By Cheryl Magness
Venezuela was once the richest country, with the highest standard of living, in Latin America. Now it has the highest misery index of any country in not only Latin America, but the world.
In spite of commanding the largest oil reserve in the world, the country of 32 million people does not have enough food, basic supplies, medicine or electricity to meet the needs of its population. In March, the country experienced a nationwide power outage that left most of the country in the dark, without electricity and running water, for a week.
Analysts attribute Venezuela’s collapse to a combination of political and economic causes, including the falling price of oil, Venezuela’s own decreased oil production and rising debt, the departure of a reported 3 million people who have fled the country, and internal conflict over who is in charge.
Amid these challenging circumstances, the LCMS is trying to help in a variety of ways.
Care for the body
One of the most basic of those ways is bodily care. In the past year, the LCMS, in partnership with the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile, has supported the Venezuela Relief Medicine Project to provide Lutheran communities in the country with the medicine they need. To date there have been four shipments of medicine — including one supported by a $10,000 grant from Disaster Response — distributed in 23 congregations.
The Rev. Ted Krey, LCMS regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, says the medicines require a prescription and are closely tracked. They are used to treat a variety of chronic ailments, including diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory ailments and epilepsy. Deaconess Luz Maria de Ernst of La Epifania Lutheran Church in Barinas state, Venezuela, says, “This program is really saving lives.”
A case in point is Adonay Tarazona, from Barinas, who had an unsuccessful operation to rebuild his digestive tract in 2017. Tarazona has now received medication to fight the ensuing infection as well as colostomy supplies that his sister-in-law, Lusveidis Pinzon, says have helped his condition to improve. “Thanks to [the Medicine Project] … he can even walk to the church for services,” she says.
Luz Maria adds that other organizations which showed an interest in helping backed away after discovering what the Venezuelan government requires to send or receive international shipments of medicine.
Support for pastors
In addition to partnering with the Chilean church to provide medicine, the LCMS has provided physical, material and spiritual support to Venezuelan pastors. There are currently 15 Lutheran pastors serving in Venezuela and two Venezuelan pastors serving elsewhere in Latin America who return to Venezuela to teach twice a year.
In October 2018, the Venezuelan pastors attended a weeklong conference in the Dominican Republic along with pastors from other Latin American countries and the U.S. The conference included study of the Psalms along with the opportunity to rest and eat. Before returning home, the Venezuelan pastors were able to stock up on needed supplies with funds contributed by LCMS missionaries.
The pastors based in Venezuela are also assisted by a monthly $50 stipend provided by the LCMS in partnership with Amigos en Cristo, an outreach of the LCMS Florida-Georgia District and an LCMS Recognized Service Organization.
Care for souls
In addition to care of the body, the LCMS continues efforts to provide care for souls.
There are currently two church plants in Latin America focusing on Venezuelan refugees — one in Chile, and one in Peru — with plans to develop a third. Blake Warren, regional business manager for the LCMS Latin America Region, says the goal is eventually to hire an administrator to work with Venezuelan leaders, area facilitators and missionaries to identify additional opportunities for providing mercy care in the country. A priority is the care of church workers so that they may better care for others.
Venezuelan pastor Rev. Eliezer Mendosa serves a church in Barquisimeto, Lara state, and also serves as director of Juan de Frias Bible Institute, named after the first Lutheran martyr in Venezuela.
The institute prepares elders, Sunday school teachers, deaconesses and pastors through a combination of extension courses and traveling professors. Deaconess classes last year had the participation of 30 women from across the country. Men entering the pastorate have begun their formal training through Juan de Frias before going on to seminary in the Dominican Republic.
Mendosa says one of the greatest challenges of living in Venezuela is the lack of food: “You must look for it with your nails, practically. If there are things to eat, you must divide between all since it is not enough.”
Mendosa finds strength in the knowledge that “we can rest in God and trust in Him. … A psalm that reminds me of this is ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (Ps. 46).
“So, this is what we pray, that God continues to be our refuge, our strength … [and] this challenge really is an opportunity to continue serving to help our brothers, the sheep, that ultimately belong to Christ and not us.”
The Rev. Miguelangel Perez, president of the Lutheran Church of Venezuela, says his motivation as a pastor comes from a desire to serve “the remaining members who have not migrated, who [remain] in a spirit of … hope that sooner or later things will change.”
One of the greatest challenges for pastors, according to Perez, is visitation: “There is almost no public transport. There are pastors who [travel] almost a day to make a pastoral [call].”
He adds that the majority of pastors have “great difficulties” obtaining basic needs of medical care, food, clothing and footwear but that he and his fellow pastors have “felt great support … [from] the universal church … because they have been very attentive to the situation. This really comforts us a lot [and is] a great support and … blessing for us.”
The list of items in the work being done in Venezuela is long and getting longer. Other ongoing efforts include:
- Two conferences per year provided by Luther Academy for church workers.
- Theological books provided by the VDMA project (20 books to 16 pastors over the last three years).
- Abstinence education for teenagers at risk of pregnancy.
- Lodging for those who have loved ones in the hospital.
- Transportation assistance for the president of the Venezuelan church.
- Food and blanket distribution for those in need.
One of the most important resources in the effort to help the country, however, is people.
Krey says the Lutheran Venezuelans who have left their country are “highly educated,” “Lutheran-to-the-core” individuals who do not want to leave but do so for the sake of their families. They are well catechized and passionate about their faith, and when they leave, they seek out their fellow Lutherans outside the country and begin serving as leaders among them.
“They love their country,” Krey says, adding, “When you meet someone from Venezuela, their first question is always, ‘Do you like my country?’ Those who have left want to go back. Their leaving is evidence of how bad the situation is.”
Posted April 3, 2019