The nation bears poverty of flesh and spirit. It is something as much felt as seen, the cumulative weight of every person who cannot provide food for their children and know nothing of salvation through Christ alone. Christians sensitive to the Holy Spirit cannot visit Nicaragua without an intense burden. For some, that burden becomes a commission from God.
The Wash Woman
The acrid smell of burning garbage hung in the air around the town of Cristo Rey, Nicaragua. Built after the Sandinista revolution, many simple concrete block buildings were constructed as signs of improvement to Nicaraguan citizens. Power lines were strung throughout the city—a harbinger of modernization. But most days there is no electricity. Open irrigation ditches provide water for homes in the town. And the burning garbage drifts from the nearby dump, the only source of income for many families in Cristo Rey.
The town is one of the poorest areas Dr. Chappell and the group of men from Lancaster Baptist Church has seen. When they visited Nicaragua in March, they saw firsthand the depths of the economic and spiritual poverty in the nation.
On the day they visited Cristo Rey, one person in the group met Maria. She said she was forty-five years old, but she looked much older. Maria has lived in Cristo Rey for three years. Her husband had left her for another woman a few years earlier, leaving her to care for their five children. After the separation, she moved to be closer to her brother.
Maria’s home wasn’t much bigger than a storage shed, the prefab variety that people buy at Lowe’s to store their lawnmowers and Christmas decorations. It was not the sturdiest construction. Twice, floods had destroyed the shack, and Maria’s brother had helped rebuild it. She earned money by washing clothes; a large tub was set up over an open fire outside her home. The older children helped provide by picking for scraps in the local dump, throwing items of some value into a push cart and a few five-gallon buckets.
Despite the constant need to earn extra money for food and necessities that couldn’t be found in the dump, the children still had time to be children. Kids played soccer in a field near Maria’s house. Some played barefoot, wearing their sandals on their hands to avoid losing their only shoes. But they all smiled and laughed as they ran across the field.
Maria, though, was worn. There was fatigue in her eyes and voice as she told her story to Humberto, a student from West Coast Baptist College. His heart was heavy as he filmed his conversation with Maria. Her story was engrossing and represented so many others in the area. Humberto tried to capture as much of her testimony as he could, but it was near time for the group to leave. He shared some of the Gospel with Maria, but before he left he planned to leave her the book Done in Spanish. As he finished the interview, he gave Maria the book. There was one problem: Maria couldn’t read.
Humberto was heartbroken. He spoke with Maria’s oldest daughter, who said she could read a little. Humberto pleaded with Maria’s daughter to read the book together with her mother. Then he took one last photo, loaded into the vehicle, and prayed that someone would return to tell Maria the Gospel.
From the Appalachians to Amerrisque
This trip to Nicaragua came from an unlikely source—a retired business man from West Virginia. Ken McCoy had served the Lord for forty years as a Sunday school teacher while working in the coal mining industry.
When he was able to retire, he knew the Lord had something planned for him. He found out what it was when he traveled with a friend to Nicaragua.
When Brother McCoy arrived, he was faced with true poverty and desperation. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. About forty percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
During their trip, their interpreter brought them to the children’s hospital in Managua. Because health care is tax-funded, parents from across Nicaragua bring their children here for treatment. But even though the treatment is paid for, many families are too poor to afford a place to stay. While they seek treatment, they sleep on the sidewalks. Some go days without food.
This was not a comfortable place for Ken McCoy. The desperation bothered him, and he insisted they leave the area around the hospital. He didn’t have trouble falling asleep that night, but he woke around 4:30 am, burdened for what he saw. He began to pray for the Lord to help those people. They were hungry. They were hurting. As Ken McCoy asked God to help the people, he felt a strong impression that God wanted him to help.
This direction from the Lord set Ken McCoy on a quest to find the best way to facilitate training pastors and planting churches in Nicaragua. There are some Baptist churches in the country, but most are not doctrinally firm, largely due to a lack of training. As Brother McCoy began speaking to pastors of fundamental Baptist churches, the trail led to Dr. Paul Chappell and West Coast Baptist College.
The two men met. Ken McCoy shared his burden, and Dr. Chappell shared the mission of the college. When Brother McCoy invited Dr. Chappell to visit Nicaragua with him in March, it just so happened that Dr. Chappell was already scheduled to be in El Salvador that week for the chartering services of two churches started by missionaries from Lancaster Baptist Church. The Lord had set this trip in motion already.
Viva la Revolución
The people of Nicaragua have seen their hopes raised and dashed many times. Just over thirty years ago, there were Baptist church planting missionaries working in the country. Bob Dayton, a missionary with BIMI, had started churches all around Nicaragua. Then the Sandinista National Liberation Front staged a violent coup of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. The Leftist group harbored longstanding resentment towards America ever since U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua in 1926. When the Sandinistas took over, foreign influence, especially from America, was demonized. Foreigners were expelled, and with them, the missionaries.
Churches planted by missionaries were left on their own. While the goal of missions is to begin autonomous, indigenous churches, this ousting was sudden, like a child torn from his parents. Many of the churches continued in the doctrine they had been taught, but many others were pulled away from sound doctrine. Worst of all, there are not nearly enough Gospel-preaching churches for the 5.8 million people in the nation.
Many of the people were desperately poor before the revolution, but the socialist policies have done little to improve the situation of many. The Sandinistas were inspired by Castro’s revolution in Cuba and adopted many of the same economic policies. There was a surge of government spending that spurred popular support for a while, but the policies crippled the economy.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about the popular overthrow of the Sandinista government in 1990. In an upset victory, Violeta Chamorro was elected the first female president of Nicaragua.
She inherited a disaster—per capita income had dropped by 80 percent in the previous decade and the government was in debt $12 billion (US). She went to work disarming militia groups and bringing back a measure of peace and stability to the nation. American foreign aid flowed into the country. Best of all, American missionaries could once again enter the country.
The sixteen-year chain of anti-Sandinista presidents was broken when President Bolaños brought forward allegations of corruption against his predecessor. The Sandinistas capitalized on the division in the opposition, and Daniel Ortega returned to office in 2006 with 38 percent of the run-off vote. He remains in power today. While the country is still open to missionaries, Ortega has resumed a hostile position towards America. The effects of his policies are felt throughout the country.
Clinging to Hope
Maria’s story is typical for Cristo Rey. Dr. Chappell and his wife met another woman at the dump with her children one day of their visit. They wore cast-off American clothing—she was in a GAP sweatshirt, her boys were in Transformer and SpongeBob t-shirts.
Dr. Chappell began to witness to the woman through an interpreter and learned more about her. She goes to the dump every day with her children. They sift through the trash to find scraps of metal to sell. On a good day, they will get about $0.45 for their efforts.
Children looked on the American group with longing. Their ages were difficult to pick out—their bodies were all skinny because of hunger, but their eyes belonged to people who had seen many years of hardship. Blond streaks ran through the hair of many of them, a sign of protein malnutrition. For pennies a day, the best they can afford is a handful of rice, and even then there are days they go without food at all.
After seeing the dump, Dr. and Mrs. Chappell visited Iglesia Familiar Bautista in Cristo Rey. This little church was started by a Baptist pastor, native to Nicaragua. He and his wife lived in a larger, more modern city before he felt the Lord leading him to start the church in Cristo Rey. He adopted the lifestyle of the people he serves. His home is a small hut of wood beams and corrugated sheet metal over a dirt floor, surrounded by a neighborhood of nearly identical huts. He was committed to take on an almost desperate standard of living, but his wife struggled with their living conditions. She left, taking their children to live back in their former home city. The pastor was devastated by the loss, but didn’t really know what to do besides continue to pastor the church. The families who make up the church are desperately poor, but earnest in their love for God. Their church building reflects their love. In comparison to most of Cristo Rey, the building where Iglesia Familiar Bautista meets is opulent. It has a concrete floor and a four-foot-tall cement block wall followed by five feet of white-painted wrought iron to allow a breeze to cool the congregation. A corrugated metal roof protects them from the rain. Molded plastic lawn chairs (the de facto seating for nearly every church in the third world) are stacked in a corner, waiting to be set up for Sunday services. Notably missing are any lights or restrooms. This part of town lacks the utilities to support them, even if the installation costs were not prohibitive.
But what grabbed Dr. Chappell’s attention was a wooden rack against the back wall. On the rack are envelopes with the names of the families who attend the church. When asked about the rack, the pastor explained that they cannot afford to give a stack of giving envelopes to the families. Instead, each family has one envelope with the family name on it. Each time they come, they pull the envelope from the rack, slip their offering inside, the church receives the offering, and the envelope is placed back on the rack for the next service.
Dr. Chappell was stunned. “You mean these people who make less than a dollar a day give every week?”
“Yes,” the pastor responded with a smile through an interpreter.
“It is their joy to give.”
In the short time since the trip, two graduates of West Coast Baptist College have already responded to go to Nicaragua. They with their wives will begin in the capital, Madagalpa, to establish a Gospel-preaching ministry—a beachhead for further growth. But in a country of this size with people in this condition, the need is overwhelming.
Nicaragua is desperately ready for the Gospel. The seeds of sincere faith have been planted long ago, but they need cultivation. Men like the pastor in Cristo Rey need training, encouragement, and counsel from a network of likeminded fundamental pastors. More churches need to be planted by laborers who will preach the Gospel and teach the people how to read the Bible. And someone needs to go back for Maria.