Karen Pearce is an IMB worker among European peoples and contributing writer.
BOGOTA, Colombia (BP) — As I meandered through a craft market in Bogota, Colombia, I struck up a conversation with a vendor who asked why I was visiting his country. I had just returned from four days in Cúcuta, the Colombian-Venezuelan border town where I witnessed the sad pilgrimage of thousands of people leaving Venezuela out of desperation and hunger.
When I shared that with him, his face contorted into a mask of grief.
“It is so horrible what is happening,” he said, “They are our brothers.”
The vendor didn’t realize it, but he was echoing the same sentiment communicated by everyone I met in Colombia. The bond between the countries is strong. Shared roots, rulers, and history have created this brotherhood. War and heartbreak have forged it in the fire of adversity.
A shared history of trauma
Alex, the man who was my driver in Cúcuta, is an embodiment of this familial bond. He grew up in a Colombia that was violent and unstable due to drug cartels and guerrilla warfare. In the 1970s and 80s, millions of Colombians fled the war-torn country and headed to Venezuela, which was experiencing an oil boom. Nearly 20 years ago, Alex joined the desperate throng to find a stable home and a future in the neighboring country.
Three years ago, however, he was forced to make the reverse journey for nearly the same reasons. Venezuela’s deteriorating economy and increasing lawlessness left him no choice. In 2017 the number of Venezuelans leaving was estimated at 1.1 million. A year later, the number reportedly has increased dramatically.
But since many are undocumented workers, the exact size of the diaspora is difficult to know. According to Alex, it is close to two million, and many who are fleeing to Colombia are the children and grandchildren of those who arrived in Venezuela as desperate immigrants decades before.
This back and forth between the two countries is clearly visible on the Simon Bolivar Bridge, a two-lane thoroughfare that sees mostly foot traffic these days, due to a lack of cars and scarcity of fuel. The sojourners carry multiple suitcases with their most precious belongings and wear an unmistakable visage of fear and determination.
“We have no food. We have no medicine. We have no transportation. We Venezuelans are getting skinnier every day,” said one sojourner named Maria.
A shared message of hope
But those returning to Colombia bring not only hungry bellies and empty pockets with them. They also bring a deep dependency on God and a desire to share the Gospel.
Ironically, when Colombians fled to Venezuela decades ago, they took the Gospel with them, and the traditionally dead Venezuelan churches began to thrive. Since the year 2000, the number of churches in Venezuela has reportedly increased by 300 percent.
“We were planting 100 churches every nine years, but after 2000, we were seeing 100 churches planted every three years,” said Theo Starr*, a 27-year veteran IMB church planter who has worked in Venezuela.
There was also a rapid increase in the number of people called into cross-cultural ministry. In 2000, Starr’s Venezuelan partners held a missions conference. Eight people came. By the next year, with only word-of-mouth advertisement, 100 people came. Attendance the following year was 350.
Now it’s the Colombian church in need of revival, and the returning Venezuelans may be the catalyst.
Alex, my driver, became a Christian in Venezuela, and he now sees himself as a missionary back to Colombia. Since arriving three years ago, he has been actively involved in ministry and is seeking to plant a new church. He likens what is happening in both countries to Psalm 126:6, “Though one goes along weeping, carrying the bag of seed, he will surely come back with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves.” (CSB).
There are two layers of meaning in this verse for people like Alex.
Although they are leaving, weeping now, they hope to return one day with shouts of joy at what God has accomplished. But secondly, Alex sees how God did this same thing when believers had to flee Colombia years ago.
“It’s being fulfilled in Venezuela now — the Gospel was sown with tears as Colombians had to leave their country, but now the harvest in Venezuela is great,” he said.
A shared journey
Cesar and Neida are Venezuelan church planters who came to Colombia because Venezuela is simply not livable, in their view. Although they came with survival in mind, the great need and receptivity of Venezuelans in Colombia provided an open door to start a new church. After being on the ground for only one month, Cesar planted a small church among the immigrants.
Neida described her desire to help her people using the word acompañar — someone to walk alongside, to give support and encouragement, and to help them take the next step.
Cesar and Neida are using their time in Colombia, however long it is, to do just that. They are funneling what little they have back to their people in Venezuela, and they are helping Venezuelans who are new asylum seekers in Colombia.
Although the influx of people has caused a strain on the Colombian economy, because of the shared past and sense of brotherhood, many are reaching out to help with an acute empathy for what it’s like to live in unlivable times.
This is the one thing Theo and his wife Monica*, try to demonstrate daily. Whether it’s buying medicines, funneling food packets, or just sitting and crying with someone, their desire is for the Venezuelan people to know they are not alone. According to Monica, Venezuelans have said, “We feel acompañar by IMB. We know you’re praying for us.”
“That is the most important thing to them. More than food or money even — to know that they are not forgotten and that we are by their side,” Monica said.
For more information on how you can help Venezuelan and Colombian church planters, go to https://www.gobgr.org/projects/venezuela-response/.
Read more stories at imb.org.