LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Lance Fadeley’s shovel struck something soft. Digging debris from the mud-clogged flat, his heart dropped. The body of what seemed to be a baby appeared amid the dirt and rubble.
To his relief, the body belonged only to a child’s doll. But the shocking possibilities had further impressed on him the magnitude of the death and destruction wreaked on Venezuela by December mudslides.
“I pretty much fought back tears the whole 10 days I was there,” said Fadeley, a Middletown, Md., native and master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Disaster relief was not the intended purpose for the nine Southern Seminary students on a January mission trip to Caracas, Venezuela. Yet, the devastating floods which killed thousands in the South American country had changed the plans.
“It was God’s timing,” said Daniel Hatfield, Southern Seminary’s dean of students and leader of the mission trip.
Originally prepared to assist two missionary families in “pre-evangelizing” one of the largest and poorest municipalities in the Caracas area, the group expanded its role to work for two days among flood victims in the town of Catia La Mar, about an hour outside of Caracas.
The team, along with their missionary hosts, distributed food and drinking water, shoveled mud from the blocked doorways of homes and talked with people about their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Despite this opportunity to dig out homes, the truly groundbreaking work occurred, not in Catia La Mar, but among the 3.5 million poor in metropolitan Caracas during the last several days of the trip.
“Our goal [for the team] was to minister in specific ways to the families living in the barrio of San Blas [in metro Caracas],” said missionary host Lloyd Rodgers, who, along with his wife, Connie, and missionary Robert Harris*, is a graduate of Southern Seminary.
The team from the seminary sponsored a variety of neighborhood activities geared toward youth and children, from holding basketball clinics, to showing Christian films about drug abuse, to just playing a simple pick-up baseball game.
“They outdid themselves in the neighborhood with the poor,” Hatfield said. “The missionaries chose that as their project for us rather than just meandering through the neighborhoods knocking on doors because they want to reach the parents of those kids, too.”
The local public school provided the main entree into the Caracan children’s lives. In a “cultural exchange,” school officials amazingly allowed the Southern Seminary students to teach English classes, to speak about American culture and, most importantly, to share the gospel.
“They shared openly in the hallways and in the classrooms, to teachers and students alike, about their faith in Jesus Christ,” Rodgers said.
Despite having only two on the team functional in Spanish, Southern students aptly communicated the gospel through love, salvation bracelets and many smiles.
“We may not have been able to understand every word that was said,” said Mary Nell Nacke, a master of divinity student from Louisville. “But we could understand and relate to the many smiles and times of laughter that we experienced with the people there.”
The children gladly returned the love — flocking around the team members wherever they went and clinging to every word spoken about Jesus.
“Here we struggle just trying to witness to one person and trying to get that one person to get wide-eyed about Christ,” said Anthony Cardozo, a master of divinity student from Pompano Beach, Fla. “And there I was standing amongst a group of about 10 kids, and they’re wide-eyed and just willing to soak it up — the gospel and who Jesus is. That impacted my life so greatly, and I will never, ever forget that.”
“All the kids I just wanted to bring home with me,” Fadeley said. “To see the smiles on their faces was my reward. The smiles are memories that will stay with me forever.”
And the impact on future missions work there, Hatfield said, will also last long after this particular trip: “We didn’t just make contact. We gained an open door.”
“Most significantly,” Harris added, “the director of the high school gathered us together at the close of the two days of activities and informed us, ‘This school is your home. Any activity that you want to carry out, you are welcome.’ We couldn’t have received a better invitation.”
“These volunteers from Southern made us as missionaries look good,” Rodgers said. “The people will associate us with this group of volunteers. And because of their faithful service and witness, people will be saved and churches planted.”
The trip also profoundly affected the individual team members — giving them both a taste of “hands-on” ministry and a desire to do future missions work.
“I now feel comfortable with the concept of leading my local church on a short-term mission trip,” said John Hevey, a pastor and a student at the Columbia, Md., Southern Seminary extension center. “The experience will add a depth of understanding and urgency to my preaching and teaching on missions work.”
The trip provided something of a homecoming for Cardozo. Though raised in the states, Cardozo has relatives who had moved to Venezuela from Columbia.
“In a way, I was kind of prepared for [the area] because I had seen it and I had been there,” said Cardozo, who had been to Venezuela twice previously. “But I hadn’t experienced it in the way that we would experience it during the mission trip.
“I’m looking forward to hearing about the fruits of what we’ve done there because I think it’s going to be really awesome.”
Team member Jeff Struecker gained a renewed sense of God’s majesty in missions.
“I was moved while at a worship service on Sunday morning in Caracas to know that my God is at work not only in the United States, but also in Venezuela, China, Russia and all over the world,” said Struecker, a master of divinity student from Fort Dodge, Iowa. “How awesome is this God who knows me, loves me and died to redeem me. And yet he knows every soul in existence throughout the world.”
For Fadeley, his ministry goals have now shifted toward missions.
“Those 10 days taught me more about myself and my spiritual pilgrimage and opened my eyes more than the two years of seminary and the four years of church work,” he said. “I can say that statement without any reservations.”
The missionaries hope this desire for missions spreads and more Southern students like these team members become involved.
“As a career missionary with the IMB, serving in Venezuela since 1991, I have had the privilege of working with a number of volunteer groups,” said Rodgers. “None has surpassed the quality of mission spirit and maturity of servant heart displayed by the recent group of students from SBTS.”
Added information about church-planting efforts among the poor of Caracas and specific prayer requests can be seen at www.CaracasPoor.net.
*Name changed for security reasons.