Forsaking false saints for the true God

EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's international missions emphasis in the Southern Baptist Convention is themed "One Sacred Effort -- Find your place in God's story" from Matthew 28:19-20. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions in tandem with Cooperative Program gifts from Southern Baptist churches support approximately 4,800 international missionaries in seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. Gifts to the Lottie Moon offering are received through local Southern Baptist churches or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources to promote the offering. For resources in Spanish, click here. This year's goal is $175 million. Carlos and Lily Llambes, the focus of this story, are among the featured missionaries in this year's international missions emphasis. For an earlier story on the Llambes' ministry, click here.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (BP) -- Lily was scared for her life but didn't know why.

It should have been a happy time, after the 25-year-old had been invited by her best friend to be inducted into a position of honor in their religion.

The ritual -- which some of the religion's leaders charged as much as $10,000 to conduct -- was being offered to her "free" because she was told she was someone the spirits favored.

But Lily tossed and turned the night before the ritual, pierced with foreboding that what was being offered wasn't real or true.

"If there is a true God, please protect me," she thought before falling asleep.

In her dreams, Lily pictured herself being offered as the sacrifice in the ritual and spent the following day contemplating her dread and fear. When her friend came looking for her that night, Lily couldn't go through with it. Her friend said bad luck and misfortune would befall her. Yet Lily stuck by her decision, and the friends parted ways.

That marked the end of Lily's participation in Santeria, whose practices are similar to voodoo. Santeria mixes tribal-based spirit worship from West Africa, South America or the Caribbean with Roman Catholicism, calling on saints to divine the future and to provide healing and good luck.

Lily didn't experience the Latin American sect in her native country. The Colombian-born American was living in Miami at the time.

"I didn't have peace in my life, so I was looking for something to provide that," she recalls. "I now know I was spiritually blind."

Since becoming a Christian, Lily Llambes has experienced the true God -- no more so than during her decade-long service with her husband Carlos as Southern Baptist missionaries in the Dominican Republic.

Lily's experience with Santeria has given her insight while counseling Dominicans and Haitians who are moving from a belief in the multiple spirits of voodoo into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

"It has given me a good perspective of where the people are [spiritually]," Lily says, "how they are in bondage.

"At the same time it has given me compassion for them and made me more aware that they need the Gospel," she says. "And ... it has made me fearless [in the face of voodoo] because I have Jesus and I am saved and I should not fear."

A church's 'sticking power'

Felicia, a witch doctor's wife living in the Dominican Republic, says she and her Haitian husband "contact the saints for the benefit of the people. We don't use demonic forces. We help people with their debts, with their problems. When people don't have good luck, they come here looking for good luck."

But their neighbors aren't so sure, questioning whether "the saints" to whom the couple prays are who they say they are. "That place is from the devil," a neighbor says as she points to Felicia's house.

In Haiti, pastor Ilme Frasier's reaction to hearing that Felicia's family as well as another witch doctor had settled into their community was to form an evangelical church there.

Frasier is a student in a church-planting institute that Carlos Llambes, Lily's husband, began as ethnic ministries director for the Dominican Baptist Convention. He started it to teach theology and doctrine to church leaders in the Dominican Republic and to equip them to start new churches in neighborhoods without an evangelical presence.

Frasier started the church under a tree. The congregation now meets in a one-room building, evidencing a "sticking power" in the community, Llambes says. Most homes there are too small for groups to meet in, he adds.

In one year, the congregation has grown to 60 adults and 20 children. And Felicia's husband is now the only witch doctor living in the community; the other left town.

But it hasn't been easy.

"There were times when I was afraid" while sharing the Gospel in the neighborhood fraught with witchcraft and voodoo, Frasier says, "but God has strengthened me.

"When problems come, I tell my congregation how the Lord can handle them. Nothing is too small or too big for the Lord."

Partnering churches from the United States — including First Baptist in Pompano Beach, Fla. -- help pastors such as Frasier start churches. Teams prayerwalk and invite residents to Bible studies and worship services formed by the institute's church planters in the communities.

Beverly Cooley, a Pompano church member who turns 81 on Christmas Day, notes, "Over the course of our partnership these past five years, we've been able to see the progress being made with churches started where we prayerwalked in previous years."

What does the cross mean to you?

When prayerwalking or doing street evangelism alongside partnering U.S. churches and local church planters, Llambes often makes a beeline to someone wearing a cross, asking why they are wearing it and what it means to them.

Near the Dominican Republic's border with Haiti, Llambes spotted a man wearing a beaded necklace with a crucifix dangling from it, a type often used in voodoo rituals.

"Why are you wearing that cross?" Llambes asks him in Creole.

"For good luck. I don't feel well," the man named Onesimo replies, holding a handful of herbs.

"Maybe you don't feel well because you have a dead Christ hanging from your neck, weighing you down," Llambes responds. "He isn't dead on a cross now. He's risen from that, for you. How do you think He feels about you depicting Him as dead when He's alive?"

Llambes gives Onesimo an audio recorder containing Bible stories in Creole, along with a booklet, "Bon Nouvel Pou Ou" (Good News for You).

"If you have the real Christ in your heart, you don't need to trust in a manmade thing of wood hanging around your neck," Llambes tells Onesimo. "You want the real thing. Can I take this thing from your neck and throw it away?"

"Go, do it," Onesimo responds.

"Start your walk with Christ," Llambes urges Onesimo. "Go to Bible studies. As you start your walk with Him, it isn't going to be easy, but start."

Eight months later, Llambes received word that Onesimo, having been discipled by Haitian and Dominican church planters, was baptized and has joined a local church plant.

In the past seven years, 100 churches have been started as part of the Dominican Baptist Convention's ethnic ministries and church-planting institute. Now, many of the graduates are teaching the same courses throughout the country and are mentoring their students to start new congregations, just like Llambes did with them.

After about a decade of planting churches in the Dominican Republic among both Dominicans and Haitians, the Llambes family relocated to Mexico City in March 2014 to start churches. Of the capital city's more than 4,200 neighborhoods, more than 3,300 do not have an evangelical church, Llambes says. Neighborhoods can contain as many as 20,000 people in the city of 28 million.

"All the church planters, the pastor-missionaries, they have a passion for church starting," Llambes says. "And, once they form one, they don't stop. They look for another community without an evangelical church and start another one."

Even though he's relocated to another area to start churches, Llambes knows "there's going to be a continuation of that here," as evidenced by the church planters' discipleship of Onesimo.

Seeking Hispanic Southern Baptists

The International Mission Board is seeking Hispanic Southern Baptists to become part of its Kairos Project as cross-cultural missionaries in Europe, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Latin America where their language skills and cultural affinities will provide greater access to reach others with the Gospel.

Kairos is a Greek word that means "at the opportune moment." The Llambes are among approximately 90 Hispanics from Southern Baptist churches who are serving overseas as missionaries through the International Mission Board. More Hispanic Baptist missionaries are needed to represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. evangelical community.

Applications to serve in the Kairos Project can be made online via Kairos Project or Kairos Project, Spanish language. Go to IMB hispanos to see this and other stories in Spanish as well as a variety of church resources and missions information.

Watch Carlos Llambes talk about what God is doing in the Dominican Republic:

Kate Gregory writes for IMB. See related videos on the Llambes here and here.
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