TABACUNDO, Ecuador — The Sabbath is anything but a day of rest for Justin and Jauna Reeger.
Early on a Saturday morning, Justin Reeger drives a big blue pickup to a corner of this South American town. The locals call it “la playita,” Spanish for “the beach,” because it’s usually covered with sand and dust.
Today it’s covered with children.
Chattering excitedly, boys and girls cram into the truck, but many more have to wait for the next trip. It takes several to get them all to their destination — Camp Bellevue.
For the next six hours, the Reegers and their coworkers will treat 96 children to games, Bible lessons and a hot meal — an extended version of the after-school program they run on weekdays.
On Sundays, the Reegers and about 50 Ecuadoran Christians gather in the camp’s multi-purpose hall for worship. Justin Reeger doesn’t preach.
Instead, the sermon comes from Jhon Cuaran, a native of Colombia who studied ministry at the Quito School of Biblical Studies.
Across Latin America, native Christians take the lead in evangelizing and church planting — roles that once belonged to U.S. missionaries. The same is true throughout the Global South, including Africa and Asia, where the number of churches and adherents has eclipsed those in the U.S.
Despite the changing demographics, some U.S. Christians find that they still have a role to play among the churches in the Global South — a role of support.
The Reegers came to Tabacundo from Dallas, where they counseled violent juvenile offenders for the state. The couple met at Lubbock Christian University and earned master’s degrees in social work from the University and earned master’s degrees in social work from the University of Texas.
Camp Bellevue, an 18-acre facility in the picturesque mountains above Tabacundo, provided them with the opportunity to use their professional skills and their Christian faith. In Texas, the Reegers couldn’t share their beliefs with the youths they counseled.
In Ecuador, “the government doesn’t care if Jesus gets included in our work,” Justin Reeger said. In addition to overseeing the day-to-day operation of the camp, a ministry of the Bellevue, Wash., church, the couple hosts parenting classes and works with church members to serve their community.
Ecuadoran Christians “are really animated … really concerned about how they can take Jesus to other people,” Justin Reeger said. They’re also uniquely qualified to reach their own people, he added.
Marcelo Espinoza is one example. Like many Ecuadorans, he grew up going to church “more because of tradition — it wasn’t really a relationship,” he said.
His wife, Marlena, started studying the Bible with church members, and he started listening. The Espinozas were baptized in May and host a weekly Bible study at their home in Tabacundo. The Reegers visit on occasion, but the Ecuadorans lead.
“Right now my main focus is to get my whole family to know God,” Marcelo Espinoza said. “I want everyone I know to know how to have a relationship with God.”
SUPPORT THAT WON’T STIFLE
As Espinoza and other Christians in the Global South take lead roles in evangelism, U.S. churches grapple with how best to support their work.
Globally, at least two-thirds — and possible three-fourths — of Churches of Christ are outside the U.S. But at least 90 percent of the church’s combined wealth is concentrated in the U.S., said Philip Slate, a longtime missionary and church elder in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
The same is true across denominational lines, church scholar Philip Jenkins writes in “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.”
The booming churches of the Global South require resources to keep pace with the booming growth in major cities — from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Lagos, Nigeria. But “Western investment in missions has been cut back dramatically at just the point when it is most desperately needed,” Jenkins writes.
Cuts in missions funding are, in large measure, “a response to charges of cultural imperialism in bygone years,” Jenkins writes, “and a guilty sense that there was not much justice to the conventional stereotypes of missionary work.”
Stephen Lockwood, a member of the Bellevue church, said his congregation’s goal in supporting the Reegers is to provide the Ecuadoran church with tools such as health care, education, family aid and even recreation to bring people closer to Christ.
“We are striving to make New Testament Christianity a relevant part of Ecuadoran culture,” Lockwood said, “and we need to be cautious of our financial and cultural ties that stifle local leadership.”
A MINISTRY OF HOPE
Jerry Snyder doesn’t rest much on Saturdays, either. Recently, the native of Shawnee, Okla., spent a Saturday evening driving a van full of children into Tabacundo for haircuts.
Snyder and his wife, Patricia, moved to Ecuador six years ago to oversee Hacienda of Hope, a children’s home that adjoins the property of Camp Bellevue.
Two of their sons served as mission apprentices here, and the couple visited and fell in love with the mountainous country and its people. Jauna Reeger’s father, Kent Marcum, a longtime missionary in Ecuador, recruited the Snyders for the work, with support from the The Twickenham church in Huntsville, Ala.
The Snyders had never worked in childcare or done full-time mission work, but after a lot of prayer, they accepted the offer.
“We just felt like it was God asking us to go,” Patricia Snyder said, “and we just couldn’t say no. It’s as simple as that.”
The Snyders, both 61, often find themselves in awe of the task before them.
“We’re very underqualified to do this job. It’s way over our heads,” Jerry Snyder said. “But what has happened here in the last six years is all a credit to God’s power. It’s God’s project. He’s in the driver’s seat.”
Four years ago their son, Justin, and his wife, Amanda, moved to Ecuador to oversee a small Christian school near the Hacienda of Hope. The school is undergoing a massive expansion project and will serve as one of the largest private Christian schools in the area.
Jerry Snyder said he’s seen glimpses of God’s power as he’s watched the children he cares for grow in their faith — and even become evangelists. Christian Sevillano, 16, came to the Hacienda of Hope about seven years ago. His arrival there, he said, was “the beginning of a new life for me.”
Sevillano accepted Christ and, with the Snyders’ help, began teaching his extended family about Christ. Recently, the teenager baptized his 80-year-old grandfather in a river behind his home.
For Jerry Snyder, witnessing the baptism “brought home to me again why we’re here — for God to use us in ways I couldn’t even imagine.”
Churches of Christ in the small South American nation of Ecuador have a long history of U.S. church members working in supporting roles. Here are two examples:
Louis McBride | Cuenca, Ecuador
Louis McBride was born in Ecuador. His father was a railroad worker from the U.S., and McBride moved there when he was 12. He met his wife, Dottie, in the States, and they committed to five years of mission work in Ecuador.
“It’s been a long five years,” said McBride, who has traversed the country for 31 years, helping win souls and plant churches.
In that time he’s seen Churches of Christ grow, but he fears that many are caught up in doctrinal matters and are more interested in “purifying the church than preaching the gospel.” He encourages churches to refocus on evangelism. He and his family live in Cuenca, Ecuador
Jerry Wilson | Riobamba, Ecuador
Jerry Wilson describes Riobamba as “the loveliest city I’ve ever seen.”
After her husband died in 1984, Wilson and her mother participated in a mission trip to Ecuador and came back to stay. Wilson’s mother, known as “Mama Lou,” died at age 103. Wilson, 76, continues to teach Bible classes for the Riobamba church.
Minister Luis Romero said “Mama Jerry” has encouraged the church since she arrived. “After God, she’s one of the predominant people who has pushed us and helped out,” he said.