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Venezuelans struggle, but God is at work, after landslides

CARACAS, Venezuela (BP)–God is at work in Venezuela in the aftermath of horrible landslides that killed at least 40,000 people and left 400,000 homeless the week before Christmas.

A five-member assessment team arrived in the country Dec. 27 to identify ways Baptists can share God’s love with people suffering from the catastrophe. As they visited the disaster zone, they were overwhelmed by what they saw.

In Maiquetia, team members examined extensive damage to Light and Truth Baptist Church. A torrent of water, mud and rock had cut a 300-foot-wide swath through the neighborhood behind the church, wiping out everything in its path.

In eastern Miranda state, residents of Rio Chico said a 30-foot wall of water swept through the town after a dam on a nearby reservoir broke. At Nuevo Guapo, brush and debris on the power lines indicated the flood there had been at least 20 feet deep.

“It’s incredible to think that in one evening so many homes were destroyed and lives lost,” Southern Baptist missionary Robert Harris* wrote on Christmas evening. “It would be the equivalent of losing every home in Birmingham or Louisville, along with 50,000 men, women and children, literally overnight.”

Daniel Ojeda, pastor of Bethesda Baptist Church in Catia la Mar, chose to stay behind to help organize relief efforts when his wife and children were evacuated. He reported he had shown the “Jesus” film in several places the week before the landslides, and every community he had worked in was completely destroyed. No homes remain, and none of the mission points there are functioning.

The trauma has left deep scars, Harris said.

Just before Christmas, a clown troupe from Caracas churches presented a skit to about 30 children who had lost their homes in the landslide. When one of the performers said the word “rain,” the children burst into tears and the group had to move quickly to another activity.

Families continue to struggle with impossible circumstances created by the storm, Harris said.

In Carayaca, pastor Luis Alfonzo Parra and his family had 40 homeless people staying at their house — without water, gas or food. On the road to Guarenas, about 100 people camped on the highway shoulder, begging food and water from passing travelers.

The International Mission Board released $80,000 to help purchase food, water, medicines and mattresses that will be distributed by missionaries and Venezuelan Baptists through a network of Baptist churches located in the disaster area, said Dickie Nelson, an associate director of IMB work in the Caribbean basin.

In Caracas, the Baptist Center and Emanuel Baptist Church both are serving as collection centers for relief material. The Baptist Clinic there has been asked by the Evangelical Council of Venezuela to serve as the distribution point and coordinator for all medical care provided through churches to communities most affected by the disaster.

Baptists are working to get relief supplies into the disaster area, though authorities were limiting access to many areas and many people were being forcibly evacuated from areas deemed unsafe.

Three missionary journeymen — Kevin White, Matt Brooks and Roland Grenouillou — moved into the area Dec. 22 to help pastor Daniel Ojeda with relief efforts. They worked under extreme conditions, without water, sanitation or lights and with only relief rations to eat, Harris said.

Baptist workers are finding opportunities to minister in the midst of the devastation, Harris noted.

On Dec. 21, pastor Juan Machado escorted Southern Baptist workers into an area where mud and debris filled the streets up to the second floor of some buildings. Some houses were completely covered.

As they surveyed the damage, they met a woman carrying a small container with 30 doses of a tetanus vaccine. She told them she had been calling at houses, looking for someone who could give injections to people who had been injured.

As it happened, Harris’ wife, Sarah*, who is a nurse, was with the group. She volunteered to help and soon 50 people were lined up for an impromptu clinic.

And God also was opening doors to make relief efforts more effective.

Harris had been trying to get an interview at Red Cross offices in Caracas, but wasn’t sure he would be able to make any inroads with them because he didn’t know anyone there and had little knowledge about relief work.

When he finally got an appointment, he arrived at the Red Cross office to find his next-door neighbor, Beatrice, waiting there as well. Harris asked if she was there to volunteer for relief efforts. She said no — and introduced Harris to her brother, Mario, the president of the Red Cross organization in Venezuela.

“When I told them I worked in Venezuela as a missionary with Southern Baptists, Mario smiled broadly and said, ‘I know who you are! I was the lawyer for your mission for more than 30 years!'” Harris said.

“Talk about a great introduction! As a result of that one meeting, we were given information on where to purchase food at cost, given the use of their facilities to store whatever we purchased and received a donation of 1,000 tetanus vaccines for the Baptist relief effort. Praise the Lord!”

Harris asked Southern Baptists to continue to pray as missionaries and Venezuelan Baptist leaders try to identify ways to minister that will have long-term benefits.

“Pray that we’ll be sensitive to ways to help,” he said. “And that we’ll be open to the Spirit’s leading as we share the good news of Christ in the midst of suffering.”

Contributions toward the relief efforts in Venezuela can be sent to: International Mission Board, Hunger and Relief Fund – Venezuela Flood Relief, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230.
*Names changed for security reasons.

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  • Mark Kelly