MACZUL SEXTO, Guatemala — The paved road — and the dirt road — end quite some distance from this tiny village in the mountains of Central America.
Doctors, nurses and dentists with Health Talents International hoist tote bags full of medical instruments and medicine on their shoulders as they follow a winding path to reach their destination. When they crest the ridge overlooking the village, some gasp at what they see — a massive, bright yellow building bearing, in blue letters, “Aqui se reune La Iglesia de Cristo. Bienvenido.” (“Here meets the Church of Christ. Welcome.”)
Members of the congregation tell the medical missionaries that about 150 people gather here on Sundays to worship the Lord. Five elders shepherd the congregation, and every year the church hosts a gospel meeting attended by nearly 2,000 souls.
Churches of Christ have grown in fertile soil among the people of Latin America. The fellowship here has roots that date back more than 80 years, when a Mexican convert crossed the border and took the Gospel to his native country. Pioneering evangelists and doctors crossed additional borders, planting churches in the nations of Central and South America.
Now Churches of Christ exist in every nation of the region — and not just in rural villages.
In Cuenca, Ecuador, the Gonzalez Suarez Church of Christ has about 450 members, two elders and three evangelists. The church ministers, with several sister congregations, to a metropolitan area of more than 600,000 people.
Assisting in the work is the Theological Institute of Cuenca, a ministry training school among the Spanish colonial buildings of the city’s downtown. An Ecuadoran, Bolivar Vazconez, oversees the institute.
Catholicism and syncretism — the combining of Christian faith with indigenous beliefs — are strong influences throughout Latin America. Charismatic faith groups, including Pentecostals, also have grown rapidly in many nations, including Ecuador, said Jaime Cobos, who teaches at the institute. Many churches promise divine healing and financial gain to congregants and have huge followings among the impoverished.
In Ecuador, Churches of Christ focus on reaching people of all economic levels, Cobos said. Members sponsor a feeding program at the institute for the hundreds of day laborers who come to Cuenca looking for work. They also offer marriage and family counseling for Ecuador’s emerging middle class.
Dane Boyles, a former missionary to Ecuador and the institute’s former director, said that U.S. Christians can best support Churches of Christ in Latin America by partnering in ways that allow Latin American churches to use their strengths to reach the lost.
“These people have been through so much for the faith,” Boyles said. “They are great warriors in the Kingdom of God and inspirational to all of us for their sacrifices.” NATION-BY-NATION MEXICO
— Pedro Rivas, a Mexican national, was baptized at a Church of Christ in Harlingen, Texas, and attended Freed-Hardeman College in Tennessee in 1929. He returned to his homeland and preached in Torreon, Mexico, with support from the Central Church of Christ in Houston. Missionaries including J. Willie Treat and Haven Miller made inroads farther south.
About 1950, another native Christian, Agustin Figueroa, studied at Abilene Christian College in Texas before moving to the capital, Mexico City, to plant a church.
Now Christians in Torreon have a mailing list of 300-plus Churches of Christ in Mexico, spread across the country’s 31 states and its federal district. Additional home-based congregations exist throughout Mexico, church members say. The country has a population of 113.7 million. Growing congregations exist in Toluca, Leon and Monterrey. Churches established children’s homes in Cozumel, Ensenada and other locales.
Cities in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Aquiles and Piedras Negras, were the focus of mission efforts by U.S. churches, but drug-related violence has resulted in churches canceling or scaling back trips. GUATEMALA, BELIZE
— Missionaries from Churches of Christ have worked in Guatemala since the 1960s, though most were forced to leave due to political turmoil in 1981. Now the nation of 13.8 million souls has thriving congregations, led by elders, in its capital, Guatemala City. Medical mission groups and local evangelists have evangelized the country’s indigenous people, descendants of the Mayans. Adan Benavente preaches for a congregation in Solala, Guatemala, and studies the Bible with the region’s Quiche people.
In 1967, Luther Savage made a survey trip to Belize. Today the English- and Spanish-speaking country of 321,000 people is the focus of mission efforts, though it has no located missionaries. Congregations meet in Belize City, Belmopan and island communities, including San Pedro. HONDURAS, EL SALVADOR, NICARAGUA
— Church growth in Honduras, home to 8.1 million people, is linked closely to the Baxter Institute, which moved here in 1978. Dan Coker and other missionaries planted churches.
After Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure in 1998, the nation became the focal point of many humanitarian mission efforts. Predisan, a medical and evangelistic ministry, operates a clinic and drug rehabilitation program in Catacamas, Honduras. Native Honduran Amanda Madrid pioneered much of the work.
Despite armed conflicts and political upheavals in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s, Churches of Christ experienced rapid growth. Large congregations meet in the Salvadoran cities of San Salvador and San Miguel. Christians from El Salvador planted Churches of Christ in Nicaragua, now home to 8,000-plus church members. COSTA RICA, PANAMA
— About a dozen church members met in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, when missionaries Ray Bynum and Norman Fox arrived in 1967. About 44 Churches of Christ with a combined membership of 2,000 meet in Costa Rica now. The country enjoys prosperity and stability unknown by its neighbors. The 160-member Hatillo Church of Christ is “completely self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing,” member Carlos Ulate said.
Panama has about 3.4 million inhabitants. The Pan American Bible Institute in Panama City trains ministers who plant churches across Latin America. Churches of Christ exist among the Embera and Kuna Indians. Alvareno Ponce is a minister for a church in Ipeti Kuna, Panama. GUYANA, SURINAME, FRENCH GUIANA
— Home to 744,000 people, Guyana is the focus of medical mission efforts by Churches of Christ. Several congregations meet near its capital, Georgetown, and missionaries have planted churches among the Amerindians of its interior. A few congregations exist in neighboring Suriname, and French-speaking Christians from Quebec work among Haitian immigrants in French Guiana. VENEZUELA, COLOMBIA, ECUADOR
— Oil worker and church member Norman Merritt began spreading the Gospel in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, in 1957. Now there are about 70 Churches of Christ in this nation of 27.6 million people, with an average membership of 50. The largest, in Barquisimeto, has about 300 members.
In the late 1950s, church member Evert Pickartz distributed gospel tracts in many South American nations, including Colombia. Today growing congregations exist in Bogota and Medellin, which hosts an annual youth conference for about 190 Christians from Colombia and nearby countries.
Pickartz and Carlos Reyes helped establish the first Church of Christ in Ecuador in the city of Guayaquil in 1966. Missionaries including Kent Marcum, Jerry Wilson and Louis McBride continued the work, assisting congregations in Quito, Riobamba and Cuenca.
The Quito School of Biblical Studies prepares ministers for mission fields across the continent. The school shares its facility with North Quito Church of Christ, one of the largest in the country. “The love of God is bright,” North Quito member Yolanda Mena Tigse said. “I try to tell people how God is working in every person.” PERU, BOLIVIA
— Oscar Aguilar helped establish a Church of Christ in Peru’s capital, Lima, in 1961 at the request of missionary Evert Pickartz. U.S. missionaries Glenn and Janice Kramar arrived a year later to assist in the work. The Panamericana Norte Church of Christ recently hosted a lectureship in celebration of 50 years of Peruvian evangelism, said Helmut Garcia, a minister in Lima. Recent church-planting teams have focused on the Peruvian cities of Cusco and Arequipa.
Christians from the U.S. and Chile first worked in the Bolivian cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz about 40 years ago. Church growth in Bolivia has been slow, members say. In recent years Latin American and U.S. church members have formed teams to plant churches in Cochabamba and Sucre. BRAZIL, URUGUAY, PARAGUAY
— In the mid-1950s, Church of Christ members began working in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. In 1961, a team of 13 families arrived in Sao Paulo to plant churches. Brazil Break Through, another church-planting effort, was launched in 1974 by a team in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The effort, later renamed Continent of Great Cities, resulted in new Brazilian congregations. Now the ministry sends teams to metropolitan areas across Latin America.
The population of Brazil is about 203.4 million. Estimates of church membership vary from 10,000 to 20,000-plus. Native Brazilians, including Maria Dutton, have played vital roles in ministry. Joaquim da Silva and other Brazilians have graduated from Bible institutes with the goal of planting new churches.
Missionary D.H. Hadwin traveled to Uruguay in 1952. Christians from Chile and Brazil continued the work. Now several congregations exist in or near Montevideo, the capital of this nation of 3.3 million souls. Abilene Christian University in Texas sponsors a study abroad program in Uruguay.
Churches of Christ began working in Paraguay in 1965. Evangelists from Brazil and Uruguay have hosted campaigns in its capital, Asuncion. A team of U.S. Christians works with a growing congregation in Asuncion, but to date there is only a handful of Churches of Christ in this landlocked nation of 6.4 million people, former missionary Enoch Rinks said. CHILE, ARGENTINA
— Evert Pickartz lived in Chile’s capital, Santiago, for 10 years. Atilio Pinto was the first Chilean convert. Now native Christians in Santiago minister to small churches scattered up and down this narrow nation of 16.8 million souls. Mission teams also work with growing congregations in Santiago and its suburbs. A team of U.S. Christians plans to plant new congregations in Concepcion.
Churches of Christ began working in Argentina in 1957. At least 15 congregations exist in this nation of 41.7 million people. Church growth has been slow in Argentina, one of Latin America’s largest economies, members say. Leaders of the Caballito Church of Christ in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, recently launched a ministry training school. SOURCES:
“The World Factbook,” compiled by the CIA, interviews and “Churches of Christ Around the World,” compiled by Mac Lynn.