I’m writing halfway through our trip to South America, just as we leave Quito, Ecuador, for a visit to the jungle—we actually will reach our hotel by a 20-minute canoe ride! Yesterday I stood on the equator, with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern. It’s winter here, though, and Quito lies at an altitude of 8,000 feet, so the temperature has been fine.
For some years now I have corresponded with a surgeon who works at a mission hospital located near the site of a tragedy in 1956. Then, Huaroni Indians (called Aucas at the time) killed five young missionaries who were trying to make contact with a tribe noted for their violent ways. Elisabeth Elliot lost her husband Jim, and her subsequent writings, such as Through Gates of Splendor, as well as widespread coverage of the event in Life magazine made the killings famous. The recent film End of the Spear revisits that time.
It seems violence is everywhere. When we get fragments of news from the US, we hear about the ongoing debate on whether to bomb Syria as punishment for their use of chemical weapons. Here in Ecuador we see street demonstrations with hammer-and-sickle flags and banners proclaiming “Long Live Maoism.” And we arrived here from the nation of Colombia, which has been fighting guerrilla wars for 60 years, at the cost of 200,000 lives.
As so often happens, the church flourishes in the midst of tragedy. Where missionaries died, a hospital now tends the sick and wounded. And where war has raged, people turn to the church for hope and comfort.
I wish every American could experience the church where I spoke last Sunday in Bogota. Casa Sobre la Roca (House Upon the Rock) has four services, with the first scheduled at 6:30 am. Only 3000 turned out for that one; the other three had standing-room only crowds of 3500. Most attenders are first-generation Christians, exuberant about their faith. They sing lustily and break into applause—or tears—throughout the sermon. The church was founded by a newspaperman/politician who got on the wrong side of a former President and had to flee to Miami. As conditions changed, he returned to found Casa Roca, which now has 27 branches in various cities.
We got the full Latin treatment. The church hosted us like royalty, with flowers, signs, and gifts awaiting us at every turn. We heard moving stories from people who had been held hostage by guerrillas for several years, and from those who had lost loved ones. Yet we also met high government officials and leaders from both sides of the conflict, who have now reconciled, as well as former narcotics dealers and drug addicts, all of whom are celebrating their new life as followers of Jesus. One of the government’s top administrators is married to a former guerrilla chief, both now active in the church.
Hope is in the air in Colombia, and peace talks are taking place, yet the danger continues. Wherever we went, two bodyguards accompanied us. The hotel gave dire warnings about not walking outside, not trusting any taxi, not assuming that a uniformed policeman isn’t a fake. Traffic was terrible because farmers had rioted the day we arrived and the government deployed 50,000 troops and closed many roads, funneling them all into major arteries, which got completely clogged. After a while you get used to the sight of tanks and machine guns lining the roads.
A healthy church doesn’t just sit around singing songs and listening to praise music; it puts faith into action. Casa Sobre la Roca gives 15 percent of all its income to outside ministry programs, focusing especially on twelve orphanages. Most abortions are illegal in Colombia, which means many unwanted children are born. Some are sold into a kind of sexual slavery, others turned loose on the street to fend for themselves. The church takes in these children, houses them with loving “parents,” and gives them first-class treatment, including education in private schools. The kids surrounded us, touch-needy, holding our hands and hugging our legs. (They also insisted on touching my Afro-style hair, which is unlike anything they’ve seen among Colombians!)
Often I’ve said that my own faith gets fueled by trips to other countries, and this one is a good example. There are many good churches in the US, I know. There are also many where the aging congregation simply goes through the motions. Not here. The kingdom of God is alive and well. As Jesus said, it starts as a small seed, then grows into a great bush in which the birds of the air come to nest. Parts of South America are in the springtime of faith, and the region’s birds are finding a place to rest.