Christmas Came Early in Colombia
Sometimes I feel guilty about doing what I do. I mean, I say that I do these pastor’s conferences because the pastors don’t have access to education and we go there to serve them, and that’s true. However, my motivation isn’t always entirely selfless. Like most people who do any form of short or long term missions, I usually receive way more that I give. During this trip, Christmas came early and my “gift” wasn’t found under a tree.
The first week of December, I had the privilege of leading a Global Advance team to teach church planting to about a hundred pastors, leaders, and church planters in Leticia, Colombia. They came from all over the Amazon region of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. I am always encouraged, challenged, and humbled by these trips, and this one proved to be no different.
I was honored once again to serve with my friend John Gillespie. This was the third time John and I have worked together. We both spoke at a conference in Ecuador last year and the two of us led a conference in Moscow this past February. Our hosts for this trip were the infamous Jaime and Lori Useche, directors of YWAM Amazon.
This was my 8th trip to the Amazon region, and I am continually amazed at the work that YWAM Amazon has accomplished over the past 20+ years. Jamie and Lori have become like family, so I try to take advantage of every opportunity I have to see them and play a small part in what God is doing through their ministry.
Their Commitment and Dedication
While there were a few pastors from the city of Leticia, most of the participants were from the indigenous people group of the Amazon region, the Ticuna Indians. Most of these pastors and leaders led small churches (usually 20-30 members) in tiny jungle villages along the river. Their church was often the the only one in their village. Each of them came because they wanted to reach other communities without churches and where people had not yet heard the gospel.
As I listened to their stories and heard the passion in their voices to reach out to those of their tribe who were far from God, I was challenged and humbled by their dedication and commitment. Most of them are fishermen, living on what they can catch and grow. They do not live in nice houses and are not paid by the church. They simply do what they do, because they have been compelled by God to do so. Many of them traveled several days along the river or through the jungle just to attend the conference. Throughout the week, I was often reminded of what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
1 Corinthians 9:16–17 (ESV)
For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship.
There’s Much Work to Be Done
One of the things that I love about the church planting curriculum is that it’s more focused training and there are many opportunities for practical application. Several times throughout the conference, John and I would pause during our teaching and have them do some work either individually or in groups. Whether it was working on their core values and vision for their churches or identifying potential leaders, it was refreshing to see them tackle each project with passion.
I remember standing on the platform, talking with my translator, Gisselle, and not wanting to interrupt them to continue teaching. They seemed to be so excited to not only be learning, but actually accomplishing something as we led them through the planning process. This was such a contrast to what we as Americans so often do. We give lip service to what we are asked to do and end up on our phones or talking to the people around us. Not so in Colombia. This group was hungry to learn and ready to work.
Other times we would ask them to get in groups to pray. We gave them some general direction and said something like, “let’s pray together for about 5 minutes and then continue the session.” Let me tell you, when we asked them to pray, they prayed! And it wasn’t some American type prayer group where one person would hesitantly start and everyone would be finished praying within a minute or two. They launched into prayer with passion and zeal! There was a dull roar in the room as each of them cried out to God on behalf of each other, their churches, and their communities. It was awesome to be a part of and I was, once again, challenged and humbled.
No Turning Back
The final morning of the conference, we walked into the room where we had been meeting and everyone was already there and had begun worshiping. When we walked in, they were singing the song “No Turning Back.” It’s a familiar song, and while I didn’t understand the words, I recognized the song. What struck me was the volume of their singing. It was deafening!
Here were roughly 100 pastors and leaders from small churches in tiny villages in the jungles of the Amazon, singing their hearts out. Life for them is not easy. They don’t have a 401k or medical plan. Most of them don’t own any form of transportation other than a small boat. They traveled to Leticia by the river with their entire families and all their worldly possessions for one purpose – to learn how to start churches in communities where none exist. They were committed to doing that no matter what…and as far as they were concerned, there is no turning back! To say I was inspired would be a massive understatement.
Christmas Came Early for Me
After three extremely full days, the conference was finally over. Because it’s dangerous to travel on the Amazon at night, most of the pastors spent the night and left after breakfast the next morning. All of us were staying at the YWAM base and had been eating all our meals together. But this morning was special.
Before everyone left, a few of the pastors came to our table to tell us “thank you” on behalf of everyone. So, they got the attention of the room and one by one, five pastors expressed their gratitude. Each of them, with tears in their eyes told us of their ministries. the challenges they faced, the villages they serve, and those they want to reach. They expressed how impacting our teaching had been and how they were changed, encouraged, and equipped to really make a difference. One of them, through tears, told us of how he was planning to leave the ministry and how God spoke to him through the conference and gave him renewed passion and vision for his church. They continued their messages of thanks for about 15 minutes.
And then Christmas came early! They did something truly unique – they sang us a song. They told us it was a traditional Peruvian song of goodbye. It was a song of gratitude, love and family. The next thing we knew there were about twenty men leading this song, and they sang with gusto! I don’t think I’ve ever experienced something that touched me more. While expressing their gratitude for what we had given them, they gave us a gift that was beyond measure. It was truly amazing.
When everyone had left, we were all standing around talking and John looked at me and said: “It’s moments like this when I think; I have to bring my A-game. We can’t just show up to these things and give them our left-overs. We have to pray, study, and prepare for each teaching, each message, and each conference like it was the most important talk we’ve ever given. Because it is. Eternity hangs in the balance, and the part we play is of the utmost importance.”
It’s moments like these that I really do feel guilty about doing what I do. Not because my motives are suspect – I’ve gotten over that – but because I get to do this. I have this extreme honor and privilege to travel all over the world and serve these great men and women, these heroes of the faith. Like I said before, Christmas came early for me this year. I can’t think of a better gift than that.