On the evening of Oct. 7, more than 120 Venezuelans gathered at Vida en Acción Cruzada Cristiana (Life in Action Christian Crusade) in Bogotá, Colombia. This was the church’s first service specifically for the Venezuelan community in Colombia’s capital city. Partnering with Misión Mahlak, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian assistance to refugees around the world, Vida en Acción feels compelled to model Matthew 25:35-36 to their refugee neighbors from across the border:
“For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me,” (NKJV).
“We are just learning how to serve this community,” says David Cárdenas, one of Vida en Acción’s missions pastors. “But you can taste the need. You can see the situation is very bad.”
The United Nations estimates 3 million natives have fled Venezuela over the past four years—roughly 7 percent of the population. Although it’s been five years since Hugo Chavez’s death, his hard-line socialist policies continue to ravage Venezuela’s economy. Under Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, the International Monetary Fund expects the inflation rate to reach 1 million percent by the end of 2018.
Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage is currently about $25, with 87 percent of the population living below the poverty line. On average, prices double every 26 days, making the cost of a single cup of coffee equivalent to a month’s pay. Families are struggling to afford even the most basic necessities. In a survey from August 2018, over one-third of Venezuelan families said they had gone without food at some point during the previous three months.
According to Colombia’s migration office, an estimated 45,000 refugees cross the Colombian border every day, most to buy necessities like food and medicine. Of those, about 40,000 return home, while approximately 2,000 remain in Colombia and 3,000 move on to other South American countries.
“They’re not shopping for watches and jewelry. They’re shopping for toilet paper and aspirin and milk—the most basic of needs, which are very difficult to find in Venezuela,” says Chris Swanson, BGEA’s director of Latin America Affairs.
Venezuela’s government has prohibited large humanitarian operations from entering the country, denying that there is a migrant crisis at all. In reality, this is the largest rapid displacement of people Latin America has ever witnessed. The desperation is palpable.
Like Vida en Acción, other evangelical churches in Colombia are answering the call to “love the foreigners that reside among them,” (Cf. Deuteronomy 10:18).
“[The churches] are very conscientious to meet the physical needs, being the hands and feet, as well as taking advantage to provide spiritual resources,” Swanson says.
Many churches have organized food pantries, clothing drives, medical clinics, and internet and charging stations. But providing rest stops for refugees walking to their destination has been one of the most valuable ministries.
“[One] church has people outside encouraging them to come in and take shelter overnight, if it’s later in the day. The next available shelter after this church is probably three-quarters of the way up a 12,000-foot mountain. If they don’t reach it by nightfall, the risk is huge,” Swanson says. “In fact, recently, 17 refugees were crossing the mountain and died of hypothermia.”
For this reason, churches try to have resources on hand that refugees can take with them. A blanket, gloves, hats—easy-to-carry items that could prove life-saving.
Swanson recounts an interaction with two mothers crossing the border with their sons. One boy was 2 years old and was epileptic, while the other was 10 years old with hydrocephalus and was in a wheelchair. When asked where they were going, the women explained that they were walking to Peru because they didn’t have money for any other transportation.
Many Venezuelans walk along the Pan-American highway, crossing the border at Cúcuta, Colombia, and traveling across the country to reach Tumbes, Peru—a nearly 1,400-mile journey. The two women and their sons were hoping to join the one woman’s husband, who had traveled ahead to find employment and housing in Peru.
While meeting physical needs is a priority, Colombian churches realize that ministering to the spiritual needs of their Venezuelan neighbors is paramount. The mission field is literally right outside their doors.
In addition to its Sunday afternoon services, Vida en Acción is in the process of creating discipleship groups for refugees in Bogotá and reaching out to the elderly Venezuelans to help meet their specific needs. Other churches offer childcare, using clowns to tell Bible stories and communicate spiritual truth.
Unfortunately, the large influx of refugees is straining an already precarious region. And with no end in sight, churches in Colombia are asking for ongoing prayer as they serve the “least of these.”
“It’s often in crisis where we are pliable to hear from God and respond,” Swanson says. He invites Christians to pray for ongoing joy for the Colombian churches, that they would not become resentful, but instead view the situation as “an opportunity the Lord is using to spread the Gospel and to spread hope.”
Although many Venezuelans have come to Colombia to find refuge, they have in turn become more vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, xenophobia and exploitation. The churches hope to provide safe places for these people while also building meaningful relationships.
Cárdenas asks the Lord to provide resources—both human and financial. “We’re asking for God’s guidance to aid in the spiritual and material areas of these people’s lives, because this is a lot. They have a lot of needs. We know that we cannot attend all the families, but those that come to us, we can serve as Jesus did.”
The Scripture quotation marked NKJV is taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version. The quotation marked NIV is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.