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FIRST-PERSON: In Madrid, a banner of hope

MADRID, Spain (BP)–The sun was already setting as I made my way through the sea of bodies, umbrellas and banners. The light rain that had greeted me as I surfaced from Madrid’s underground metro system was growing bolder, as were the thousands upon thousands of Madrillenos who were determinedly marching down Goya street toward Plaza de Colon, where they would be met by what has now been estimated to be literally millions of their fellow citizens in this capital city.

All were marching under one cause, in what Spaniards call a “manifestacion” -– to put a voice, feet and physical presence to their protest against terrorism in the wake of the bombings of the Madrid commuter train system the day before. The attack left 202 dead and more than 1,300 injured.

They were mourning and grieving, but they were also angry. Very angry. And they were bitter and frustrated. It did not matter to them that this march from Goya to Plaza de Colon and then on to the Atocha train station (the site of the major attacks) would take them five hours in the pouring rain. Or that they would be freezing cold, wet and numb from holding their banners of outrage high in the biting wind and driving rain.

They were a people on a mission.

But it was a mission with no sign of God in sight. Just banners cursing the terrorists, chants of vulgarities.

Yet it was not a mean crowd by any standard. They were extremely polite and kind to one another, even in the sardine-like conditions. And it wasn’t just your usual crowd of rebellious youth who were protesting. There were grandmothers and grandfathers, small children, babies, people in wheelchairs, on crutches, young and old, rich and poor. They shared, regrettably, a common bond of seeing their Madrid family brutally attacked by terrorists. In spite of the politeness, however, they shared a common rage, and it was evident all around me.

I had met up, miraculously, with the evangelicals of Madrid who sensed God’s calling to be there at that place, at that time, to bring a voice of hope in a sea of hopelessness and anger. We had practically reached Plaza de Colon when I heard shouts as several young seminary students from the Baptist seminary in Madrid found us in the burgeoning millions. In their arms they carried a large banner, not as yet unfurled. Other Baptists in the crowd of marchers were lending a hand in the pouring rain to extend the banner which, unrolled, stretched across two lanes of the people-packed street. It took at least four men and women to hold the banner high by its makeshift poles, seeking to raise the message above the teeming and angry throng.

As I walked behind the banner, one hand holding my umbrella and the other supporting the unfurled message, I read it to myself, “Jesu Cristo dijo, Bienadventurados son los que trabajan por la paz” / ”Jesus Christ said, Blessed are those who work for peace.” In that crowd of rage, anger and swirling epithets and vulgarities, it stood out in stark contrast.

The masses behind us would come up, asking what it said, for they wanted to make sure they did not find themselves behind a banner whose cause they did not support. As we answered, most nodded politely and made their way under the banner to move ahead. Few were willing to walk behind the words. Others laughed quietly and slipped off to the side.

And so it was for the four hours we carried the banner. The men took turns at the strategic support poles, coming in to offer relief when one brother’s arms grew too tired to continue. Others of us walked between the poles, trying to keep the message extended and clear so those around us could read the words.

About three hours into the march, as had been the pattern all evening, a stocky man in his 60s walked around us to see the front of the banner and read it to himself. I had been seeing the same reaction all evening. A shrug of the shoulder, and they would move on. But as the message registered for this man, a smile grew across his lined and rain-streaked face, and he turned to the young seminarian holding the nearest support pole. “Thank you,” he said with deep gratitude. “You are the only one proclaiming the name of Christ!” And with that, he quietly slipped in behind the banner.

He was one man in a crowd of literally millions. And so it is in the angry, hard soil of Madrid, and of Spain. Among the teeming millions who walk the streets of this capital city, few are those willing to proclaim the name of Christ, to lift Him up and stand behind His Word. But in that night of anger, frustration, rage and hatred, a banner for Christ was held high. His name was proclaimed. A voice of hope was crying out in the wilderness.

And I realized even more why God has me where He has me. For such a time as this.
Jan Johnsonius is a missionary in Madrid with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board and a former director of international student services at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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  • Jan Johnsonius