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Grateful for a missionary’s outreach, they now reach others

EDITORS’ NOTE: The Week of Prayer for North American Missions, part of the 2005 North American Missions Emphasis, is being observed in many Southern Baptist churches March 6-13. Baptist Press will present profiles on the featured missionaries, now through March 15th. For more information on the emphasis, visit www.AnnieArmstrong.com.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Unlike most Hispanic immigrants, when Carlos and Cristina De La Barra arrived in the United States with their three daughters 14 years ago, it wasn’t a prosperous life they were searching for –- but a more fulfilling one.

Actually, life was quite comfortable for the De La Barra family in their native Santiago, Chile, where Carlos owned a successful computer company.

“For years, we made really good money,” De La Barra said. “We traveled all around the world. But after a while, again and again, I had the same feeling of emptiness. I tried to kill this emptiness by working 20 hours a day seven days a week.”

But it wasn’t until he met a Southern Baptist missionary who was starting a church in his neighborhood that De La Barra began to realize that he was empty spiritually.

Over the next year, the two families became friends, regularly sharing meals together. Then during a Saturday morning breakfast at a hotel restaurant in Santiago, De La Barra prayed with the missionary pastor to receive Christ as his Lord and Savior.

De La Barra’s prayerful commitment to Christ was the first step on a journey that has since taken him and his family from South America to help start Southern Baptist churches in Hispanic communities in South Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky.

The De La Barras are among nearly 5,200 missionaries in the United States and Canada supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are featured during the March 6-13 Week of Prayer, which focuses on the theme “Answer His Call.”

“I am a Christian because a Christian family from South Carolina went to Chile as Southern Baptist missionaries to bring the Gospel to our people,” De La Barra said. “As a Catholic, I always felt guilty of something and never felt sure of my salvation.”

Shortly after his commitment to follow Christ, De La Barra began accompanying the missionary pastor on ministry visits as well as helping him start another church. “He started teaching me without telling me that he was teaching me,” De La Barra said.

As their friendship grew, the De La Barra family vacationed with the missionary family in the United States by helping them minister to the Hispanic community in Greenville, S.C.

“Here in the United States, we realized the great needs of the Hispanic community,” De La Barra recounted. “They had spiritual, social, financial needs, and a lack of help and hope. We felt the call to serve them and help them where they live and in their own language.”

But before moving to the United States to attend seminary, Carlos and Cristina, who had been a Christian since childhood, began preparing their three daughters, two of whom were teenagers at the time, for a drastic lifestyle change.

“We knew that when we came here, I would not have a big salary,” De La Barra said. “We would not have a really expensive place to live.”

So they moved out of their spacious home and rented a small apartment in Chile for a year before moving to Greenville, S.C., where De La Barra spent a year studying English in preparation for seminary.

“My extended family still cannot understand why I quit my job and left everything to come here,” he said.

Following his graduation from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in 1996, De La Barra joined the North American Mission Board as a Hispanic church planter. While a seminary student, he helped start Hispanic churches in neighboring Indiana.

A major challenge in starting Hispanic churches, De La Barra said, is it can be a slow process because most migrant families come to Kentucky from Mexico and are largely illiterate and highly transient.

“Most of the people I’m serving here are not well-educated,” said De La Barra, who also has an MBA degree. “We have a lot of farms in Kentucky and a lot of Americans don’t like to do these jobs, and Mexicans come to do these jobs…. They live in places that no one else will.”

Hispanics, however, are increasingly pursuing fulltime or permanent jobs in the construction, landscaping, retail or restaurant industries instead of seasonal farm labor. De La Barra said that while more Hispanic families are migrating to the United States and planting roots, they’re largely reluctant to make long-term commitments.

“It’s hard to start a church when everybody is thinking about returning to Mexico,” he said. “It takes about 10 years for them to realize that maybe they will never go back to Mexico to live.”

De La Barra believes Kentucky’s Hispanic population is more than 200,000 but readily admits the number could be much higher because most come to the states illegally.

He serves Hispanic communities in central Kentucky between Louisville and Lexington. Over the past six years, the number of Hispanic congregations has more than tripled.

De La Barra mentors and trains local Hispanic pastors much the same way he was trained in Chile, by having men in the local churches regularly assist him with worship services and baptisms.

“Most of our training here in Kentucky is one-on-one,” he said. “We show them how to do it and then let them try, and then we move out…. We are trying to create a Bible institute in Kentucky in Spanish for our people.”

And everywhere he ministers, De La Barra emphasizes the importance of supporting missions prayerfully, financially and actively.

“I became a Christian because of missions in Chile,” he said. “Without it my life would be empty and never fulfilled. And without the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, we cannot continue doing what we’re doing. This offering is helping many people in the Hispanic community come to the Lord through the Hispanic churches that we are planting.”

    About the Author

  • Lee Weeks