Missionaries tackle God-sized task in dangerous slums of Caracas6/29/2012
By Emily Pearson
CARACAS, Venezuela —Missionary Ed Engle puts his life in God’s hands as he begins his journey up the mountain to El Coche, a slum in Caracas, Venezuela.
On the way, a man calls out and runs toward him, a nearly toothless smile lighting up his face. He’s been drinking and can barely form a coherent sentence, but he recognizes Ed’s friendly face. Ed embraces the inebriated man and spends a few minutes talking with him as best he can.
A few minutes later, Ed climbs into a crowded SUV — the public transportation that will take him up the mountain. The roads are too steep for other vehicles, and it’s too hot to walk. He wipes the sweat from his face, then hands out Gospel tracts to the other passengers.
At the top of the mountain, Ed steps out onto the dirt road, mindful of the open stream of sewage flowing nearby. He spends the next few hours tirelessly trekking through the maze of tiny concrete and metal homes, handing out tracts and talking to residents about their families, their lives and Jesus.
He meets a 17-year-old girl — with two young children — whose lover has just thrown her onto the street. He visits a family in their home — a doorless, windowless shack with an uneven dirt floor. Heavy rocks and beer bottles anchor the thin metal roof to the house.
As Ed winds his way from house to house, he isn’t bothered by the lack of shade and water; it’s worth the discomfort to share the Gospel.
Tomorrow, he’ll get up and do it all again. And he’ll have plenty of work to do.
Of the more than 5 million people living in Caracas, only 1 percent is evangelical. Many of the spiritually lost live in the city’s barrios (slums), considered some of the most dangerous in the world. Nearly 4 million people — nearly 80 percent of the city’s population — live in lean-to houses that stretch across the mountains on either side of Caracas. The narrow streets are plagued with constant crime, substance abuse and gang violence.
Engle and his wife, Pam, International Mission Board missionaries in Caracas, have worked in the slums of Caracas for 12 years. In a place where houses are built nearly on top of each other, there isn’t space to hold large evangelistic services or other public events. Instead, the Engles, from Tennessee, must rely on individual conversations to tackle a God-size task.
“It’s about one-on-one contacts,” Ed says. “But we’ve had people come up well after I’ve given them a tract and tell me that I’d given them one, and they prayed that prayer on the back, but now they don’t know what to do. And it happens often enough that we’re not discouraged by just handing out tracts.”
But the Engles do much more than simply tell people about Jesus.
In the barrios, the physical needs are endless. For example, many slums like El Coche don’t have running water. The residents rely on the government to deliver water every two weeks.
Although the Engles’ main focus is evangelism, they also minister to the people’s physical needs. In turn, that ministry opens doors for sharing the Gospel.
“Jesus saw physical needs, and he met those needs,” says Ed. “When we get to know the people, we do what we can for them. We’ll take them a bag of rice if they need something to eat, or we’ll get them medicine if they need it.”
Working with the Engles in the barrios, volunteer teams from the United States have held eyeglass clinics, provided free blood-pressure testing and helped with small construction projects. They have also taught sewing and electrical skills.
“We try and help people, but we always tell them we need them to be open to having Bible studies with us,” Ed says. “We’ll use whatever thing we can, but in all things we do, we try and meet a need with a spiritual end in mind.”
The Engles have helped to start several Bible studies in different barrios across Caracas, and some of them have grown into potential churches. But whenever a church has begun, some obstacle — such as political turmoil or serious illnesses of believers — has torn it apart.
“There does seem to be a spiritual battle going on here,” says Ed. “Bible studies aren’t the end goal for us, but the devil gets his foot in the door, and he tears works apart. So the idea is to get churches started, but it hasn’t gotten to the point where we can say a church is really going.”
As the Engles try to start churches, they know that reaching the millions of lost Venezuelans in the barrios is too big a job for two people. To help spread the Gospel, they encourage Venezuelan believers to evangelize their own neighborhoods.
“Pray that the people in the barrios won’t just be saved, but that they will be like Paul or Timothy,” Ed says.
Ed also asks Southern Baptists to pray for Christians in the barrios who have faced opposition and persecution from non-believers in their communities. Some Christians have even been forced from their homes because of their faith.
“Pray that believers will have the strength to carry on. … Pray for [spiritual] leaders within the community,” Ed says.
To learn more about how God is working in Caracas, go to latinmegacities.com.
Emily Pearson is an International Mission Board writer living in the Americas.