It’s tough to overstate the trauma the Venezuelan people have experienced over the last decade. The price of the country’s chief export, oil, cratered. Hyperinflation at one point hit 10 million percent. The country’s power grid failed, leading to massive power shortages. An unpopular dictator defied an election. More than 4.6 million people fled the country from 2016 to 2019.
Then came COVID-19.
For the nearly 2 million Venezuelans, like Omer and Vanessa Fuentes and their three children, who left for nearby Colombia, life didn’t improve this year in their new country. COVID-19 hammered Colombia, completely shuttering the area where many Venezuelan refugees worked. Despite the hardships they had just left, some returned to their Venezuelan homeland.
International Mission Board missionaries in Colombia are helping families like the Fuentes deal with the trauma of the last few years—and helping them start churches in their neighborhoods.
Before leaving Venezuela, Omer and Vanessa had a growing ministry, and Omer had a good job as a computer programmer. As a youth minister, he had seen 23 youth baptized and had 100 youth attending the church in just three years. Yet nationwide blackouts cost Omer his technology clients, making it impossible for him to feed his family.
“It was getting tougher and tougher in Venezuela,” Omer said. “We had only rice to eat. It came to a point that we had to make the decision to go or we wouldn’t have enough money to leave.”
In early 2019, Omer and Vanessa along with their three children left for Colombia. Last summer, they met IMB missionary Matthew Fisher, who helped the family deal with the traumatic events that forced them to leave Venezuela, and partnered with them to start a church in their home.
Fisher used American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute (THI) curriculum to help Venezuelans like the Fuentes deal with trauma in their lives. The curriculum teaches “basic biblical and mental health principles that help people respond to emotional trauma,” according to the program website. THI teaches these principles using Bible stories, such as creation, the fall, and Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In describing the impact of the THI program, Vanessa pointed to the chapter on bringing their pain to the cross.
“Bringing our pain to the cross was very beautiful,” Vanessa said. “It gave us peace with ourselves, to be okay with why we came here.”
During this lesson, the couple wrote down their hurts and then burned them to symbolize that they had taken those hurts to the cross. The Fuentes’ move to Colombia had been traumatic and caused family upheaval. The THI workshop helped them overcome several painful family events.
For Fisher, THI provided an avenue to use his background in counseling to start churches in the Bogotá area. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology, a master of divinity degree and a master’s degree in pastoral counseling.
As a church planting catalyst, Fisher often struggled to gather groups in the city.
“It was the hardest thing to get people into groups because everyone was super busy,” said Fisher, who is from Houston. “Everyone is trying to survive in the city. It was hard to find something interesting enough for them to come.”
But in THI Fisher finally found a ministry that garnered enough interest to be a gathering opportunity. Since Venezuelan refugees had been through significant trauma in recent years—even the move itself traumatized many—they were open to a THI workshop. Plus, the workshops helped people process personal traumatic events like the death of family members, childhood abuse and other violent acts committed against them.
“I love it because I am able to see their hurts being healed as they bring them to the cross, understanding that God isn’t causing the situation,” Fisher said. “It’s really the will of man and Satan. Everyone blames God, but he isn’t the one to blame. People come into the workshops blaming God, but they leave feeling relief because they see the Bible verses that show the biblical truth about dealing with sin.”
Fisher held 16 workshops throughout Colombia. At the end of the workshops, he asked participants if they wanted to continue meeting. Four of them, including Omer’s group, decided to do so. Fisher led two of the groups himself.
Thanks to provision by Send Relief, Fisher was able to give the Fuentes 100 bags of rice, along with other dietary staples, over two weeks as dramatic COVID-19 lockdowns kept many of their neighbors out of work. The food helped the Fuentes support their neighbors and share Christ in the process. In total, the Fuentes engaged 50 families (giving each a bag of rice per week). Fifteen people became followers of Jesus through the effort.
Fisher notes that many of the people they gave the food to were Colombians who had not treated the Venezuelan refugees well at first. The gift of food was able to soften their hearts toward the Fuentes, their church and ultimately the gospel.
“The people who were able to donate the money so we, as missionaries, were able to go out and buy the food and be able to provide it for the church that we helped plant—this was such a blessing,” Fisher said. “I see this totally as a God thing. Because the Colombians had been so closed off and heart-hearted, some were even racists [toward the Venezuelans], and they were able to receive food, because they were suffering as well, from this church. They are opening up to the gospel.”
Frida Robles, an IMB missionary who leads the missions department at Baptist International Theological Seminary in Cali, Colombia, has been training leaders throughout the country to use THI in their ministry contexts. She also helped train volunteers, both believers and non-believers, throughout the country who are engaging Venezuelan refugees.
“There were a lot of people who were psychologists, who were professionals in the government here in Cali, but they were not believers,” said Robles, who is a master trainer for THI. “But when they received a little bit of the trauma training, they really liked it. They said, ‘This is what we need. We’re doing the psychology part, but we’re not touching the spiritual. We didn’t even have it.’ After that opportunity, we were having psychologists interested in spiritual matters, because they were dealing with psychology, but it wasn’t answering all the needs of the people.”
Robles believes that tools like THI help missionaries and other ministry leaders to start new groups and reach non-believers without people feeling like they’re being trapped in a religious group.
“This is a very strong tool for us, as believers, because this is a tool to open new work for people who are suffering,” Robles said. “Even people who know God deal with trauma, but they have God on their side. But the people who don’t know the Lord, it’s worse for them because they don’t have the holy presence of God to strengthen them and to give them the peace that only God can give. Also, it allows us to open up a new Bible study or a new group in a community without people feeling trapped in something religious.”