CARACAS, Venezuela (BP) -- As tensions escalate amid anti-government protests across Venezuela, International Mission Board missionaries and their Venezuelan Baptist partners are ministering to Venezuelans on both sides of the conflict.
One Venezuelan Baptist pastor goes to the front lines of the protests, praying with demonstrators and their opponents at barricades protesters have erected in Caracas, the capital city. He also visits Venezuela's National Guard and police stations to pray for their forces, even though some of them have been accused of alleged human-rights violations against protestors.
At a barricade where he went to pray with demonstrators, the pastor "put the skids on an attack on protesters," reported Matthew Starr*, IMB missionary in Caracas.
Residents of a nearby barrio (slum) approached, carrying sticks and stones, ready to attack demonstrators. The barrios of Caracas -- stretching up the mountains surrounding the city -- are considered bastions of support for the socialist government.
"He went across to the attackers and said he was a Baptist pastor and was praying with folks from both sides, sharing their need for God to take control of the situation," Starr recounted. "This defused the [conflict] and they didn't carry out the attack."
"Pray for this pastor as he's making this his ministry during this crisis," Starr added. "He's also asking other pastors to get involved."
Another front-line ministry is happening through a Baptist church located near the main protest area in Caracas. Every morning some church members prayerwalk the area before protests begin in the afternoon.
Although church leaders cancelled prayer meetings at their building for security reasons, they asked members to pray together in homes and invite their neighbors to join them.
One family shared that five non-Christian neighbors showed up for a prayer meeting in their home.
"Many unsaved Venezuelans are realizing they just don't have the spiritual resources to face the crisis," Starr observed.
The latest crisis erupted in early February when students in western Venezuela staged demonstrations after a female university student allegedly was raped. Protesters demanded the government address Venezuela's crime issues; the country has the fifth highest murder rate in the world, according to news reports. They also complained about Venezuela's 56 percent inflation rate -- the world's highest -- and a shortage of basic goods like milk, cooking oil and toilet paper.
After police detained some students, anti-government demonstrations spread to Caracas and other cities.
Venezuela has been deeply divided politically for nearly 15 years, a rift that began as the late President Hugo Chavez ushered in socialism during his 14-year presidency. That rift widened after the March 2013 death of Chavez and the bitterly contested election last April of his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro.
"There's been a lot of discontent in the country, even before the protests broke out," Starr noted. "[The unrest] has just been building."
"A fuse has been lit, but we just don't know how long the fuse is," a Venezuelan pastor told Starr six months ago.
So far, at least 20 people have been killed in violence surrounding the protests, news reports said.
After the first of those deaths, the National Baptist Convention of Venezuela issued a statement condemning the violence and urging democratic solutions. The statement also asked Christians around the world to pray for Venezuela, calling for "heartfelt and ongoing prayer to God, imploring Him to shine His face over us, to heal our nation and to help us to face and transform the present circumstances for the good of all Venezuelans."
IMB leaders echoed that call to prayer and urged prayer for Venezuelan Baptists and IMB missionaries in Venezuela.
Terry Lassiter, the IMB's strategy leader for the American Peoples Affinity Group, said "…. God is moving in greater ways in evangelism and church planting [there] than ever before."
"This has not been an easy time for our missionaries [and their Venezuelan Baptist partners]," Lassiter added, "so pray that God will use them in mighty ways like never before."
Christopher Rigdon*, IMB missionary in Caracas, said, "As the world focuses on Venezuela and its problems, pray that we as well as our national partners would remain faithful to what we have been called to do."
Despite the unrest, Baptists in Caracas are planning for an early launch of a city-wide evangelistic campaign previously scheduled for August. In preparation, leaders asked church members to start home prayer meetings and invite non-Christian neighbors to join them.
"The idea is to saturate the city in prayer," Ridgon said. "Just imagine what could be if every street and every apartment building were covered in prayer. Each prayer group has the potential to become a new church in the network of churches in the city."
Meanwhile, Rigdon and his IMB colleagues are reaching out to their neighbors while spending more time at home due to barricaded streets and security concerns.
Rigdon and his wife Kate* have found ministry opportunities while waiting in long lines at grocery stores due to food shortages.
One day a woman behind them said she'd just received a message via Twitter reporting that another demonstration was beginning.
"You could see the concern and anxiety on her face," Rigdon recalled.
Rigdon then offered to pray with her. "Right there in the checkout line, we bowed in prayer," he said. "My wife looked up at the end of the prayer and realized that those around us had also bowed in prayer, too."
Another day in a checkout line, a Venezuelan man mentioned the recent unrest. Rigdon turned the topic to spiritual matters and shared his testimony. The man seemed open, so Rigdon offered to get together later to share more. Within a few hours, the man texted Rigdon and asked to meet the next Saturday.
"Many Venezuelans know they need something in their lives. Unfortunately, many have filled that void with worldly things and not God," Rigdon said. "They need [believers] to ask tough questions like, 'What's keeping you from making the choice to follow Christ?'"
Starr and his wife Monica* are asking those questions of a Venezuelan family that unjustly lost their business because of Venezuela's political and economic situation. As the family struggled to cope, the Starrs shared the Gospel with them. The mother and her children now come twice a week to the Starrs' apartment, where Monica leads them in Bible study.
"Pray that they will come to [a] relationship with the Lord," Monica said.
The Starrs and their colleagues ask Southern Baptists to pray that same thing for Venezuelans on both sides of the country's conflict.
"Many Venezuelans have turned their backs on God … and they need to submit to God and recognize His sovereignty," Matthew Starr said. "A nation that turns [its] back on God is not going to be blessed."
-- Pray evangelical churches in Venezuela will not take sides in Venezuela's political conflict but will focus instead on reaching Venezuelans for Christ.
-- Pray many unsaved Venezuelans on both sides of the conflict will come to know Jesus Christ as Savior.
-- Pray for God's protection and wisdom for IMB missionaries and their Venezuelan Baptist partners as they seek creative ways to minister amid the unrest.
-- Pray for the safety of some Venezuelan Baptists ministering on the front lines of the protest areas.
-- Pray that the Venezuelan government will listen to the concerns of protesters and that peaceful solutions can be found.
-- Pray for reconciliation among the people of Venezuela, who are deeply divided politically.
*Name changed. Maria Elena Baseler is an IMB editor/writer living in the Americas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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