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‘In Bogota, where I feel at ease’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Nov. 30-Dec. 7, focuses on missionaries who serve in South America as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year’s theme is “GO TELL the story of Jesus”; the national offering goal is $170 million.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia (BP)–It’s a safe place where indigenous students can get help with class work, eat a hot meal and learn about Christ.

Southern Baptist missionaries Fernando and Brenda Larzabal created the Student Center in Bogotá to attract the growing number of indigenous students attending Colombia’s National University. Government scholarships provide students’ tuition but little else. That’s where the Larzabals recognized a need — and a doorway for sharing the Gospel.

“Some students are very leery of us,” Brenda says. “They’ve been around long enough to know that we are evangelical. But when their tooth hurts or they’re real hungry or they’re failing something, they come. Initially we just help them, love them and serve them. That’s when the barriers break down.”

Hugo and Diana Solorza are Colombian missionaries who partner with the Larzabals to run the center. Hugo’s heart for the project comes from personal experience. Raised in an indigenous community for most of his childhood, he knows exactly what many of these students are going through.

“During my time at the university I often lived the way they do — feeling scorned, without money, sometimes going hungry, not being prepared academically,” Hugo says. “What we try to do here is provide for those needs.”

Located in a renovated house in a Bogotá suburb, the Student Center includes a computer lab, study rooms, exercise equipment and even a small dental clinic. Services like Internet access or tutoring are available for a small fee — Bible studies are free.

“We never push our beliefs,” Fernando says. “We don’t hide them, but we don’t force them. And when friendship is inevitably established, soon the time comes when the students want to know what is different about us.”

The Solorzas have seen 25 students come to the Lord through the Student Center since it began four years ago. Magaly*, 21, is one of 10 students who have already been baptized. In her fifth semester of a business administration major, Magaly is the first woman from the Apakta* tribe to go to college.

“This is one of the very few places in Bogotá where I feel at ease,” Magaly says. “Here, nobody looks at me weird. There are a lot of other indigenous students and it’s really cool to be able to share stories about our homes.”

Brenda points out that one of the Student Center’s greatest strengths is its potential to carry the Gospel far beyond the classroom.

“Because they’re being educated at the university, these students become leaders in their community,” she says. “If they can be won to the Lord while they’re here, they can go back and share the Gospel in places we don’t have access to.”
*Names changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. To learn more about reaching South America for Christ, go to samregion.org. Gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering can be made at www.imb.org/offering to support the International Mission Board’s more than 5,300 missionaries worldwide, including Fernando and Brenda Larzabal in Colombia.

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  • Don Graham