As the sun sets over downtown Asunción, Paraguay, 26-year-old Gustavo Zalazar and his teen-aged friends Milciades, Rodrigo and Javier, slip onto one of the teeming buses on Mariscal Lopez Avenue.
After bumping along in the crowded bus for several seconds, Zalazar, standing at the front, addresses the passengers:
“I want to talk to you for just a few minutes–and my friends will pass out invitations for the 12th, 13th and 14th of May at Defensores del Chaco stadium, where an evangelist will speak at the Festival of Hope.”
Zalazar continues, explaining the message of Jesus and his own experience of coming to faith. “I didn’t have hope until I met Jesus,” he said. “I couldn’t leave the drugs and alcohol. I didn’t have hope when I tried suicide twice, but Jesus came into my life and gave it new meaning.” Zalazar then asks if anyone on the bus would like to pray to receive Christ.
Hands slip up throughout the bus, and fingers of passengers clutching silver handrail bars uncurl to indicate, “Yes, I want this.” A man next to a window bows his head and raises his hand as Zalazar prays.
Before exiting the bus, Zalazar holds up a Festival flyer near one of the bus’s dingy fluorescent lights to extend a final invitation to the passengers. His friends hand out invitations as they make their way to the door and, once on the pavement, continue to pass flyers through bus and car windows and to motorbike riders.
Zalazar related how, on a previous trip, the bus driver had reached out to tug Zalazar’s shirt and, with tears in his eyes, said, “Me, too.” The word “hope” has significant meaning to people, Zalazar said. “They are looking for hope.”
Paraguay has a history of corrupt dictators and heartache–notably the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) against Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, in which Paraguay lost its leader and a quarter of its population. Although not lacking national pride among themselves, many Paraguayans say the country seems to have a low self-esteem in the eyes of the world; they call to mind the hopelessness evidenced–and caused–by the many suicides, corruption and high rate of marital infidelity in the country.
Youth evangelist Emilio Agüero said that Paraguay does not offer much in the way of learning or opportunity, but he points out that God chooses the ones “worth nothing” to use for His glory (1 Corinthians 1:27). “We have the right conditions for God to use us in the world for Him,” Agüero said with a smile.
Christian leaders in Paraguay say the time is right to proclaim the message of salvation. Walter Neufeld, who has preached in Paraguay for 20 years and who was national coordinator of the Festival, said that Paraguayans have never been as disoriented–or as open–as they are now. “They are like sheep without a shepherd,” Neufeld said. “If you say, ‘Let’s steal something,’ everybody goes with you. If you say, ‘Let’s go kill someone,’ others will go along. If you say, ‘Let’s go to church’–people will go along.” Neufeld said that right now the Church has both the opportunity and the responsibility to reach the people. “More than 100 years ago our country was liberated from the oppression of Spain,” he said, “and on this 14th of May, we want Paraguay to be liberated from Satan.”
Engaged for Action
The mobilization of Christian youth has been gaining momentum over the last three years, according to Adolfo Agüero, youth chair of the Festival. But he said that the Festival enabled him and his brother Emilio to consolidate leaders and young people from the more than 700 participating churches to draw 25,000 youth to Impacto, a pre-Festival prayer rally, in April. “The young Christian in Paraguay, in general, wants to do big things for God,” said Adolfo. “Through the preparation for the Festival, youth gained courage to do these things. You can feel the fire in the young people.”
Gustavo Zalazar would agree that the Church has been timid to go out and reach the people–and now the time is ripe. One of the teen-aged boys who went on the bus with Zalazar said he would have never imagined doing such a ministry, but he joined with other Christian youth who had a passion to promote Christ through the Festival. Nineteen-year-old Milciades glowed as he shared that he had been dreaming about a ministry on the buses the very day Zalazar invited him go along with him. Zalazar’s invitation came to him “straight from heaven,” he said.
Young people were not the only ones challenged to step out for Christ during the Festival preparation time. Lina Paredes was one of thousands of women enrolled in the Portadoras de Esperanza (Carriers of Hope) program to bring the message of Christ to 140,000 families on 5,000 blocks. Women, sometimes with their children or husbands, made four successive visits to neighbors to introduce themselves, get to know them, pray for them and invite them to the Festival. Before embarking on their visits, women went on prayer walks, praying specifically for each home on their block.
Shortly after her first visit to the Vallejos home down her street, Paredes’ son Daniel happened to see Carlos Vallejos outside and invited him to church and to the Festival. After coming to church and hearing the message, Vallejos confessed that he was on the verge of suicide.
Paredes’ voice became unsteady and her eyes welled with tears as she recounted her neighbor’s transformation–three years ago she, too, was preparing to commit suicide when someone from a church visited her. After committing her life to Christ, “I asked that God make me an instrument in His hands, to bring this hug of the Father to others,” Paredes said. Vallejos’ story is a mirror of her own, and it reveals to her the full meaning of being a “carrier of hope.” With the witness and support of caring Christians at the church, Vallejos gave his life to Christ. “My life has really changed,” he said. “Thanks to the Lord I have under control things that were hard for me before.”
Four people accepted Christ on Paredes’ block, and she has brought 16 neighborhood children to church with her. Her neighbors know that she will encourage them with words from the Bible, and now when she visits they ask her for prayer. “How will people believe if no one speaks to them? How will they call on Someone they have not believed in?” Paredes asked. “Now is the time that God is visiting Paraguay. People are really hungry and thirsty–like the Samaritan woman–for this water that quenches their thirst.”
Throughout the week of the Festival, Gustavo Zalazar and his friends boarded many buses to announce the hope that Jesus brings. At times they used the Paraguayan flag to explain that the red represents the blood of Christ, the white represents the cleanliness it brings and blue represents the freedom we have in Christ. The final day of the Festival, Independence Day, Zalazar and his small band again boarded an Asunción bus to proclaim freedom in Jesus.
“You may have heard about the Festival of Hope–thousands have come,” Zalazar announced. Eyes of passengers slowly shifted toward him. “But do you know why?” he continued. “It’s because people are finding out that they can have hope! We’re not here to tell you about a religion or a preacher, but about One who can fill your heart.” As the midday sun and breeze streamed through the sliding bus windows, heads tilted toward the aisle. No one smirked or scoffed. Indeed, no one on the bus appeared uncomfortable or embarrassed. As Zalazar spoke of the Lamb who saves, many eyes firmly locked on this young man so passionate for Christ. “Is there someone who would like the gift of Jesus? By praying to Him you can be changed–and our country as well can be changed,” he implored.
Hands once again went up, and as Zalazar led in a prayer, the lips of several riders whispered along.
Several hours later, before the beginning of the final Festival meeting, the stadium reached full capacity, and more than 5,000 people flooded to the empty lot across the street, where a large screen was set up to transmit the program. Every seat on the lawn was filled and, in Independence-day-like style, groups congregated on the grass with their food and traditional mate tea mugs. All around, people had piled wooden boards to form makeshift benches.
Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was electric. “God loves you”–Franklin Graham’s message resounded through the stadium. Again and again Festival counselors reported how these words touched the depths of people’s hearts.
Thousands celebrated their political freedom as well as their spiritual freedom during Paraguay’s Independence week: a 57-year-old woman who previously saw nothing wrong with worshiping an image, but who now wants to adore only Christ; a 26-year-old man who was amazed by the message that Christ came to forgive, not to condemn us of our sin, and who desperately wants his counselor to come to the interior of Paraguay to help explain this message to his family; a boy with Down syndrome who trembled with excitement and frenetically pointed to his heart as he looked up at his counselor; a 25-year-old woman ready to commit suicide who said that God had sent her an angel–her friend–to bring her to the Festival, where she gave her life to Christ.
To ones such as these, Franklin Graham said, “By coming forward you’re saying to God, ‘I’m a sinner, and I’m sorry.’” He continued, “God is the One providing your salvation, and it’s free. If you could work for it or buy it, you would boast about it and tell someone how much you paid for it. But it’s free because Jesus paid for it in full when He went to the Cross. By faith you have to believe that and accept Christ in your heart and in your life.
Today is your Independence Day. To God be the glory.”