‘This Has Never Happened Before’

By Kristen Driscoll   •   June 2, 2010

this-has-never

God is doing something new in Puerto Rico.

“We are witnessing massive conversions,” says Gilberto Ramos Granell, who headed up efforts to invite pastors and churches to join Mi Esperanza Puerto Rico as part of BGEA’s My Hope World Evangelism Through Television project. “There is a revival of evangelism, and there are pastors with new vision.

And on top of all of that, there is unprecedented unity and koinonia [fellowship] between the different denominations and pastor’s councils. To have a Lutheran bishop sitting at a table with a leader of a Pentecostal movement … that has never happened here before!” Ramos explained. And yet, as groups as diverse as Baptists, Lutherans and Pentecostals worked together, all agreed that they had more in common in Christ than not.

More than 19,000 Christians from some 1,800 churches were trained to be Mateos, or Matthews—people who invited loved ones into their homes April 22-24 to watch evangelistic television programs, much like the disciple Matthew invited friends to his home to meet Jesus (Matthew 9:9-13).

Church leaders declared the face of evangelism in Puerto Rico forever changed because of the training and encouragement in evangelism that churches received in the months leading up to the broadcasts.

Joining the Family of God

About an hour outside of the capital city of San Juan sits Hatillo, a small city on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. On Friday evening, the youth group at Iglesia Jesúcristo Es el Seño (Jesus Christ Is Lord Church) gathered at the church. In a few moments, they would project a DVD of the evening’s Mi Esperanza broadcast on a large screen in front of the church.

Most of these young people are not from Christian families and couldn’t host Mi Esperanza in their homes. In fact, many of them are orphans living with their extended family because their parents were killed in connection with drug deals or gang violence.

The church’s youth pastors, Luisin Rivera and his wife, Brenda Robles, said it often takes months to gain the trust of these teens. For example, a young man named Wesley used to stand outside the church door during youth services. Luisin and Brenda would invite Wesley to come in, but he would pull away. Finally, after many weeks of encouragement, he came inside. In talking with him, Brenda discovered that Wesley’s mother had died of cancer and then someone murdered his father.

When the opportunity arose to host Mi Esperanza, Luisin and Brenda saw the program as a way to reach youth like Wesley with the theme of Friday evening’s broadcast—the Prodigal Son. The church had already been praying for weeks for the project and had visited more than 400 surrounding homes to invite people to watch the broadcasts.

With most of the youth seated, the program began with a music video portraying Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Then the teens listened attentively to a testimony by Hector el Father, one of the best-known performers of reggaetón music, a predominantly Puerto Rican hybrid of rap, hip-hop and Latin American styles. Hector explained that his life was filled with drugs, money, women and disillusionment until he surrendered himself to Christ and turned from sin.

After Hector’s story, Franklin Graham talked about the parable, as well as his own experience as a prodigal son.

“The young man in this parable wanted to be free when he left his home,” Franklin said. “I was like that. … This boy had a hunger. You have a need, too, and there is hope for you.”

Franklin explained that when the boy decided to head for home, his father saw him from a distance. The father had been waiting for the son, and he had compassion on him. He ran to his son, hugged him and kissed him.

“You say, ‘Franklin, I use drugs, I’ve sinned against my parents, my family. Will God take me with my sin?’ Yes! There are no excuses. If you repent and turn to Christ, God will forgive you, regardless of what you’ve done.”

Franklin encouraged listeners to return to God as the young man in the story had returned to his father. After the broadcast, Brenda told her own prodigal story about leaving Puerto Rico and her Christian home to live in the U.S. It was there that she began drinking, using drugs and getting involved in abusive relationships. Soon, she had a child but did not have the maturity to care for that child. Because of her bad choices, she found herself abused and close to death many times.

“I lost my whole youth—those beautiful years you’re in now—searching for something,” Brenda said. “Listen, what are you going to do tonight? … If you don’t know the Lord, if you’ve gone astray, come back. Come back to the open arms of your Father. You can serve Him your whole life. I know that some people here tonight need to make this step.”

Luisin, who lived through his own prodigal years, reinforced Brenda’s words, then asked the youth who wanted to accept Christ to come forward.

“Don’t lose this opportunity,” he implored. “Your hope has to be in Christ, placed in God’s hands. Jesus died publicly for you. Come now and receive Him publicly.”

At first, only a couple of people trickled forward, but as Luisin continued inviting them to surrender to Christ, 21 young people lined up in front of the church. In the middle of that line stood Wesley, with his head bowed, furtively wiping tears from his face as he joined the others praying to commit their lives to Christ.

As the evening concluded, Luisin and Brenda congratulated Wesley. “You have a new family now—the family of God,” Brenda told him as she wrapped her arm around his shoulders.

Wesley was still wiping tears from his face. “I feel the presence of God,” he said. “Before tonight, I felt emptiness. When I went forward to receive Christ, I felt relieved of that weight.”

As Wesley spoke, Brenda smiled. “I never knew what God had for us with our backgrounds,” she said later. “But now He’s using it all to reach these young people.”

The Joy of the Gospel

In the days just after the broadcasts, phones rang steadily in the Mi Esperanza national office as pastors and congregational leaders called to report hundreds of testimonies of people accepting Christ as Savior.

Before church began on Sunday morning, Pastor Amaryllis Alvarado Martinez called Eliú Camacho, special project assistant for Mi Esperanza, while he was on his way to church. Everyone in the car with Camacho could hear Alvarado giving God glory for what was happening in her church, Iglesia Cristiana (Discípulos de Cristo), or Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in Toa Baja, a community just outside San Juan.

Her congregation had 26 trained Mateos, and they hosted 100 people for Mi Esperanza. In all, 13 people made commitments to Christ during the broadcasts.

Normally, the church has about 150 people on Sunday mornings. But on Harvest Sunday, the day churches welcome people who came to Christ during the project, more than 200 people packed into the small building where members had decorated the front of the sanctuary with red balloons and ribbons. Alvarado’s face was lit with joy when more than 10 families stood up as first-time visitors during the service.

One visitor sat in the front row with her children, tightly clutching a tissue. As a quartet sang “Come, Now Is the Time to Worship,” the woman dabbed tears from her cheeks. Church members shared testimonies of what God had done in their homes during Mi Esperanza.

And Alvarado didn’t pass on the opportunity to preach a sermon that would not only encourage new believers but would give those who were still holding out an opportunity to surrender to Christ. The Holy Spirit drew four more people to make first-time commitments to Christ in response to her obedience.

A Feast in the Churches

Some churches have already added more Sunday services to accommodate new members since the Mi Esperanza broadcasts. Chaplains on university campuses and in prisons are reporting dozens of new believers. And, with only a handful of churches reporting their results so far, already there were more than 4,700 decisions for Christ. If such results continue, it will mean that a multitude of new believers have joined the family of God in Puerto Rico.

“Evangelical leaders from all of the denominations are in one accord that, historically, this event has had the greatest impact on evangelism in Puerto Rico,” said David Casillas, national coordinator.

For some churches, it’s been a long time since they have seen anyone come to Christ, he explained. “But Mi Esperanza has demonstrated that we can see a great number of commitments in a small amount of time. And when there are commitments to Christ in churches, there is a feast,” Casillas said. “There is revival!”

Bring Hope to Other Places Like Puerto Rico

Your gift can help BGEA spread the Gospel through every available means and to every nation. Donate online today to support My Hope or other ministries.

Take a moment to read some other stories from the field:

A Not So Joyful Noise

Not long ago, the sanctuary at Iglesia Comunidad Evangelica (Evangelical Community Church) had rows of creaking, rusted chairs. If someone shifted weight … “Creak!” If a chair was moved to make room in a row, the screeching sound of metal dragged across the tile floor echoed through the sanctuary. This squeaking choir of chairs distracted the pastor—Javier Lopez—as well as the 70 people who attended the church.

Fortunately, the “choir” was silenced when a church in Canada donated beautiful oak pews from their former sanctuary. But then this congregation in Cupey, a San Juan ward, faced another challenge.

“We have the pews,” said Lopez, “but now we need people to fill them.” Thankfully, God is already meeting that need, too.

In January, Lopez and his congregation asked God to guide them as they reached out to their neighborhood. Soon after, Lopez received a visit from a Mi Esperanza coordinator, who explained the project to him. The method of evangelism appealed to him.

Mi Esperanza helps train believers for evangelism in their homes,” Lopez said. “The early church met in homes. Our own church started this way.”

Soon eight families from the church were trained to be Mateos. The Mateos have so far reported 10 commitments to follow Christ, and they aren’t done yet. The Mateos are now excited to reach out to their community.

And little by little, those empty pews are filling up.

Knowing a Powerful God

A week after Gloria Soto accepted Christ, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet, she didn’t panic because “it was good that I knew a powerful God when I heard this news.”

The cancer went away, and Gloria gave God credit.

“The reason I am still here,” the vibrant woman said, “is to give God glory.”

When she was diagnosed with an intestinal blockage, surgeons said that removing the blockage would require giving Gloria an osteo bag. But when they opened her abdomen, the blockage was gone. Again, Gloria said that she had trusted in God, and He brought her through it in order to give her a testimony. That testimony was the final push her husband, William, needed. Soon after the surgery, he surrendered his heart to Christ, too.

This steadfast trust in God and desire to share what Jesus has done in her life made Gloria a good choice to head up her church’s involvement in Mi Esperanza. When she heard about the project, she was immediately interested.

“The real-life testimonies on the programs had an impact on me,” she said. “I saw that yes, there was hope that many in Puerto Rico would come to the Lord. Mi Esperanza gives us an opportunity to testify to people that there is a God who restores and brings hope. He did it in my life.”

For weeks before the broadcasts, Gloria prayed for many family members, including her son and her father. She also had enlisted 16 other Mateo homes from her church and spent Thursday afternoon calling each one to remind them to make contact with each person they had invited.

When broadcasts concluded, the Mateos reported 22 decisions for Christ. And the results in Gloria’s home were just as thrilling. Her son turned to Christ and regularly began attending church with her.

On the Sunday morning following Mi Esperanza, Gloria joyfully handed each new believer at her church a beautiful silver-wrapped gift—a new Bible.

Reaching People Who Can Reach People

An illness left Judith Alomar a paraplegic several years ago. Not that she has let it slow her down. She keeps in touch with the world outside of her tiny home through her cell phone, e-mail, Facebook and word of mouth. So when her pastor told her about Mi Esperanza, Judith insisted that she could be a Mateo. Her pastor wondered how someone who is unable to leave her own home could possibly host Mi Esperanza, but Judith already knew whom she would invite.

Judith only had strength to be a host for one evening, so she cast a wide net and invited 10 people, including her home care nurses, her hairdresser and a university student who often comes to visit her. Four of them came to her home, and one accepted Christ. The program gave Judith an open door to talk about Christ, and she plans to show DVDs to those who couldn’t attend the broadcasts.

“I have to reach people who can reach other people,” she said, “because they’re going to be my feet out in the world.”

What Is Puerto Rico?

Depending on whom you ask, this beautiful Caribbean island is either a commonwealth or a country. The island’s rich and complex history—first as a Spanish colony, then as a territory ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War—is illustrated in the architecture of one of its landmarks, the Fort San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan.

The Spanish built the fort in the 1500s and placed dome-covered garitas, or guard towers, on each corner. But high above the garitas sits a concrete bunker the U.S. military built during World War II to ward off German submarine attacks.

Officially, the island is a commonwealth of the United States. Its nearly 4 million residents are full citizens of the U.S. They cannot vote in national elections—but they also do not pay federal income taxes. Yet, the island functions like a state and has a constitution, governor, Senate and House of Representatives.

Puerto Ricans are subject to the military draft—whenever it is in effect—and many proudly volunteer for the military. Estimates say that another 4 million Puerto Ricans live stateside, where they have voting privileges and pay the same taxes their neighbors do. And they are eager participants in their new communities.

Puerto Rico’s future could go in one of three directions. With a Congressional vote, it can become a state or it can become independent, but so far, it remains a commonwealth. Three times, Puerto Rico has voted on a non-binding referendum. Each time, the majority of Puerto Ricans wanted to maintain the status quo as a commonwealth. As a result, the U.S. Congress has not taken steps to change the island’s status until only recently.

So what is Puerto Rico? For now it is a beautiful, if complicated, strand in the fabric of the United States, not quite a state, and not just a territory.

So when a Puerto Rican says, “our nation,” he or she may be referring to the island of Puerto Rico or the United States. Either way, he or she likely is fiercely proud of both.

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