BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (BP)–Shirley arrived in Buenos Aires young, alone and desperate for a job.
Her mother, back in rural Bolivia, simply couldn’t support Shirley and her five siblings after their father abandoned the family. Their dirt-poor existence in an indigenous Quechua village had been hard enough even before he left. Like thousands of other jobless Bolivians, Peruvians and Paraguayans, Shirley made her way to neighboring Argentina for the promise of work and money to send back home.
She found work, all right — 18 hours a day at low wages in Buenos Aires’ immigrant economy of sweatshops, factories and menial labor. The more you produce, the more money you make. So she worked to exhaustion sewing clothes and fell back onto a pallet beside her sewing machine for a few hours’ sleep each night.
“I felt so alone,” she recounted, wiping tears from her cheeks.
She met Silver, another Bolivian immigrant and member of the indigenous Aymara people. They began living together and eventually had five children. Silver worked hard, too, but squandered his earnings on drinking binges during his days off. Remembering her Catholic training from childhood, Shirley prayed to the Virgin Mary that Silver would stop drinking. It did no good.
She began to attend various churches in immigrant barrios — some with bizarre rituals and doctrines — looking for support. Silver refused to go with her. Besides, he said, Sunday was one of the best days for selling goods in the street market. Shirley threatened to leave him whenever he became violently drunk, but nothing changed.
Finally, she turned to the Bible. When she read the passage about Jesus’ crucifixion between two thieves — and His mercy toward the repentant one — she felt the grace and peace of God flood her heart. Her demeanor changed from constant worry and fear to serenity. She won Silver to faith in Christ. He stopped drinking and they got married. After reading about the Israelites in Egypt, they also decided to stop working like slaves and trust the Lord to provide for their needs.
Today they run a small sewing factory out of their house in the scruffy Villa Piletones barrio of Buenos Aires, employing four or five other workers to help make clothes for local sale and export. They still work hard, but they take time for rest, worship — and sharing the Gospel with other Bolivians in the neighborhood. They’ve even assisted Southern Baptist missionary Howard Hicks, who visits the area (sometimes bringing volunteers) to evangelize.
If only every immigrant story in Buenos Aires ended so happily.
Many immigrants, like Shirley and Silver, are members of indigenous peoples already accustomed to second-class status in their home countries. Those with less education and darker skin than most Argentines suffer discrimination in Buenos Aires. They do the dirty, menial jobs more affluent Argentines don’t want. They work long, exhausting shifts on construction sites, in factories, shops and fruit-and-vegetable stalls. Though the government is working to provide better housing, roads and utilities in their communities, many immigrants still live in dangerous slums and shantytowns.
Their physical poverty mirrors their spiritual hunger.
“They are ‘Catholic’ because their parents or grandparents were Catholic, but a lot of them, especially the younger generation, say any religion is OK,” Hicks said. “A lot of them just haven’t heard about Jesus. We need to help them see that He is the only way to God and that they can have a personal relationship with Him.”
Hicks, 44, is from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. He began coming to Buenos Aires years ago as a volunteer — and later volunteer team leader — from Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. When he returned as an International Mission Board missionary, God drew him to the large and needy community of immigrants from poor countries bordering Argentina.
The challenge: connecting with them.
“They work many, many hours, and a lot of them live and work in the same place,” Hicks said. “They come down here and they work, and if they have time for anything else, they play soccer.”
He focuses on making friends — and Christian disciples — at fruit-and-vegetable stalls, on soccer fields and in immigrant barrios. He works with a small group of young immigrant Christians and keeps an eye out for others with leadership potential.
“My vision is to find people who are willing to go out and start up other discipleship and evangelism groups,” he said. “I want to disciple them so they can be the leaders. That’s my goal.”
Erich Bridges is a global correspondent for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. View a multimedia presentation about Buenos Aires — including video, sound and additional photos — here.