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Missionary couple inspires and equips Colombian churches to carry on work
October 27, 2008
By Don Graham
John and Lee Rojas* awoke with a start — someone was outside their tent.
"We want to obey the Lord," came a voice from the darkness. "We understand the story about baptism and want to be baptized."
John rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked into the moonlit faces of four Nu* tribesmen waiting anxiously for his reply. It was well before dawn.
"Very good," the Colombian missionary told them in a hushed voice, trying not to wake his two daughters. "We will make preparations to baptize you."
"No," one of the Nu answered. "We want to be baptized now."
The urgency in their voices was unmistakable. John led them to a nearby river and baptized them that night.
"Those are the kind of stories that give us goose bumps because they're so powerful," says Southern Baptist missionary Brenda Larzabal, who serves in Colombia with her husband, Fernando.
But such stories can also be bittersweet. As mobilizers, the Larzabals do a very different kind of missionary work. They're rarely able to interact with indigenous tribes face to face, much less share the Gospel.
"We get to know the indigenous vicariously through our national partners," Brenda explains. "Their triumph stories are our triumph stories, but it's hard not to be on the front line. When your heart is burdened with the Gospel, you want to share it firsthand."
Instead, it's the Larzabals' job to
inspire and equip Colombian churches
to send their own missionaries to the indigenous. Fernando believes it's an
issue of ownership.
"Our problem is that the average Colombian Christian has the perception that missions belongs to foreigners," he says. "But missions belongs to the local church. The Gospel has been in Colombia for more than 150 years. We believe it's time that what has traditionally been considered a mission field turns into a missionary force."
First fruits of that transformation are evident in the Colombian missionaries with whom the Larzabals partner. Unlike believers in the United States, Colombian Christians have few opportunities to receive formal missions training. That's why the Larzabals invest their time and energy nurturing couples like the Rojases. These one-on-one development opportunities are where Brenda's gifts are most evident, filling roles as both a missions coach and counselor.
"I walk alongside them, help teach them the tools they'll need, listen to their heart and their struggles," Brenda says. "We call it missionary discipleship. I also do a lot of the strategy, the 'let's sit down and work through your master plan' kind of stuff."
As Brenda mentors new missionaries, Fernando spends much of his time criss-crossing the country visiting pastors and churches. Today he's been invited to speak at Iglesia Bautista Berea, a Baptist church in the city of Pereira at the heart of Colombia's coffee country. From atop the church's wooden stage, Fernando preaches a missions-themed sermon to a crowded room of more than 60 people seated in plastic lawn chairs.
Eliecer Henao has pastored this church for about five years. He says he's always been drawn to missions and even dreams about becoming a missionary to the indigenous one day. Members of Eliecer's congregation, however, are just beginning to catch on to their Great Commission calling.
"Our contact with Fernando has been a key factor in educating the church about missions," Eliecer says. "Their idea of missions was to give money so someone else would go. But now we're talking about direct involvement."
As Fernando casts vision and calls churches to obedience, he highlights the need for the Gospel right in their own backyard.
"One of the struggles we have is how to connect the need of the indigenous groups with folks that live in a world that is so different," he says. Bridging that gap often means making personal connections, which is why Eliecer has asked José Miguel López to lead the church in prayer.
José Miguel and his wife, Claudia, are Colombian missionaries who partner with the Larzabals. They work among the Alhuata,* an indigenous tribe with villages just outside Pereira. Fernando is responsible for connecting the church with the Lópezes' ministry. Iglesia Bautista Berea now provides the family with financial support and even sends volunteers when they visit Alhuata villages.
"My dream is to come to a point where one of our own families would be sent as a missionary and would be supported by us 100 percent," Eliecer says. "We need prayers on our behalf so the church will wake up and understand that the missions responsibility is theirs."
Open doors, empty thresholds
Walking along a red dirt path in Camacho,* an Alhuatan village of about 500 near Pereira, Fernando talks with José Miguel about his progress. It's one of only four indigenous communities in the country the Larzabals are able to enter due to the threat posed by anti-government insurgents. Visits like this are a rare treat for Fernando.
"It's very meaningful for me to be able to come, to breathe, to smell, to see the people that we pray for,"
It's going to take a lot of work — and many more missionaries — if the more than 15,000 Alhuata are to hear the Good News. Though José Miguel has made inroads in Camacho, there are dozens of other Alhuata villages scattered across the surrounding mountains. Who will tell them? And what about the more than 60 other indigenous tribes in Colombia with no Gospel witness?
"The reality of missions is that we are lacking in laborers," Fernando says. "The doors are open. But there are few at the threshold waiting to enter."
To learn more about how you can be involved in reaching South America for Christ, go to samregion.org. Visit going.imb.org for general volunteer opportunities.
*Names changed for security reasons (IMB).