Jacinto had tried to talk with his neighbor Juan about Jesus before, but like many people in Uruguay–the most secular nation in Latin America–Juan simply wasn’t interested.
“He always welcomed us at his home and was open to personal communication,” Jacinto said. “But he never took any step of deciding to follow Jesus. He had his own way of thinking and would not open up to the Word of God.”
When it came time to invite friends to watch the My Hope television program, Jacinto invited Juan. Surprisingly, Juan accepted. But his response was guarded. “You know my position,” he told Jacinto. “I’ll come, but you won’t change my mind.”
But like thousands of other “Matthews” who were inviting friends to watch the evangelistic television programs, Jacinto was praying. So was Juan’s 17-year-old son, who had committed his life to Christ about a year earlier.
As Juan watched the program, his son watched Juan. “Just touch him,” the son prayed. “Touch him.” He began to see a change in his dad’s facial expression. When the program was over and Jacinto invited his guests to make a commitment to Christ, Juan raised his hand–and began to cry. He prayed to receive Christ.
“It was greatly satisfying for us, because of what he had said before,” Jacinto said the following morning. “We have seen that the Lord is working in his heart. Afterward, he had a different attitude.”
“I thought it could be like this,” Juan’s son added. “This was the opportunity to get my father to Christ. I was praying that he would be able to experience what I have experienced.”
Juan’s experience is reflective of many Uruguayans today–historically secular, but suddenly interested in spiritual things. The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates that as of mid-2000, 26.8 percent of the population was classified as “nonreligious,” with another 6.3 percent classified as “atheists.” Most of the country’s population is of European descent, and some say that Europe’s secularism has carried over to Uruguay. But a comparison of Uruguay with Europe shows that the combined total of nonreligious people and atheists in Uruguay actually exceeds every European country except the Czech Republic and Estonia.
In recent years, however, people have begun to look for spiritual answers to life’s questions, especially since an economic crisis that peaked in 2002. Inflation surged and unemployment reached almost 20 percent. Although conditions have improved markedly in the past five years, many people have realized that life’s ultimate purpose lies beyond material things.
“Secularism has left them empty,” said Ernesto Dueck, national coordinator for My Hope Uruguay. “They are finding out that they need to fill that void. They have tried pretty much everything and still find themselves empty. They are searching.”
But not everyone is looking to Christ. Some people are exploring New Age practices; others, spiritism and witchcraft.
“It is a good opportunity for the Church,” Dueck said, “because after people have been into New Age or spiritism or other activities for three, four, five years they are as empty as ever, and they keep searching. Once you find God, you need no more searching.”
Uruguay’s churches came together in record numbers for My Hope. “Five years ago we had a database with 1,050 churches,” said mobilization coordinator Alejandro Fernandez. “Right now in our database we have registered 1,864 churches. And 1,601–more than 85 percent–of them are participating. This is historic.”
Nearly half of Uruguay’s population lives in the capital city of Montevideo. The city, like so many of its residents, has a distinctly European flavor. One local man said that he can stand on one corner and feel as if he is in France; in other places, it feels like England or Spain. Parks and plazas dot the city, often containing a statue of some famous person, such as General Jose Artigas (Uruguay’s founding father) or, in the case of a small park on El Cerro, the highest hill overlooking the city, Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
Outside the capital, the interior of Uruguay is mainly ranch land that supports a strong beef cattle industry. As in many countries, people in the rural areas tend to be less secular than those in the big city. But both in the capital and the interior, Christians wanted their friends to know that Jesus can transform their lives. Some had been believers for only a short time themselves before joining the My Hope project.
Pastor Diego Garcia said that one woman in his church accepted Christ about a month before My Hope. The woman is quite shy, Garcia said, but when he told his congregation about My Hope, she wanted to open her home. Twenty of her friends agreed to come, and all of them committed their lives to Christ. Seven of them came with her to church on “Harvest Sunday” following My Hope.
About a month before My Hope, 29-year-old pastor Gabriel Nalerio began the work of planting a new church in the small town of Tambores. As he visited homes, he also told people about My Hope. One person received Christ and expressed interest in being a Matthew. In that home, four people received Christ and four others rededicated their lives to Him after watching the program.
If TV signals were weak or nonexistent, pastors handed out DVDs for Matthew hosts to use. On Sept. 27, the first evening of My Hope Uruguay, Carlos Batista and his wife, Cristina, opened their home to some 25 friends and neighbors. They ushered their guests through the sewing room where Cristina sews denim jeans for a clothing manufacturer. “Thank you for choosing to be here tonight,” Cristina said as she prepared to start the DVD player.
Their guests’ eyes were fixed on the screen as Billy Graham told the story of the rich young ruler who wanted to know how to obtain eternal life. Mr. Graham explained the need to come to God through faith in Jesus Christ.
After the program, four people prayed to commit their lives to Christ. Guests stayed for a light snack, then gradually began to depart. When everyone was gone, Carlos and Cristina prayed together, “Father, You are truly beautiful and incomparable. Thank You for everyone Your Holy Spirit brought to this home tonight. We ask You to guard them and bless them, and that You would not allow them to be separated from You for even a moment. We ask in the Name that is above every other name, the Name of Jesus. Thank You for using this home and our lives that Your Name may be glorified.”
Around the country, others were praying similar prayers as friends and neighbors committed their lives to Christ.
Marisa Torrez lives in Merinos, a village of about 60 people in northern Uruguay. “In the past month, about nine people have come to Christ,” Torrez said. Two days after the final broadcast, neighbors gathered at her cozy home to talk about what God was doing in town. A small hardwood fire warmed the room, but it was God’s grace that warmed the believers’ hearts. In another home, Claudia Cuello, 13, said she invited several friends to her house. Three were able to come, but three others lived too far away to come in the evening. So the following day, Claudia went to their house, talked to them about Jesus and led them to Christ.
Young is a town of about 18,000 in Western Uruguay. Pablo Fernandez, pastor of First Evangelical Baptist Church of Young, said that before My Hope there had been about 600 evangelicals in town. The broadcasts added nearly 200 new believers to that number.
One member of Fernandez’s church, Maria Jesus Flores de Gutierrez, was rejoicing over God’s grace. “I was ‘Peter,’” she said, referring to a day seven months earlier when she felt she had denied Christ. “One day God sent seven women to me, but I was scared and didn’t tell them anything [about Jesus]. I spent two days crying for these ladies who had not received Christ. I kept praying for them, and the Lord gave me opportunities to explain the Gospel to them and invite them to my house.” She was able to lead two of the seven to Christ in the months leading up to My Hope, and the other five received Christ during My Hope gatherings at her house.
As of early November, reports show that more than 20,000 people made first-time commitments to Jesus Christ through My Hope. For the Church in this secular country, it is a grand moment. “I see that the Lord has been preparing an outpouring in Uruguay,” said Andi Hennig, a youth leader at the Mennonite Congregation of Montevideo. “My Hope has been instrumental in providing the training, tools and unity among the churches to step into the new season the Lord is taking us into. My Hope marks a turning point. Our faith is growing; we can see God is at work, and the time for the harvest has come.”