By Bob Terry
Special to The Alabama Baptist
“The greatest economic collapse of a nation in history outside of war.” That is how many economists describe conditions in Venezuela. The once-vibrant economy based on abundant oil reserves has ground to a halt. Oil exports have become a dribble. Automobile factories among the largest in South America sit idle. Natural resources go untended. Jobs are almost nonexistent.
The breadbasket of the nation that once made Venezuela a strong food exporter now barely produces enough food for local land owners and almost none for others. There is no fertilizer to increase yields, no pesticides to fight off pests and plant diseases, no fuel for the farm equipment.
Hyperinflation fails to capture the spectacular downward spiral of Venezuela. In May, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis calculated the exchange rate of a single Bolivar at 5,406 to one US dollar. In June the Federal Reserve said the exchange rate was 6,072 to 1.
Venezuelan Baptist leaders recently shared stories of prices on some display items rising two times during the brief moments of a shopping trip.
The currency is so worthless that these Baptist leaders passed out 100 Bolivar notes to those attending the July 7-11, 2019 Annual Gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) as a reminder to pray for the struggling nation.
Speaking to Baptist leaders from 44 nations gathered in the Bahamas for the BWA Annual Gathering, Manuel Sangronis and Eller J. Romero, director and associate director of the National Convention of Baptists in Venezuela respectively, shared about the plight of their nation as well as told of a might movement of God in the midst of the nation’s catastrophe.
With the aid of neighboring Baptist conventions and other partners such as the International Mission Board of the southern Baptist Convention, Baptist churches in Venezuela serve more than 300,000 meals each month to hungry people.
That seemingly impossible number happens because local Baptists give part of their meager rations to feed neighbors, produce from gardens is shared and food staples provided by outside partners in cooperation with the Venezuelan Baptist convention.
Priority goes to feeding children and older adults unable to provide for themselves, the leaders explained. Pregnant women also are a priority but frequently resources do not stretch that far.
At the national Baptist camp in Valencia, Baptist leaders have taught community representatives how to grow food without fertilizer and pesticides for at least two years. They have also taught other community development fundamentals. Now those leaders are teaching others in local communities.
Baptists are responding in countless ways to the needs of their neighbors, friends and families. “We have learned this is our best moment for connecting with our neighbor to proclaim the message of hope in Jesus,” Sangronis said.
The results have been amazing. Romero explained that the church he attends lost about 100 members who migrated to find jobs. But the social ministries of the church resulted in about 100 new people coming to the church.
Since January, that church has baptized 32 new believers, Romero said, and most of them have been reached through helping ministries.
That story is not unique. Sangronis said that since the economic collapse of the nation, Baptists have constituted 280 new churches, the most church plants in such a concentrated time in the history of Baptists in Venezuela. Most of the new churches resulted from social programs and inroads made into communities through Vacation Bible Schools, he added.
In addition, the convention has commissioned about 100 national missionaries who are attempting to penetrate the nation with the message of the gospel. Each missionary receives $5 per month salary.
Despite their best efforts, the challenges seem almost overwhelming. Thirty people have been laid off from convention offices, the national seminary and other ministries. Retired pastors who look to the convention for support during their final years, according to the local Baptist system, find themselves threatened. Currently, each of the retiree families receives $5 a month but how long that can continue is questionable, the leaders said.
“The need for God’s intervention is great,” Romero said. “We have learned when all else fails, there is still God.”
He explained that while Alabama Baptists cannot travel to Venezuela at the moment, a program called “The RaVenz Project” provides a way to help Venezuelan Baptists feed hungry people and minister to other needs. The name is taken from the Biblical account in 1 Kings 17 of ravens feeding the prophet Elijah.
He explained that IMB has established relationships with trusted partners in ten different regions of Venezuela. When funds are available, money is transferred to these trusted partners who in turn purchase food staples for distribution to pastors and churches. More information is available at https://www.imb.org/give/project/venezuela-crisis-response/
A $100 gift will provide a box of food staples for two people for a month.
“We are grateful for the prayers of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world,” Sangronis said. “And we pray they will stand with us during our great need and our great opportunity.”