Wave of new believers, churches sweep across Honduras after Mitch
LA CEIBA, Honduras (BP)--Filadelfo Pavón was bitter and suspicious. He was bitter that Hurricane Mitch ripped through Honduras and washed much of the countryside where he lived toward the Caribbean Sea.
His suspicion arose from weekly waves of Southern Baptist volunteers from North Carolina who arrived to build his house and more than 100 other houses for his neighbors. "What could they possibly want?" he wondered. "We've lost everything."
Pavón escaped death in late October 1998, when Hurricane Mitch leveled communities, crops and lives as it ripped a path across Central America. Honduras took the greatest blow as Mitch's eye swooped inland.
Thousands lost their lives in the hurricane's wake. But thousands like Pavón are finding life as well -- eternal life -- as Baptists have ministered and witnessed in the region.
His suspicion turned to realizing his need for Christ as he watched volunteers care for and play with his children. When construction was complete, he insisted the community gather at his property to dedicate his new house.
"Before we begin, I want to ask the people of this community for forgiveness," he started. "And I want everyone to know I have asked Jesus into my heart."
Within two weeks, Pavón's wife, 20-year-old daughter and two other women followed his example and accepted Christ as well.
"There has been an openness for the gospel never before seen here in Honduras," said Max Furr, an International Mission Board missionary and disaster response coordinator for the board's relief efforts in Honduras. "Doors are open and people are asking us to come and preach in their communities and villages."
Seventy-eight Baptist churches have been organized across the country through the relief efforts. In the Lower Aguán Baptist Association alone, one of the hardest-hit areas, more than 800 decisions for Christ have been recorded.
The harvest of souls hasn't happened through happenstance. God provided resources for ministry and Southern Baptist missionaries and Honduran Baptists provided a strategy.
"We decided from the very beginning that we were going to work through local churches to identify pockets of people who were not receiving help from any other organization," said Ken Cummins, the IMB missionary coordinating relief work in the northern coastal region. "Once we distributed food, we relocated people whose communities were lost. Money for the land and materials, and the labor, were provided by Southern Baptists."
Southern Baptists filled a total of 80 40-foot shipping containers -- more than 2 million pounds of food, blankets, and clothing -- for relief efforts in Honduras. Baptist State conventions from North Carolina and Texas and a tri-state partnership between Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana Baptists are sending a seemingly endless stream of volunteer teams to assist in the recovery.
More than 2,000 volunteers have worked through the IMB in hurricane-wrecked areas in Central America. The volunteers have built more than 600 cinder block houses throughout Honduras. Although evangelism was not the purpose for constructing houses, sharing the gospel in every community was intentional.
"We started Bible studies in areas where we built homes, in areas associated with flood relief and took the gospel directly into areas in an evangelism effort where we did not work," Cummins said. "We wanted to saturate the gospel."
"In dealing with the physical needs of the people, we also were able to deal with their spiritual needs," Furr said. "Many came to know Christ and have affiliated with new church starts or organized churches."
Evangelization efforts continue, but Francisco Oqueli Erazo, president of the Lower Aguán Baptist Association, said the greatest need now is leadership development and doctrinal training.
"As we work within the churches and see the initiative of a person, we get along beside him and mentor him," Erazo said. "We need to be raising leaders in these new works."
The Honduras National Baptist Convention recently began a five-year plan for missions outreach over the whole country and is hoping to soon send its first international missionaries. Lay training schools also will be established throughout the country to train the new leaders close to home.
Many Baptist leaders in Honduras see the decisions for Christ and the new churches as the possible beginning of a rapidly reproducing church-planting movement. They believe they still have opportunities to spiritually capitalize on what Hurricane Mitch began.
"There is still a climate of humility and a high sense of awareness of God," Cummins said. "People still are struggling to make ends meet, to find work.
"But people still are very open to the things of God."