Latin America: From dirt roads to urban pavement, Churches of Christ take root
MACZUL SEXTO, Guatemala — The paved road — and the…
LIMA, Peru — As a country boy from north Mississippi, I love peace and quiet,” says Jonathan Cooper. “Lima is everything but peace and quiet.”
The bustling South American capital, known for highrise condos, ceviche and traffic congestion, is home to more than 10 million souls. It’s the second-most-populated city on the continent behind Sao Paulo, Brazil. Since 2012 it also has been the mission field for Cooper and his wife, Peruvian native Bani Gonzáles.
The couple, both graduates of Bear Valley Bible Institute in Denver, has served as evangelists, outreach coordinators and counselors for Churches of Christ — of which there are fewer than 20 in Lima, including house churches. They currently serve the 80-member Salamanca Iglesia de Cristo, where Cooper is pulpit minister. This year one member is moving to the city of Huancayo to help start a new church.
“This is an example of the level of commitment members have made to fulfilling the Great Commission,” says Cooper, who also studied at Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee and Heritage Christian University in Alabama.
The couple also focuses on reaching church members who have fallen away and reuniting them with their former congregations.
The elders of their previous supporting church in Alabama recently resigned, so now they are “in dire need of an eldership committed to evangelism abroad,” Cooper says. They pray for a sponsoring church that will send not only funds but also church members to see and participate in the work. (Email Cooper for more information on supporting their work.)
The couple sat down with The Christian Chronicle at a restaurant in one of Lima’s massive shopping malls (a 90-minute drive from the airport, through bumper-to-bumper traffic) to talk about how they met and how they serve in Peru. Adding occasional commentary was their 8-year-old son, Andrew.
Bani: I’m from Lima originally. I was worshiping with the Miraflores Church of Christ, and a group of missionaries from the U.S. came there. I’m a special ed teacher, and they liked the way I worked with kids. They asked me to work with the Sterling Boulevard Church of Christ in Sheffield, Ala., which was starting a Hispanic ministry.
After four years living with this awesome family, doctors with two children, I met Jonathan. He came to visit the church during a special black history program. They asked me to talk about black history in Peru.
Jonathan: I was at the Southside Church of Christ in Rogersville, Ala. I had just gotten back from a long trip to Georgia, on the Florida border, at 3 a.m. It was a three-day ladies event, and my sister asked me to drive a van. I was sleepy and didn’t want to go (to Sterling Boulevard), but my little brother convinced me. I met Bani, and she convinced me to go to a Mexican restaurant.
Bani: I was just being a nice person! I didn’t have anything in mind! Then, when we started to get serious, he needed to come to my country. He came for Christmas 2008. We got engaged in May 2009, married in August, drove to Bear Valley and started school. We stayed there for three years.
Andrew: Then in 2010, I was born!
Jonathan: I grew up in the Church of Christ. I witnessed the efforts, sacrifices and tears that my father and mother put into their ministry. I fell in love with many of the hundreds of people they reached out to daily.
I remember watching my parents wrestle with the disappointment of members they’d baptized leaving the church for other religions or fads. “What did we do wrong?” they would ask. “Why would they turn their backs on sound doctrine? If I had one more chance to talk with them I would say…”
“… But today we aren’t worried about our lost brothers; rather, we’ve become eager to keep up with denomination X and Y.”
On my first visit to Peru with Bani, I witnessed something so familiar while sitting around the table with her family and fellow members of the Lord’s body. They were worried about members who no longer worshiped with them. “What happened to so-and-so and his family? Why aren’t they coming to church anymore?”
Jesus is very clear about how a shepherd will leave the 99 sheep to find the one lamb that was lost. But today we aren’t worried about our lost brothers; rather, we’ve become eager to keep up with denomination X and Y.
We’ve been here for seven and a half years and have helped close to two dozen people come back to Christ. They’re faithful, strong, determined individuals and families who never lost hope in their salvation. But they had lost confidence in their fellow brothers in Christ.
Bani: The idea is to get them back to their churches. We don’t want to be seen as sheep stealers. Transparency is the biggest thing.
Jonathan: I have worked with three congregations in different parts of Lima with people from very different cultures and social backgrounds. I have visited at least five other congregations in Lima.
The division problem has roots in the following issues:
• Leaders can be, at times, quick to defend, deflect and diverge when issues arise instead of facing them head-on.
• Peru is a diverse country because members come from all over the world to Lima, and trying to worship together isn’t easy when cultures collide.
• Past missionaries have done great things for the churches, but I feel that we’ve failed to differentiate American Christian culture from Bible-based commands and first century culture. Many new Christians in Peru and around the world feel like they have to imitate missionary X and not Christ. I think we sometimes sell ourselves rather than Christ to the communities we are reaching out to.
• I believe strongly that money, intent and expectations don’t always lead to desired results, especially when there isn’t transparency and discussion among everyone involved.
Jonathan: I think that we have to sit everyone down, confront some of the major issues and build community with the leaders. I say “leaders” because not all preachers lead the churches in Lima. Some individuals lead the churches from the front pew. Others lead from across the ocean via Internet. I think that those who want the churches to work together have to be invested in building a Christian community in Peru.
Jonathan: My primary desire in Peru, aside from reaching the wandering sheep, is to build a safe haven for Christian youths through a network within the brotherhood. My first attempt at this was back in 2012 when I brought Montrell Greene down to do a few programs with the youth in Chosica, Los Pinos and churches in the surrounding area.
In 2014 we worked with Jonathan Hanegan, missionary in Argentina, to gather all of the known churches together for an afternoon in the park. Almost every church in Lima was represented. We also have participated in Bible bowls, spoken at joint evangelism activities and attended national youth retreats.
I have great expectations for the present and next generation of Christians in Lima. Many of them already have expressed a desire to become evangelists, preachers, teachers and, most importantly, lights in their communities.
“I believe God has used me to be a non-biased bridge within the Christian community.”
I believe God has used me to be a non-biased bridge within the Christian community. I’ve gotten to know most of the churches and several of their members for close to 12 years now. I keep in contact with members and leaders alike, and we rarely turn down an opportunity to assist them in their programs, whether evangelistic or celebratory.
Jonathan: I wish that people in the States knew that Peruvians are a lot like them. The difference is that for the thousands of preachers trained throughout the U.S. every year, Peruvian Christians only train about 20 to 30 a year. We don’t have enough schools, preachers, teachers and evangelists to secure the success of the Churches of Christ here for the future.
For that main reason, we at Salamanca are putting much effort into preparing our youth and older members for the preaching of the Gospel. Our average Bible study on Sundays is two hours long. We have begun to prepare a few of our men to teach in our own preaching institute. The only thing we lack is financial support for the administration and to pay for a location — and time. Next year one of our former elders will be retiring from his 9 to 5 job and will be serving full time in the Bible institute that we’re hoping to open in the coming years.
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