Seizing Opportunities in Mexico

By Kristen Burke   •   December 1, 2006

“My Hope,” the BGEA World Television Project, continues to spread the Gospel throughout the world. In Mexico, where it was called Mi Esperanza, churches united as never before to reach their country with the message of salvation.

More than 250,000 people invited loved ones to their homes to hear the Gospel presented in programs featuring Billy Graham, Franklin Graham or “Road to Redemption,” a World Wide Pictures film. Nationwide results are still being collected, but with only 11.3 percent of participating churches responding, more than 85,000 people have made commitments to Christ.

Outside a small taco shop in a Mexico City neighborhood, Hilda Navar Jimenez handed fliers to people on their way home from work. Nearby streetlights gave the white building a glowing appearance, and light streamed from its wide doorways.

Jimenez pointed to the My Hope poster above the entrance.

“Come back around 9 o’clock for free tacos,” she said. “We’re going to watch a program about hope.”

Jimenez was handing out fliers in this middle-class neighborhood because she believed that the Gospel preached during the Nov. 9-11 My Hope broadcasts could change her neighbors’ lives the way it has changed hers.

The broadcasts could mark a new era for the Church in Mexico. Never before had Christians worked together in such a broad way across denominations for a single project.

Never had they had access to prime time, nationwide television. And never had so many, in all 31 Mexican states, been trained to reach their own friends and neighbors. More than 250,000 Mexican Christians hosted My Hope parties in homes, churches, businesses and public places.

At first Jimenez and her boyfriend, Pablo Castellanos, had planned to host My Hope gatherings in their respective apartments. But after they began to invite guests to their homes, Castellanos realized that he did not have enough space in his apartment for all the people they were inviting, and his apartment could be hard to find.

“What can I do?” he wondered to himself. “I know a small restaurant where they have a TV. Whenever we have soccer games, everybody comes to this place to get together.”

Castellanos talked to the owner of the shop, who not only agreed to the plan but rearranged the restaurant to accommodate the party. “As long as you keep consuming tacos,” he told Castellanos, “it’s not a problem with me.”

The owner formed the tables into one long L-shaped banquet table, visible to pedestrians because the restaurant was open to the street. As the Thursday evening broadcast time approached, the owner filled several plates with meat sliced from a tall cone-shaped piece of beef on a vertical rotisserie rack. His children carried plates of chicken, beef and pork to the table. Jimenez filled baskets with potato chips and tortilla chips she’d brought from home, and Castellanos asked guests if they wanted soda.

Many of the couple’s friends canceled at the last minute, but Castellanos was optimistic that they would fill the 25 or so seats in the restaurant.

It’s like the parable of the banquet in the Gospel of Luke, Castellanos explained. When the invited guests cancel at the last minute, you start pulling people off the street to join the banquet.

In the end, only three of the invited guests attended, but at 9 o’clock every white plastic chair in the restaurant was filled, and several people stood along the outside wall. Nearly everyone had a taco on his or her plate and a soda in hand.

The program began, and the guests paid close attention to a testimony by Maria Sorte, a popular Mexican actress who is a Christian. Two teenage boys and a teenage girl sat in the back of the restaurant. They fidgeted some at first but soon were drawn into Billy Graham’s message about the Rich Young Ruler. Mr. Graham spoke about being young and not knowing what to do with the future. The guests ignored the honking horns and squealing brakes on the busy street outside.

Mr. Graham explained that God gives purpose and hope to those willing to follow Christ. He invited listeners to answer God’s call.

After the message, Castellanos turned the television off, and Jimenez briefly shared how Jesus freed her from guilt and changed her life, giving her the strength to turn from sin. Castellanos also told how Christ changed him when he repented and accepted Christ. He then invited the guests, many of whom he’d never met before that evening, to pray with him and accept Jesus.

“I’m not offering you a wonderful life without any problems,” he warned. “Of course you will have problems. But you will have a hope in your life. Are you interested in having an encounter with Jesus? Do you want to meet Jesus?”

Five people raised their hands, including Enrique, one of Castellanos’ friends.

“When this event came along, Enrique was one of the first people I thought about,” Castellanos said. “We used to be together in university here in Mexico and then we kind of separated. We met each other again in Montreal because we both were studying French. … I came back to Mexico and he stayed in Canada, but he recently came back to Mexico, and we began to fellowship here.”

“I can’t believe it,” Castellanos marveled. “I ask myself why I didn’t tell him about Christ before, in Montreal. But I believe today was the day for him!”

It was also the time for all of Mexico to accept the Gospel, Castellanos said.

“We are having the same problems as in the United States. They want to legalize marriage between homosexuals. There is a lot of crime. We have a lot of social movements and revolts in the southeastern part of Mexico. A couple days ago we had three explosions in Mexico City–a bank and two government buildings were blown up. So this is why we want to bring the Gospel. This is the only thing we can do for Mexico.”

Unprecedented Opportunities
Since Protestant missionaries began taking Spanish-language Bibles into Mexico early in the 18th century, evangelical Christians have been proclaiming the Gospel there. But progress has been slow. Mexico is 89 percent Roman Catholic, but many Mexicans follow a mix of ancient Latin American religions and Catholicism that was created when Spanish explorers forced native people to convert to Catholicism. Rather than abandon their religious beliefs, they adapted them to fit some of the customs of the Catholic Church. One common practice was to replace the name of a native god with the name of a Catholic saint. The Bible and the Gospel had little importance.

Traditionally, the government of Mexico has been suspicious of religion. Protestants, especially, have had a difficult time preaching the Gospel, distributing Bibles and, more recently, using mass media for evangelism without government interference. However, persistent pioneers from evangelical denominations, evangelistic organizations and Bible societies continued the work. Missionaries and Mexican Christians suffered persecution and deprivation, but because of their sacrifice and perseverance, nearly 6 percent of Mexicans are evangelical Christians today.

And in recent years, there seems to have been a change in the spiritual climate. In 2000, Mexico elected Vicente Fox as president, ending years of single-party rule and giving people hope for social and economic reform in the country. Restrictions on evangelicals began to ease, and churches found more freedom to evangelize.

Church leaders working with the My Hope television project in Mexico felt that 2006 was a window of opportunity that would lead to a great harvest. As November approached, excitement grew. More than 20,000 churches signed on to the project and trained their members to invite people to their homes and share their testimony of how Jesus had changed their lives.

Then, in the weeks before the broadcasts, uncertainty began to settle on the nation. In July, the Federal Electoral Institute announced that the presidential election was won by only half a percentage point. The losing candidate led protests in the streets of Mexico City, blocking access to the city’s main road and federal buildings.

Concern grew when, in the southern state of Oaxaca, the governor sent federal troops to break up a months-long demonstration by protesters who claimed he rigged votes and used excessive force to stop protests. The situation became violent, several people were killed and the city itself was damaged by firebombs, bullets and rioting.

And finally, as Castellanos noted, leftist rebels exploded three bombs in Mexico City. Many people in Mexico were beginning to doubt there was any chance for real change in their country.

“Mexico is suffering from violence, persecution and other problems,” said Eleazar Leyva Izquierdo, regional My Hope coordinator for the state of Tabasco. “This is the proper time for the Church to show that there is hope for people. It’s not in politics or economics–it is a hope for them in this time of troubles.”

With this background in place, Christians set to work telling their families, friends, co-workers and even complete strangers that there is hope for Mexico through Jesus Christ.

Overflowing
At Iglesia Leon de la Tribu de Judá (Lion of the Tribe of Judah Church), visitors step over fresh cement that fills a crack in the front doorstep. This is just the first sign that the building and the congregation that meet in it have undergone a transformation. The church is in Xochimilco, one of 16 areas that form the Federal District of Mexico City. The area, a popular tourist site because of its Aztec canals and ruins, has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. But residents are poor, and many struggle to make a living as vendors or boat pilots on Xochimilco’s canals, known as the Mexican Venice.

For this reason, Iglesia Leon de la Tribu de Judá does not have many resources. Pastor Evaristo Villa started the church four years ago in a one-room building. The first members were his wife and one other person who felt called to reach the community with the Gospel.

Services were already crowded when Pastor Evaristo Villa asked members to host My Hope in their homes. Thirteen families planned house parties and attended training. Once they were trained, they couldn’t wait to share the Gospel.

Weeks before My Hope, about 100 people packed the church on Sunday mornings, and 30 of them were new Christians. The church had only one option: knock out the back wall and try to make room for everyone.

“When it rains, we all try to squeeze under the roof in the front of the church,” explained Gabriella Vargas, a church member and My Hope host. Standing inside the building, one can see where the corrugated metal roof ends, leaving the back of the church with three walls and a view of the hillsides where flowers and crops have been grown since the time of the Aztecs.

“This is a poor community,” Villa said. “But God is starting to work through that need, and people are embracing the Gospel.”

By the morning after the first My Hope broadcast, Vargas already had heard of 20 people who had accepted Christ in church members’ homes. She was expecting at least 23 people to gather on her patio that evening. “I never thought that they’d broadcast a national program like this,” she said. “I thought, How could it be that the nation is watching this? We’ve never had anything like this in Mexico before.”

Paula Julio, a church member who had been a Christian for less than a year, had visited some friends and watched the program at their home. She told her own story of putting her faith in Christ and was able to lead the entire family of seven in prayer to receive Jesus. Other church members had similar stories and talked about having to expand the church building again very soon.

“My church is in a revolution,” Villa said. “They are encouraged and interested in reaching people for God.”

Salvador Ramos Garcia felt the same way. He is a pastor in Villahermosa, Tabasco, a hot and sticky southern city.

“I’ve been in this church 33 years,” he said, “and the past 12 years have been the best years. But the best harvest has been this weekend.” Garcia went on to describe the spiritual struggles of Villahermosa, a city that has expanded quickly because of its oil industry. He listed divorce, family division, drugs and alcohol as some of the greatest problems. Tabasco also has the highest suicide rate in the country, he noted. But he believes that the Gospel can change the lives of the most desperate people.

About 1,000 people attend Garcia’s Iglesia Dios Es Amor (God Is Love Church), and most of them hosted My Hope parties. The church realized that if each host brought only one guest to church after the project, the church would nearly double.

Knowing that their building couldn’t accommodate so many people, the church gave up its parking lot and invested thousands of pesos and many hours of labor to build a roof over it. Then they installed a projector that would beam the service from the main church building onto the outside wall of the church.

Their effort was rewarded on the Sunday after the broadcasts when 1,945 people attended church and some already were sitting in the parking lot addition. Of those attending, 755 were guests.

“We know the My Hope homes had a lot of guests,” Garcia added, “so we think 755 is not that many. There are still people to come.”

Izquierdo, who had worked with pastors throughout the state, observed a similar attitude among churches–they were seizing every opportunity to proclaim salvation through Christ.

“We’re sharing the Gospel with people in prisons and in drug rehabilitation homes,” Izquierdo said. “We’re having concerts for youth and movies and films in the streets and in the parks. We’re not waiting for them to come to us.”

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