Soap opera-style 'En Familia' makes impact across the Americas

CALI, Colombia (BP)--Saving souls with soap operas? It's happening. Spanish speakers throughout North and South America are coming to Christ through "En Familia" -- a video series produced and directed by a Southern Baptist missionary.

"En Familia" (In Family) is making an impact from New York to Florida to Houston to Uruguay and Argentina.

"It is being used to open doors to secular people, to evangelize and to start new churches," recounts John Magyar, International Mission Board missionary in Cali, Colombia.

En Familia consists of 12 short dramas that explore and expose some of the most serious problems families face today. They are done in the style of telenovelas, which are popular TV viewing fare throughout Latin America.

"It is produced at about a middle-class to upper-middle-class cultural level," said Magyar, who hails from St. Louis, "and because of its 'soap opera' quality, it has appeal to all socioeconomic groups."

The average En Familia segment runs 10 to 12 minutes. Issues dramatized include abortion, aging parents, AIDS, child discipline, divorce, drugs and homosexuality. Small groups gather weekly to watch a segment, then discuss what they have seen.

"This opens people up," Magyar said. "If they've had a recent death in the family, for example, they begin to share their feelings. Without exception, you have the opportunity to witness in these small groups."

Problems portrayed in the video segments sometimes cause strong reactions. "It's one of those things when people see it they might get angry or defensive," Magyar said. "It cuts to the quick. They walk out, saying, 'I'm not going to take this.' Then they're back with their spouse and friends the next week."

Eneried Romero and her pastor husband, Isai, have used En Familia extensively as an outreach to non-believers around their church in Cali. She said the four themes that have impacted women most are spousal abuse, divorce, child discipline and communication between husband and wife.

In the segment on spousal abuse, a "macho" husband heaps hateful insults on his wife. "Many women identify with the woman in this video and cry as they see their lives reflected in the drama," Eneried Romero said.

In one case, "a women left the group with the realization that she is really someone of value before God, and that Christ gave his own life to save and heal her."

Spousal communication has been a controversial subject among couples who attend the sessions together, Romero added. "Most men think that their free time is only for themselves," she said.

Magyar's assistant, Paula Sanchez, wrote the scripts for En Familia from actual case studies provided by psychologist Hebert Palomino, an IMB missionary now on stateside assignment in Temple, Texas.

A native of Cali, Palomino formerly worked in the Baptist hospital in Asuncion, Paraguay. Ministering to terminally ill patients and their families, he had many opportunities to do counseling. "Most of the situations in En Familia were around the cases that I saw at one time or another," he said.

Filming of the series was done in a two-week period in 1997 in Cali, using 46 professional actors. Custom music was added at the Baptist International Communications studio in Cali, where Magyar is general director, and the film was edited at IMB headquarters in Richmond, Va.

In their entirety, the 12 "slice-of-life" segments are the equivalent of a feature-length film, Magyar noted. The entire project cost $36,000. "We got a lot for our money."

Nearly 600 sets of En Familia materials -- which include the videos, a leader's guide and viewers' guides -- have been distributed in 18 countries.

In Asuncion, Palomino said, the drama on alcohol abuse led to the creation of an alcoholism/codependency group. Then, "we started a church. All of that started with a video -- something that related to their specific needs."

Hayward Armstrong, a former missionary to Peru and Chile, headed the committee that conceived En Familia. Originally, the series was designed as a training tool for laypeople, he said. "The Lord has used it more evangelistically."

Armstrong recalled one missionary's prediction shortly after En Familia became available -- that it would have the impact in video form that the "Experiencing God" discipleship course has had in print form. "I wouldn't pretend to say it's gone to those heights, but it has been widely used, and people's lives have changed."

Work has begun to produce a parallel evangelistic guide for En Familia group leaders, Armstrong said. It will help them to direct responses to the gospel and to pose questions that go beyond social needs.

Former missionary to Uruguay Jason Carlisle, the IMB's director of Hispanic mobilization, has followed the spread of En Familia in South America. Now based in Richmond, Carlisle sees En Familia as a resource in his assignment of mobilizing stateside Hispanic churches toward missions.

Maygar reported that 72 En Familia groups have been started in Houston, Texas. The series also has been used in Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida.

Mauricio Vargas, language associate in the Missouri Baptist Convention missions department, reviewed an En Familia introductory video. "This is really good," Vargas said. "I think that a lot of pastors and a lot of the congregations can identify with it."

He noted that members of the Jefferson City Hispanic mission where he has served as interim pastor are dealing with problems addressed in the video series.

Palomino said En Familia has been successful in showing non-believers that Christians care about their problems. "I think that was for me the main accomplishment, and I feel so good about that."

The timing is right for En Familia in the Spanish-speaking world, Magyar said. "People are just hungry for Christ. They're hungering for something different. Organized religion as they knew it has failed them.

"God has just been really, really moving in Latin America. It's one of those moments in time where you either take advantage of the opportunity or you miss it."

Through En Familia, Magyar concluded, Baptists have an opportunity to seize the moment. "We've never produced anything that has opened more doors faster to present the good news of Jesus Christ."

(BP) photos available by request from the Missouri Baptist newsjournal Word & Way.

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