SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador (BP)–Julio Contreras will never forget the odor of burning bodies.
In November 1989, Contreras had taken a group of about 16 youth on an evangelistic campaign in eastern El Salvador, where he knew the political climate was volatile. A leftist militia was violently defying the Salvadoran government in that region of the country. The low-intensity guerilla war was constantly shifting between the countryside and the cities. Over a span of 12 years, at least 75,000 people are believed to have died, and more than 55,000 were displaced.
“In that kind of war, you’ve got to face that it’s just the way life is,” Contreras said.
Guerillas were trying to shut down the nation’s economy, and every light post within a four or five mile radius of Contreras’ home in San Salvador had been bombed at least once. But in the midst of all that, Contreras sensed the Lord calling him to ministry. When he responded by becoming a youth pastor, Contreras began taking groups of teenagers on mission trips to the east, where the guerillas were most active.
On Nov. 11, 1989, Contreras and his wife were staying in a pastor’s home in San Miguel after seven days of preaching, teaching and door-to-door evangelism, when guerilla forces launched a final offensive.
“All of a sudden, it broke out, and hell broke out,” Contreras said. “It was constant, 24-hours-a-day, all-over shooting.”
Contreras and his wife were trapped in the pastor’s home for five days, but members of the youth group were trapped in the homes of host families all across the city.
“You’ve got to remember, those were not my own kids,” Contreras said. “Their parents had trusted me. So I said, ‘We’ve got to go get them back.'”
After talking with guerilla leaders, Contreras realized the youths had already been taken by the guerillas and forced to dig trenches. He negotiated their release and brought them back to the home where he had been staying, but then the Salvadoran government began a bombing campaign.
“It is a totally different thing to be in a place where they’re shooting than to be in a place where they’re bombing,” Contreras said. “You feel the bombs coming closer and closer and closer, and you wonder, ‘How’s the guy up there going to know that I’m here and I’m one of the good guys?'”
As the bombs rained down, a group of about 20 people knelt and prayed under a concrete slab. Because there was no room under the slab for Contreras and his wife, Patty, the couple went into the bedroom where they’d been staying and surrounded themselves with pillows.
“Now it seems funny to me,” Contreras said. “Like pillows were going to protect us! But that’s just the way you feel. You need something that will guard you and protect you.”
When Patty looked at Contreras and said, “We’re going to die,” Contreras assured her they would not. But deep down, he said, he didn’t know.
They did survive and when the bombing ended, Contreras stepped out onto a street carpeted with cartridges. With no way of burying all the bodies littering the street, Salvadorans were forced to burn the corpses.
“When the hair and the bones burn, it is an unforgettable smell,” Contreras said. “Even now, I can feel it. It’s funny with smells; they stick in your mind.”
The end of the war marked the beginning of a spiritual battle.
“During the early ’90s, the armed conflict ended, but a new spiritual conflict began,” said Carlos Vega, a Salvadoran pastor working in the rural areas around San Miguel, El Salvador.
While evangelicals saw a surge of growth during the 12-year conflict, they also witnessed the emergence of false doctrine. Today, Salvadoran evangelicals are still trying to train and equip pastors and church leaders to shepherd Bible-believing congregations.
When leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee began planning a series of global conferences to foster relationships among evangelicals, Contreras recognized they could help ground Salvadoran churches in the faith. He offered to host the first Encouragement Conference at New Life Baptist Church in San Salvador.
While the conferences offered Salvadoran pastors an opportunity to fellowship and learn about biblical leadership, former SBC President Bobby Welch said members of the SBC Executive Committee were equally blessed by the deep spirituality burned into Salvadoran hearts by their past ordeals.
“[The Salvadorans] have subjects — and this is the beauty mark — they have subjects that we can’t talk about,” Welch said.
Since North American evangelicals have a very different history than that of the Salvadoran people, Welch says Southern Baptists can learn a great deal from the experiences of their brothers and sisters.
“These people came out of [the revolution] with flying colors,” Welch says. “Now they’re blooming and blossoming in a unique way.”
Kristen Hiller is a freelance writer living in Syracuse, N.Y.