Jorge and I had an amazing trip to Venezuela last week. It is definitely a land of many contrasts. We flew in along the blue Caribbean coast and saw the green Andes mountains marching down to the coast where they drop from 10,000 feet to sea level. The Caracas airport is literally on the beach and was shrouded in a cloud from a 1950´s vintage coal burning electricity plant that was belching out black smoke. The airport also proved to be a throwback from the cold war with huge black and white posters of Simon Bolivar staring down at you with large, imposing eyes with the slogan written below, “Revolution, Socialism or Death”. No welcome signs, dirty escalators and bathrooms and an irritated official yelling at us for being in the wrong line (there were no signs). We were definitely not in Kansas anymore, but in a truly socialistic nation where banks, private land and oil fields are confiscated by the government, gasoline is cheaper than water, and there is restricted access to internet, TV and news from the outside world.
The smiling faces of our Ecuadorian Quichua friends who came to meet us at the airport were a welcome sight and they drove us into Caracas where a service in a clean and bright church building was underway. What a contrast to the dirty dark streets lined with trash and garbage just outside the building. This church is only 2 years old, but already is planting daughter churches around Caracas and as far away as Columbia. The Quichua congregation is reaching out to their Venezuelan neighbors and are truly a light in the darkness. The MIRA (Restoration and Revival Ministries Church) is a place where local police officers come for prayer and the neighborhood is being transformed by the presence of the Gospel.
We preached all weekend in evening services and then taught 2 ASELSI courses from Monday through Thursday of the following week. During the days, the local church members showed us all around Caracas where there is 60% unemployment, an 80% divorce rate, long lines for basic food items like milk and oil and a lack of basic services (we only had running water in our apartment for 3 of the 9 days that we were there). Vagrant men lined the streets drinking beer payed for by their government subsidy checks and foraging through the mountains of trash under the ever present eyes of Simon Bolivar, Hugo Chavez, and Che Guevara. It reminded me of C.S. Lewis´description of hell in “The Great Divorce”.
In contrast to this, the students took us over the mountains south of Caracas where we found a settlement of German immigrants who had been there since the 1840´s, with bright clean Bavarian style houses, new cars, clean streets and fields of beautiful vegetables. We were told that Hugo Chavez was not welcome there, and that all that we could see was the fruits of their hardwork and upbringing. They had to pay high taxes to the Venezuelan government but were glad to do so in order to keep their freedom. I was reminded of all that I had ever read about the contrast between communism and capitalism and it seemed to be played out right before my eyes as we descended from the mountain back into the filth of the Caracas streets and gulag style apartment buildings.
Probably the worst thing that Hugo Chavez has done to Venezuela was introducing the witchcraft religions from Cuba of which he is a follower. He has brought curses down upon his country and has run it into the ground economically. All of this was due to a great power and economic vacuum that he has filled for the past 12 years. However, in the face of this devastation, the church of Jesus Christ has risen up and is beginning to be a bright and burning light in the darkness. Believers from across denominations are coming together in unprecedented numbers and praying for their country.
By the end of the week, the 26 new ASELSI students had finished the lecture phase of 2 courses on the Holy Spirit and Biblical theology and are hungry for more. We will be going back 4 times in 2012 to teach 12 more courses along with ASELSI teachers from Ecuador. The church is definitely alive in Venezuela and hungry for more of the Word of God. They are the light that is shining in the darkness and offering life instead of death. It is our privilege to serve them, and we appreciate you standing with us as we work to transform lives.
Mike, International Director of ASELSI Bible Study Extension Centers