Guayaquil is a city in renewal. In the past few years, the city’s mayor has led an effort to revive run-down and crime-infested areas. New office buildings stand next to well-preserved historical government buildings and churches. Malecón 2000, a boardwalk on the Guayas River, is filled with tourists who come to see its gardens, restaurants and IMAX theater. At the end of the boardwalk, a wide staircase leads visitors 456 steps up Santa Ana Hill, which is blanketed with brightly painted homes, restaurants and shops. Near the hill’s summit are the ruins of the fort built in 1629 when Guayaquil was a favorite port of pirates. Those who climb to the very top find a replica of the lighthouse that once lit the way for friendly ships and warned of the approach of those who would steal, kill and destroy.
God has a spiritual lighthouse in Ecuador–the Church–and it is reflecting the light of Christ into dark places, pointing people to Jesus and warning of spiritual danger. Pastors say that BGEA events such as the nationwide My Hope Television Project in 2004 and the Quito Franklin Graham Festival in 2006 have equipped them to train Christians to reach the lost with the Gospel. The results of these events encouraged Christians in Guayaquil to invite Franklin Graham to hold a Festival of Hope in their city so they could take the Gospel to even more people.
‘A Continuous Miracle’
Pastor Francisco Loor and his church, Centro Evangelistico Asambleas de Dios, is one of the spiritual lighthouses in Guayaquil. Last year, the church started an “evangelistic invasion” into villages across Ecuador. They planted churches in 80 villages and left trained church members in each village to continue the work. Loor estimates that some 2,000 people are now attending these churches.
“We have established churches in places that are very needy, both in a spiritual and physical way,” Loor says. “We have seen that when people’s spirits are reborn, they affect their neighborhood in a positive way. And God has called many of these people to reach out to their communities. We are watching a continuous miracle.”
Part of this miracle is happening on Isla Trinataria, an island in the center of the Guayas River. The island is home to thousands of the city’s poorest residents, who spend their days begging on the streets of Guayaquil. Most adults have not attended school, and neither have their children, so the children join them in working on the streets. Most people cannot afford to buy land, so they build bamboo shacks on stilts above the river.
In 1999, a young man named Antonio planted the first evangelical church in Isla Trinitaria, with the help of his mother, Marina, and his sisters. Adults in the community did not trust these outsiders, so the family decided to work with the children first by establishing a Sunday school. Eventually, the family built a small church out of bamboo. The building was little more than a shack with two pieces of tin for a roof, but it infuriated those in charge of prostitution houses, clubs and other illegal activities. They threatened Antonio’s life several times and burned the church to the ground. Still, the family continued to preach the Gospel.
Last year, the tide began to turn when the church came to the attention of Jessica Alzamora, missions pastor for Centro Evangelistico. When she saw the great need Antonio’s family was trying to meet, she contacted an American couple, Curtis and Mona Hickey.
For years, the Hickeys had led mission teams from North Carolina to Ecuador. They felt that it was time to begin a ministry to physically and spiritually feed the children of Ecuador. Alzamora brought the Hickeys to Isla Trinitaria and a new partnership formed. This past spring, the Hickeys moved their family to Guayaquil, founded Bread of Life International and began working in Isla Trinitaria. They are constructing a permanent church building to support a soup kitchen ministry that will reach both children and adults, and they are helping Marina and Antonio with the Sunday school.
Loor believes that many more Christians should be doing what these two families did.
“God wants us to be a testimony and a light to the people,” he says, “so the blind will open their eyes, prisoners will be freed from jail, and those in darkness will see light. Each believer in each church has to understand that he’s not only a member of a congregation–he is light! He has to go where the prisoners are, where the blind are. This will revolutionize the city and the nation. The Church can do it, not trusting in our strength, but in what God has given to us through the Holy Spirit.”
Loor says that the Festival’s Christian Life and Witness Course mobilized Christians in Guayaquil in a way he’d never seen before. In his church alone, members passed out 40,000 invitations to the Festival, and about 600 church members served as Festival counselors. Many of the 1,200 cooperating churches saw similar results. Some 14,000 people took the Christian Life and Witness Course, and 100,000 Operation Andrew cards were given out to remind Christians to pray for loved ones who do not know Christ.
“I want to see this city at the feet of Christ,” Loor says. “There has been a fire in my heart for many years. I see that passion for souls in Billy Graham and Franklin Graham, and it is helping to ignite this same fire in our nation. I believe a new generation full of the Holy Spirit is ready to take up the challenge of reaching more people for Christ.”
Everyone Is a VIP
The Festival used traditional advertising such as billboards, radio, print and television to get the word out about various events. But a low-tech and inexpensive idea was perhaps the most effective: Christians personally handed out hundreds of thousands of “courtesy passes” to the Festival events. Admission to the Festival was free, but the passes looked like special VIP tickets. Ecuadorians who might discard a flier treated the courtesy passes as if they were special invitations. The passes were also printed in popular magazines and newspapers and could be printed from a special Web page. Churches asked their members to invite at least seven people to the Festival and in this way handed out hundreds of thousands of passes.
The largest effort came from the Christian youth of Guayaquil. Festival Coordinator Freddy Guerrero said that youth ages 12-29 make up 68 percent of South America’s population. Knowing that those numbers are about the same in Ecuador, Guerrero and the rest of the executive committee felt they needed to reach youth through youth.
Luis Santa Maria, youth committee chair, gathered a team of eight young people from various churches in Guayaquil. Together, they devised a plan for youth groups to blanket the city with courtesy passes to a pre-Festival youth event and then to the Festival itself. They gave away the passes at universities, high schools, movie theaters, bus stations and at one of the biggest soccer matches of the season. Guerrero said the youth handed out more passes than any other group cooperating with the Festival.
‘More Than We Were Expecting’
The Festival’s executive chair, 81-year-old José Plaza, is thrilled about what God has done in Ecuador during his 60 years of pastoral ministry–especially the months before the Festival, when some 17,000 people attended three events: one for men, one for women and one for youth. More than 5,000 people accepted Christ through these events, a prison outreach and the ministry of medical teams from Samaritan’s Purse.
“This opened our perspective to think that the Festival will be more than we were expecting,” he says. “We expect that the stadium will be too small!”
By the second meeting, it was obvious that the stadium was too small. On Friday and Saturday evening, a large screen was set up outside the stadium, and hundreds watched the Festival under the glow of the parking lot lights.
Inside the stadium, thousands of people sat close together and joined Marcos Vidal, Marcos Witt and the Tommy Coomes Band in singing praise and worship songs. Then Franklin Graham presented the Gospel.
On Saturday night, Franklin spoke about the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. He told the crowd that God loves everyone in the stadium, that He loves Guayaquil and the country of Ecuador. But the problem, he said, is that many people don’t feel God’s love. Sin separates them from God.
“Tonight, you can have your sins forgiven,” Franklin said. “But you have to come to God His way, through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Some people, Franklin said, have an emptiness in their lives. They feel this emptiness because of sin. Much like the prodigal son, they run from God, using money, drugs, alcohol and relationships to try to fill the emptiness. But the only way to fill the emptiness is to do what the prodigal son did: return to the Father.
“Tonight, if you’re willing, get up out of your seat and come to God right now,” Franklin continued. “Say to Him, ‘I’ve sinned, and I’m sorry. … I want to accept Jesus Christ as my Savior.’ … Come right here, right now, and we’ll have a word of prayer.”
People flooded onto the floor of the stadium in response to Franklin’s call to repent and accept Jesus as Savior. In the overflow area outside the stadium, scores of people responded to Franklin’s special appeal to gather in front of the overflow screen, where counselors stood waiting to lead them in a prayer to receive Christ. Nearby, vendors cooked food on grills set over hot coals to sell it to those sitting at white plastic tables usually reserved for paying customers. But many had already found something better–food for their souls.
At the final meeting, more than 3,200 made commitments to Christ, pushing the Festival’s total commitments over 16,000. The final numbers also show that the youth committee’s efforts paid off: More than 75 percent of the commitments came from people age 25 or younger.
Katrina, 21, leaned on a friend and sobbed after praying to receive Christ. “I have been passing through some difficult times,” she said. “I have been really depressed. There are a lot of problems in my house, and my parents and I often disagree. Now I have Jesus in my heart.”
After praying with a counselor, Fernando, a 24-year-old student, said, “This is a big relief. I’ve partied a lot in my life and done a lot of bad things, but I was empty and had no peace. Now I have Christ.”
As the counselors prayed with inquirers in the last minutes of the Festival, José Plaza said that the Festival is not really over yet. “This is only the beginning of what we’ve been searching for,” he said. “We hope that this will awaken many people to the Lord. The Festival is not only the people here coming to the front. We will see results after this, because of the work that the churches will do and because of all these who have given their hearts to Jesus.”