When believers from South Florida crossed borders to share their faith, God didn’t just add to their number. He multiplied.
“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God. . . . Such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.” —John Wesley
One night, Mercedes Velez heard the nearly audible voice of God. “Tasajera.” But what did it mean? It sounded like a name—perhaps the name of a place? Velez had to find out. After some searching, she had her answer. Though too small to locate on a map, she discovered that Tasajera was a town in her home country of the Dominican Republic. Feeling the clear call of God, she left her home church, Bethel BIC (Miami, Fla.)—where she had come to know the Lord—and moved to tiny Tasajera. There, Velez began to share her faith in her own language, with her own people, and planted the first BIC church in the Dominican Republic. Today, as a result of her faithful service, there are 10 churches in the northern region with more than 580 members among them.
In this bold act of leaving the comfort of the U.S., Velez is not alone. She is just one of dozens of individuals from churches in South Florida who have been called back to their native countries to share their faith. And the resulting church plants are rapidly lighting up all across the map of Latin America.
Preparing to launch
The multiplication began in 1985 when former bishop of the Southeast Conference Eduardo Llanes planted Bethel BIC, the first Spanish-speaking Hermanos en Cristo (Brethren in Christ) church in Miami. Having come to know Christ as a young man in Cuba, Llanes is known for his fervent passion for missions, particularly among Hispanic and Latino communities. Out of Bethel’s ministry, 58 more Spanish-speaking churches have been established in the greater Miami area alone and more than 60 churches have been planted in Central and South America.
Despite the dynamic increase of his ministry, Llanes reflects that “[Over time] I realized that effective ministry can take place only as we are empowered by the Spirit’s presence. These years in ministry have taught me that He is the One who transforms lives and [I should] not overestimate my part in the whole process.”1
Aner Morejón, current bishop of the Southeast Conference, agrees. “The multiplication came in a spontaneous way; it’s not as if we made some great plan,” he explains. “It was individual pastors and churches starting their own missions. Then we would say, ‘tell us what you have so that we can support and help to unite you.’ ”
Departing from Miami
It’s hardly surprising that South Florida has become such a gateway to Latin America. As of 2011, nearly 32 percent of metro Miami’s growth was foreign-born, more than half of whom had become U.S. citizens. This diversity, and the mobility afforded by dual citizenship, has made South Florida a buzzing launch pad for immigrant and first-generation missionaries returning voluntarily to serve in Latin America.
“The experience for them is much like going home,” observes former executive director of BIC World Missions Chris Sharp. “I believe they have a passion to reach back to their homelands, to take the Gospel as evangelists and church planters.” These native pastors and church planters, already fluent in the local language and culture, have a sturdy foundation of mutual understanding on which to build a framework of BIC values.
“The 10 Core Values seem to resonate with them,” notes Don McNiven, executive director of the International Brethren in Christ Association (IBICA), “especially pursuing peace and living simply.” These interpretations of Jesus’ message may create a refreshing contrast among a predominantly Roman Catholic and Pentecostal population. And the BIC emphasis on putting one’s faith into practice comes naturally to the expressive and passionate cultures of Latin America.
Searching for a family
Not only are pastors and missionaries from South Florida initiating ministries in Latin America, but some pastors of existing independent and nondenominational churches are also seeking out BIC ministerial leadership of their own accord.
Take Ciudad De Dios, for example. Literally translated as “City of God,” this 1,000-member congregation in San José, Costa Rica, began three decades ago as a small group of charismatic Catholics who met to worship in homes. But in the early 2000s, pastor Alex Alvarado began praying for a ministerial covering and in 2008 met with Llanes and Morejón to learn more about the Brethren in Christ. Deeply impressed, Alvarado and his congregation enthusiastically embraced their new denomination, becoming the first of 10 BIC churches in Costa Rica.
The BIC presence in Cuba dates back much further, to 1954, during the Cuban Revolution. Former bishop Llanes, a young pastor at the time, took up where BIC missionaries left off when they were required to return to North America. He faithfully discipled churches throughout the “Silent Period” when all contact with North America was cut off. The original network of congregations has continued to increase, reports Constain Carrillo, BIC regional coordinator for the Caribbean. And sometimes growth is explosive. “One pastor decided to be part of the family, so he brought with him 30 more adopted churches!” says Carrillo.
Connecting the dots
Once churches have been planted or adopted, there is also the task of integrating and uniting them in cohesive networks. Although Cuba and Nicaragua, for example, already have established conferences, there are congregations that still don’t know about the conferences in their own country. And connecting them is no small feat. “In some countries,” Sharp says, “there were three different groups of BIC churches that were unrelated.” Along with Carrillo for the Caribbean, two other regional coordinators were appointed in April 2013 in an effort to bring together BIC church plants: Alex Alvarado for Central America and Maria Perdomo for South America.
Slowly, but surely, these congregations are beginning to rub shoulders, share stories, and form lasting bonds. In December, the BIC congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean met for the first time in history. Held in Costa Rica, this summit focused on two main objectives, explains Morejón: “To intentionally form BIC identity and to build community and connection between pastors and regions.” During the conference, leaders and pastors from all over Latin America joined together in fellowship and training in preparation for developing self-sustaining networks in their own regions.
“This was a very successful event,” affirms Sharp. “It was a catalyst for the churches to begin working together, supporting each other, and relating to each other for training, insight, and resourcing.” She left Costa Rica confident that the leaders there “captured the vision of the broader BIC Church throughout the Latin American region.”
Exploring new territory
There are still many areas of Central and South America to be reached, as well as in the Caribbean. But even though growth may be invisible as of yet, new seeds have germinated and are pushing their way up through the soil.
In Guatemala, a pastor is in the process of joining the BIC. Another believer from Miami recently sold her home to move to Nicaragua and open a new church. And a local government in Puerto Rico has recently granted Miami pastor Lazaro Pérez the land he needs to make his vision a reality—planting a BIC church and opening a home for recovering drug addicts.
Cuban pastor David Monduy has braved an unfavorable political climate to serve faithfully among eight tribes in the jungles of Ecuador. Although the government prohibits the planting of churches by anyone other than a national Ecuadorian, Monduy’s ministry, ConPasión Internacional (WithPassion International), has plans to begin work with seven more tribes that have never heard the Gospel.
Undaunted by political, economic, and other challenges, pastors and lay leaders alike are hearing God’s call and obeying. They are daringly uprooting themselves and planting new congregations, but they are quick to stress that none of this explosive growth is a result of their own strength or efforts.
“We want to organize, but we don’t want to lose the work of God,” says Morejón. “We want to watch what is happening and follow.” And as we do that, we continue to receive the blessing of fruitful multiplication throughout Latin America—unity with our hermanos en Cristo.
1 Momentum, May 2006. bic-church.org/momentum/may2006