The image of Juan Valdez, standing next to his burro and extolling the virtues of rich Colombian coffee, was once, for many, the international image of Colombia. But for many today, Juan’s gentle gaze has been replaced by the grim visage of a culture wracked by decades of violence and drugs.
Pastor Edgar Ibarra of the northern coastal city of Cartagena understands that Colombia’s reputation in the international community has been tarnished.
“The world needs Columbia to change,” the soft-spoken, middle-aged Christian leader said. “We need to get rid of the stigma of drugs and violence, because the rest of the world identifies Colombia with that. We are one of the few cultures in the world where the adults bury the young who are dying because of drugs and gangs.”
When Ibarra was asked to serve as a regional coordinator for the Mi Esperanza (“My Hope”) television project, he eagerly consented, but he wondered what impact the evangelistic project would have on a culture so steeped in conflict.
Only a few weeks after the Gospel programs aired on three nights of nationwide television, Ibarra was radiant. “Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the Colombian Church,” he said. “Churches from all denominations worked together for one objective–to win people to Christ. The only answer to our problems–and everyone’s problems–is to preach the Gospel.”
Across Colombia more than 300,000 homes were opened by believers to show the telecast to neighbors and friends. By the conclusion of the broadcasts, in an astounding outpouring of God’s grace, more than 700,000 people had filled out cards to register decisions for Christ. Many churches doubled in size overnight. Some congregations added more than 1,000 people.
In the Cartagena region, where Ibarra worked along with more than 1,700 churches, 174,000 people made commitments to Christ. The overwhelming majority of those are now becoming grounded in their new faith as they are discipled through churches and home groups.
“Before Mi Esperanza, there were so many pastors who had grown weary,” Ibarra said. “They had worked for years sharing Christ, but there was so little fruit. For the first time, they now see the real harvest of souls that came through the program, and they are greatly encouraged. There is a real hunger now for more personal evangelism.”
Juan Carlos pastors a church in the largest and poorest area of Cartagena. It meets in a structure with a corrugated tin roof and open sides. Three fans run overhead, trying to ward off the stifling, tropical heat. Each Sunday more than 300 believers sit on plastic chairs spaced evenly across the dirt floor. On particularly crowded days, many stand in an adjacent backyard, feeling the full brunt of the sun.
Fifty-three members of Carlos’ church opened their homes and hearts to participate in Mi Esperanza. “About 300 people received Jesus through these broadcasts,” a beaming Carlos said. “A lot of people who weren’t doing evangelism are doing it now. Mi Esperanza helped break down a lot of barriers, especially for the unsaved person who avoided church. The invitation to watch the programs at a neighbor’s home was the perfect way to bring unbelievers into contact with the Gospel.”
He added, “There was a lot of work involved, but for the average believer, it was very easy. There was just the right amount of training. The full Body of Christ is now actively engaged in sharing the Good News with their friends and family.”
Maruga, a member of Carlos’ church, invited her neighbors to her small, brightly painted home, situated on the end of a dirt and gravel road. Maruga’s living room consists of plastic chairs; one Christmas decoration hanging from the ceiling; and a small fluorescent light on the wall. Each evening about 20 friends and neighbors crowded into that room to watch the telecasts featuring messages from Billy Graham and Franklin Graham, as well as the film Road to Redemption. Twenty-five people responded to the invitation to receive Christ as Savior and Lord.
“I asked God for strength and wisdom when I invited everyone,” Maruga said. “Every evening was a night of joy. I didn’t want it to end. So many lives were being changed.”
Luis, a 16-year-old neighbor, walked to Maruga’s home to watch the telecasts. “I learned the Good News about Jesus,” the slender, smiling Luis said as he stood outside Maruga’s home. “I learned that I needed to change and that God would make me pleasing and acceptable to Him. I used to be a rebellious son, but now I want to please my family.”
Herson lives across the road from Maruga. The 19-year-old had been in and out of church, but he responded warmly when he was invited to watch the Mi Esperanza program.
“I was really shocked by the show, because I had not heard that kind of message before,” he said. “Jesus died for me personally and shed His blood for me. Before I heard these programs, I used to be sad because I am unemployed. I am now trusting Jesus for the future.”
Arianis is a 25-year-old neighbor of Maruga who attended the first night of the telecast. “My husband was a Christian, but I wasn’t,” Arianis said. “My home was like a chair with two legs. I had a bad temper, and we argued a good bit. As I listened to Mr. Graham, I realized that God has chosen His children. When the invitation came, I responded. I went home and told my husband what I had done. He said, ‘Glory to God!’”
Fernando Betancourt pastors Star Baptist Church in Cartagena. The church’s regular attendance of 300 doubled after the Mi Esperanza outreach as more than 60 homes participated in hosting the telecasts.
“The people in my church have now become fishers of men,” Betancourt said. “The training program prior to the broadcasts was very effective in teaching the hosts how to share their faith. We are praising God.”
One of those sharing his faith was a 42-year-old security officer named Daniel. An imposing figure with several weightlifting titles to his name, Daniel, with eyes glistening, spoke of the Spirit’s work during Mi Esperanza.
“Seven people made decisions for Christ at my home,” he said. “One of them was an atheist who said he had never heard someone like Mr. Graham speak that way before. God softened his heart, and he received Christ as Savior. These programs are something that this country needs really badly.”
A number of Christian leaders spoke of the need for continuing prayer for Colombia in the months to come, citing forces of spiritual darkness that operate behind the more visible scene of drugs and violence.
“More than 50 percent of Colombians are under the age of 30,” Ibarra said. “Almost two generations of young people have grown up under this reign of terror and drugs, and the future is very unsure. We need God’s help to change, and Mi Esperanza has been a huge blessing.
“My prayer is that we can do this again in the near future. Maybe we can have a Mi Esperanza outreach just for children and see God do wonderful things.”