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Nurturing a missionary force in Colombia

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)–John and Lee Rojas* suddenly were awakened — someone was outside their tent.

“We want to obey the Lord,” came a voice from the darkness. “We understand the story about baptism and want to be baptized.”

John rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked into the moonlit faces of four Nu tribesmen waiting anxiously for his reply. It was well before dawn.

“Very good,” the Colombian missionary told them in a hushed voice, trying not to wake his two daughters. “We will make preparations to baptize you.”

“No,” one of the Nu* answered. “We want to be baptized now.”

The urgency in their voices was unmistakable. John led them to a nearby river and baptized them that night.

“Those are the kind of stories that give us goose bumps because they’re so powerful,” says Southern Baptist missionary Brenda Larzabal, who serves in Colombia with her husband Fernando.

But such stories also can be bittersweet. As mobilizers, the Larzabals do a very different kind of missionary work. They’re rarely able to interact with indigenous tribes face to face, much less share the Gospel.

“We get to know the indigenous vicariously through our national partners,” Brenda explains. “Their triumph stories are our triumph stories, but it’s hard not to be on the front line. When your heart is burdened with the Gospel, you want to share it firsthand.”

Instead, it’s the Larzabals’ job to inspire and equip Colombian churches to send their own missionaries to the indigenous.

The challenge, he said, “is that the average Colombian Christian has the perception that missions belongs to foreigners. But missions belongs to the local church. The Gospel has been in Colombia for more than 150 years. We believe it’s time that what has traditionally been considered a mission field turns into a missionary force.”

First fruits of that transformation are evident in the Colombian missionaries with whom the Larzabals partner. Unlike believers in the United States, Colombian Christians have few opportunities to receive formal missions training. That’s why the Larzabals invest their time and energy nurturing couples like the Rojases. This one-on-one approach is where Brenda’s gifts are most evident, filling roles as both a missions coach and counselor.

“I walk alongside them, help teach them the tools they’ll need, listen to their heart and their struggles,” Brenda says. “We call it missionary discipleship. I also do a lot of the strategy, the ‘let’s sit down and work through your master plan’ kind of stuff.”

As Brenda mentors new missionaries, Fernando spends much of his time crisscrossing the country visiting pastors and churches. At Iglesia Bautista Berea, a Baptist church in the city of Pereira at the heart of Colombia’s coffee country, for example, Fernando preaches a missions-themed sermon from atop the wooden stage to a crowded room of more than 60 people seated in plastic lawn chairs.

Eliecer Henao has pastored the church for about five years. He says he’s always been drawn to missions and even dreams about becoming a missionary to the indigenous one day. Members of Eliecer’s congregation, however, are just beginning to catch on to their Great Commission calling.

“Our contact with Fernando has been a key factor in educating the church about missions,” Eliecer says. “Their idea of missions was to give money so someone else would go. But now we’re talking about direct involvement.”

As Fernando casts vision and calls churches to obedience, he highlights the need for the Gospel right in their own backyard.

“One of the struggles we have is how to connect the need of the indigenous groups with folks that live in a world that is so different,” he says. Bridging that gap often means making personal connections, which is why Eliecer has asked José Miguel López to lead the church in prayer.

José Miguel and his wife Claudia are Colombian missionaries who partner with the Larzabals. They work among the Alhuata*, an indigenous tribe with villages just outside Pereira. Fernando is responsible for connecting the church with the Lópezes’ ministry. Iglesia Bautista Berea now provides the family with financial support and even sends volunteers when the Lópezes’ visit Alhuata villages.

“My dream is to come to a point where one of our own families would be sent as a missionary and would be supported by us 100 percent,” Eliecer says. “We need prayers on our behalf so the church will wake up and understand that the missions responsibility is theirs.”


Walking along a red dirt path in Camacho*, an Alhuatan village of about 500 near Pereira, Fernando talks with José Miguel about his progress. It’s one of only four indigenous communities in the country the Larzabals are able to enter due to the threat posed by anti-government insurgents. Visits like this are a rare treat for Fernando.

“It’s very meaningful for me to be able to come, to breathe, to smell, to see the people that we pray for,” he says.

José Miguel stops to introduce Valerio, an elderly Alhuata man who’s lived in this village for 50 years. Until recently, he had never heard the Gospel. Through their partnership, Fernando and José Miguel were able to help Valerio repair his aging home. It’s little more than a wooden shack with a dirt floor, but it’s all he has. Gifts like these have built goodwill between José Miguel and the Alhuatas, earning him the right to share the Gospel with them.

But it’s going to take a lot more work — and many more missionaries — if the 15,000-plus Alhuata are to hear the Good News. Though José Miguel has made inroads in Camacho, dozens of other Alhuata villages are scattered across the surrounding mountains. Who will tell them? And what about the more than 60 other indigenous tribes in Colombia with no Gospel witness?

“For the last 80 years folks have been working with indigenous groups in Colombia. But after all those tears and lives and efforts and sacrifices, we don’t have a lot to show for it,” Fernando says, his voice breaking with emotion.

“Out of 100 groups, at best we can say that nine have been reached…. I don’t think it would please God for us to take another 80 years. I think He’s given us everything we need to turn this around within the course of our generation.”

To illustrate, Fernando tells a story about an isolated tribe known as the Ibanutes*. A pair of Colombian college students was sent to survey the tribe to learn what was needed to bring them the Gospel.

“Do you have anything for us?” the Ibanute leaders asked the students.

Assuming the Ibanutes were talking about tangible things, the students apologized for failing to bring gifts.

“No, we were wondering if you have any advice for us, any words of wisdom,” the Ibanutes replied. “This is very important to us. In our tradition, we share words of wisdom.”

“I don’t have much of my own,” one of the students said, “but I happen to have a Book that has a chapter full of advice and words of wisdom.”

“They spent the next three days going through the Book of Proverbs,” Fernando says. “When they had finished, the Ibanutes’ request was, ‘Can you stay longer? Can someone else come? When will you send them?’

“The reality of missions is that we are lacking in laborers. The doors are open. But there are few at the threshold waiting to enter.”
*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