said Beakley, one of Austin Avenue’s elders. “That way, we are not just supporting a name but people we really know and have a relationship with.”
That relationship made the long layovers and moments of uncertainty worth the trip — for the church members and the Cochabamba team, Gary Bull said.
“No high-powered, multimedia presentation can replace seeing the need for Christ firsthand,” the missionary said. “They witnessed the need by seeing the rioting, the miniature idols to various gods all over town and the inaccurate portrayal of Christ as a lifeless statue.
“They not only encouraged us, but they also were a huge encouragement to the Christians from Cochabamba and all of Bolivia.”
Read about the team’s sendoff in these Feb. 2006 stories: From Brownwood to Bolivia, church has global goals and Scenes from a sending church