Lorica 12 May 2017

Good Friday morning to everyone.

It’s a little after 5 am. Today is a travel day. I’ll be headed out in about 90 minutes to take the hour + ride to Monteria to catch a plane to Bogota & then up to Manizales. It is always good to be in Manizales.

Last night after the service, Jaime & I sat down with Carlos to visit. He shared a little of the history and background related to the place we went to Wednesday afternoon. And, I think it sheds like into the conditions brother Correa faces on a daily basis.

The work in Guanábano began about 6-7 years ago after someone in Barranquilla got in touch with Carlos in regards to possible contacts in the area. Carlos was warned that that entire area was filled with paramilitaries. He went anyway. He met with the contact(s), baptisms happened, and his twice-weekly trek out there began. These new Christians had to explain to the paramilitaries who Carlos is and why he is coming out there. More on that in a moment…

Here’s a little background into the paramilitaries. You have to understand Colombian politics. Over the last century +, Colombian politics (and S. America in general) has been characterized by corruption and weakness. This prompted various factions on both sides of the political aisle to organize and resist the government. In the late 1950’s leftist communists (FARC) began working to overthrow the Colombian government. The USA, in efforts to stop communism on this continent assisted the Colombians in resisting FARC, which resorted to violence, kidnapping, and extortion in undermining the government. The government, up until the beginning of this year, had been at war with FARC since 1961. On the other side, the far political right, groups emerged that stressed Colombian independence and viewed American intervention as a threat to national sovereignty. Then the drug wars began. Both FARC & the paramilitaries got involved with the drug cartels who have an unlimited supply of money. Here locally, the paramilitaries guard the travel routes for drugs going out of Colombian through the isthmus of Panama. The ensures them of having the necessary resources to buy weapons and supplies to prolong their resistance. You can’t even begin to imagine the level of violence that was here in the 80’s and early 90’s. Everyone was at war with each other. FARC & the paramilitaries were at war with each other. Both were at war with the government. Pablo Escobar was king of the Medellin cartel, and basically at war with the government. No one could trust anyone. Countless people lost their lives.

In NW Colombia, where I am, the paramilitaries still control everything, especially in the rural areas. They have people everywhere, even here in the city. Since they’re moving drugs they’re pretty protective of their territory. Guanábano is the home base for one of the paramilitary groups. Shortly after Carlos Correa began working there, someone knocked on his door late at night. They told him they knew everything about him. His wife, his kids, what his job is, what church he works with here in town, and that they were watching him. This did not faze him.

One of the brothers in the church out there knows some of the paramilitaries and vouched for him. When things “heat up,” one of them will call him in advance and tell him not to come. He used to go out & hold Wednesday evening services around 6.30 pm. Sometimes, he wouldn’t get finished until 8 or 9, eat briefly, and then do the 1.5 or 2 hour trek back here to Lorica. One night about 5 years ago, as the study wrapped up, the brethren urged him to stay the night and not go home. He resisted, saying he’s never had trouble before. So, as he headed home, just out of town he came up on two people on motorcycles, who immediately began tailing him. He sped up. They sped up. They closely followed him for 20-30 minutes. He said it really frightened him. After this happened, he moved the service time up a few hours so that he no longer has to travel back home after dark or late at night.

Just 7 months ago, things with the paramilitaries heated up. Two officers from the Colombian National Police were dispatched to Guanábano. They positioned themselves at the corner of two roads and were checking ID’s and papers of every person who passed by. 18 paramilitaries came out, surrounded them, and killed them both. For the next month, the Colombian military patrolled the area, and then left. Unknowing to me on Wednesday, went drove by the corner of the road where these two officers were murdered.

For Jaime & I to come out with him to Guanábano, Carlos had to inform the small church in advance, so they could clear it with the paramilitaries. Since they know who Carlos is, they had no problem with our coming.

A few months ago the paramilitaries changed leaders. Everyone was really worried that this would make things hard for Carlos. In fact, it was a difficult transition as he couldn’t travel out therefor several weeks until everything was “Ok’d” by the new leader. Now, everything is OK. The brethren have vouched for him and everyone is satisfied.

The place we went to on Tuesday, Palmitto, is controlled by a different paramilitary group. When problems arise, the sister out there will call Carlos and advise him not to come until things settle down.

There have been many times where Carlos’ wife has been worried for his life. He tells her God will take care of him and for her just to pray. Last year on Dec 31, he had been out to Guanábano and got back to the ferry. It was already dark. After he got on the boat, the ferry got stuck in the middle of the river. (The water was very low.) It took several hours to get the vessel unstuck. He actually got to ring in the new year stuck on the ferry in the middle of the river, and missed out on some family events going on here in town. His wife Janeth feared that he had been killed.

I was totally moved by hearing him talk about his experiences. It’s completely unimaginable for Americans. I would ask that you pray for brother Correa and his work in a very difficult place.

Ok, that’s all for now. I have to get packed up & get ready to head to the airport.

Love you all. Thanks for all you prayers & feedback.

Lorica 11 May ’17

Good Thursday morning to you. I hope all of you are well. I have so enjoyed hearing from several of you through email and phone. Thanks for reaching out.

Wednesday was a busy day. Jaime & I started the day meeting with a married couple that is struggling with the sin of adultery. They traveled 4 hours to meet with us. The first part of the meeting was tense, but things changed as the one who committed adultery broke down in tears in sorrow and remorse. Both want to save the marriage and have committed to making things work. After 90 or so minutes, both embraced and made the commitment to move forward together. That was a beautiful thing to see! We certainly pray that they’ll continue to stay together & rebuild their family.

In the afternoon we traveled to a community called Guanábano. It’s probably 30 miles from here. Travel there is difficult, even on the best day. From Lorica, you go several miles along the side of a river, then cross a ferry, travel across a wide lowland, then finally into the hills. As we sat on the side of the river, waiting on the ferry, you couldn’t help but notice two Jehovah’s witnesses sitting in the shade with a tract rack sitting out almost in the muddy road. (You have to admire their dedication.) After we crossed the river, the roads are ungraded and filled with washouts. Carlos found someone who owns a jeep to get us there. This jeep was easily 50 years old. After about 30 min of driving, we’d have to stop and add water to the radiator. I think we stopped 4 times last night. It took us around 2 hours to get to our destination. (Carlos travels this twice each week on his motorcycle.) There aren’t many Americans who visit that area. It’s very isolated, for one, and the entire area is under control by the paramilitaries. Many homes were painted with political slogans and endorsements for leaders and candidates.

The little church got it’s start around 6 years ago with 5-6 people. Yesterday we had around 20 present. The church meets at the home of one of the members, under a grass-roof covering. We sang hymns out of the Psalms and then Jaime presented a lesson. After visiting together for a little while, we took some people home from the service & then began the 2 hour bumpy ride back to the hotel.
I thought we were having a service in Lorica last night, but that changed and we’re having one tonight.

We’ll be leaving the hotel in about an hour or so to head to another village 30-40 minutes from here. We’ll be having a Bible study together with some contacts, then we’ll have lunch together. We have a few hours of free time this afternoon before a service tonight.

Thanks everyone! Appreciate you all.

Lorica 10 May 2017

Lorica Update
Good morning from Colombia! Today begins day 10 on the ground here. Since we’ve been in this hotel, both Jaime & I have had to change hotel rooms due to various issues. My new room has an AC that worked all night. I got a good amount of rest overnight & feel very good today.

Each day has been packed with activities, including yesterday. After breakfast, Carlos, Jaime, and I participated in a Bible study with the neighbor of one of the congregation’s members. Accompanying us was Ruben, who is basically Carlos’ full time assistant in preaching/teaching. We spent an hour or so there, sitting inside the living room. It was pouring outside! At times we could hardly hear each other talk over the rain.

In the afternoon we traveled to Palmitto. This is a small village about 30 miles east of here. Getting there is difficult and takes about an hour and a half. With all the rain we had in the morning, the roads were especially muddy – and the taxi we rode in had bald tires … so as always – it was an adventure – literally sliding around in the mud as we creeped up some of the roads. Once we arrived, there were about 15 persons present. Some came from the neighboring Puebla Nueva church. Others were invited guests that aren’t Christians. I presented a lesson on God’s scheme of redemption and His intentions in saving us.

I visited this place on my 2013 trip. The older sister who owns this property was converted 5-6 years ago. 20 years ago, the paramilitaries tried to take her farm. When she refused, they shot and killed her son right in front of her. She still refused to surrender. Thankfully the violence and lawlessness of those days are behind. Since I’ve been here, other family members of hers have become Christians. Carlos travels here weekly to study and preach. When our study finished, the sister disappeared into her “kitchen” and began to cook a meal. Fresh chicken. Potatoes. Rice. And, some kind of freshly squeezed juice. It was great, except that it was getting dark (6 pm), and we had a 90 minute drive back to Lorica for a service that was to begin at 7. Once we got back, Jaime preached a sermon and we called it a night.

On tap for today is a morning meeting with a couple struggling with consequences and fallout of adultery. We’ll be meeting here at the hotel. Everyone here is excited today to prepare lunch for me. I’ll be eating an iguana. (Oh boy.) I hear it tastes like chicken. Let’s just say that my clothes are starting to fit better. : )

After lunch, we’re supposed to head out to Guabanana. This is another remote area that is difficult to get to. As far as I can tell, we had no rain overnight, so it looks like the visit there will be a “go.” Then it’s back to Lorica tonight for another service.

Thanks again for all of your prayers. I really appreciate it.

Lorica 9 May 2017

Lorica Update
Good morning from Lorica, Córdoba, Colombia. Jamie & I arrived here safely late yesterday afternoon. We landed in Monteria, which is about an hour’s drive west of here. Carlos Correa does not own a car, but rode a bus to the airport to greet us when we arrived. We rented a taxi and made the journey here. There is always adventure when you travel in Colombia. Between the airport & here there are two toll booths on the road. Our taxi driver paid the first one. Then, a few miles out of Lorica, there is another one. As soon as the sign for the toll plaza came up, the driver quickly hit the brakes and drove down the first country road he saw. For the next 30 minutes or so, we wandered through the countryside, going through little villages every so often, but mostly just getting a good look at mud holes, washouts, green fields and cows. Just imagine a little Geo Metro or some similar vehicle with tiny tires bumpily going down the road crammed with 4 people & their luggage inside. After about 20 minutes I looked at Jaime & said “I would have just paid him the $5 for the toll.”

This is very much “the other Colombia.” It is third world and you know it. Motorcycles and bicycles fill the streets. Most of the streets aren’t paved. People sit outside on their porch after the sun goes down because it’s too hot to go inside. The Christians in Lorica don’t have song books so they open their Bibles and sing out of the Psalms, to which they have put melodies to. As I preached last night, very few people had a Bible in their hand. Whereas in Ibague, Villavicencio, Bogota, or Cali, the service has a more “professional” feel, the service here last night was different. Little kids are uncontrolled and run around the building during singing & preaching. People stop by & look in at things going on as the service is going on – because everything is open to circulate as much air as possible. It’s just a totally different feel than what you have in other parts of Colombia.

We have decided to stay in a hotel here. I’m happy to say Carlos Correa has moved to a different house since I’ve been here in 2013, but there are 7 people living inside – so we decided it would be easier to stay in a hotel for $17/night. It has AC. But it quit working in the middle of the night. I’ve been up since 3 when I woke up sweating. I opened the window, but it’s pouring outside. Very humid … and 85 degrees. The hotel has internet & TV. But it doesn’t work. And, instead of cold water for a shower, I have cool water. That is an improvement over the barrel and dipper I used when I was here 4 years ago!

These inconveniences are worth the all the encouragement I received last night. The little church was full. Monday pm is not a normal meeting time. But the whole church showed up. It was great. Jaime & I were received enthusiastically. Several of the brothers and sisters remembered my visit from last time. The building here has been paid off and they’ve recently done a few renovations that make it look new. New roof, new paint, new signage, etc. They are very proud of it. I’m very happy for the church here. We’ll be here through Friday morning, so I’ll have a good amount of time to see things up close with how the work is going here.

Later today, I’ll be with Carlos & Jaime in a men’s Bible study & then this afternoon I’ll be in Palmitto. Palmitto is the place where paramilitaries took over the meeting place last year and stole/destroyed a bunch of stuff. Many of you at Kettering helped financially to repair/replace those things. The paramilitaries are still in that area and in the place where I’m going tomorrow (Guabanana). Carlos speaks as if going into these areas are no big deal as “they know who he is and what he is doing” and they “leave him alone.” So, … there you go. I’ll trust what he says and the Lord’s protection. Correa said last night that if it rains, we won’t be going to Guabanana because the road there will be impassible. We’ll just have to see what happens. Tonight, we’ll be back in Lorica where Jaime will be speaking for the congregation.

As always, I appreciate your prayers. Thanks for making this trip possible for me.

Ibague 8 May 2017

Ibague Update
Good morning from Ibague. We had a great day yesterday. It started with a worship service with the church. The place of meeting is a 5 minute trip walk from Rafael’s house. After services, we ate lunch and then headed off to Agua de Dios, which is a little over 50 miles from here. Rafael works with this church several times each month. It is small, less than 10 people, consisting of mainly Nury Amaya’s mother and brothers and sisters. We got back here around 9 last night.

I have enjoyed getting to know the Amaya’s better. Rafael is very good in how he presents things. The signage at the building, banners, a church logo, and PowerPoint slides all look really professional. He started working here over a decade ago, helping the church heal after very difficult circumstances with the previous preacher. You can tell the brethren love and appreciate his family. There are a couple of other men who are around his age and you can tell they are all close and make a good team for the church. From everything I can see, Rafael is doing a great job with the work. He is a dedicated servant of the Lord.

It was my privilege to meet Rafael’s parents, who are members here at the Ibague church.

Nury has just been great. She is constantly serving and making sure Jaime & I are comfortable. This on top of keeping her boys in line, the youngest, Daniel, is a hand full.

Everyone has been so patient with me as I try to put my Spanish into use. You know you can take someone out of Arkansas, but you can’t take Arkansas out of him. Every time I open my mouth & speak Spanish I hear my accent. 😀

Today is a travel day. Jaime & I fly out at 11 this morning for Monteria. That is the closest airport to Lorica where Carlos Correa is. We’ll be on the north coast through Friday morning. I have very much enjoyed my short time here in Ibague.

It was good to hear from several of you yesterday. Thank you for your prayers.

Love you all.

Ibague 6 May 2017

Ibague Update
Good evening from Ibague. I arrived here safely late yesterday afternoon after a 7 + hour travel day. The total distance from where we started Friday morning is under 200 miles in total, but involves climbing completely over one mountain range, descending and going across a wide river valley & plain, and finally, ending at the foot of another range here in Ibague. The range of elevation differences I covered yesterday is just impressive… starting at ~1500 ft in Villavicencio, climbing to over 9000 ft in Bogota, & ending at just under 4000 ft here. I so enjoyed driving thru the mountains! The closer we got here yesterday the more evidence I could see of mudslides that has plagued Colombia during this rainy season. We had to stop several times as crews were busy scooping away debris that had fallen into the road. On one section, probably a half mile or more was inundated with rock and mud. One lane traffic was the rule.

It’s been good to catch up with Rafael Amaya & his wife Nury again. This is my third visit to this city and second to this church. The church here numbers around 25, and is growing. They we’re meeting in Rafael’s garage for a number of years, but outgrew it and have moved to a rented place, which is a 5-10 minute walk from Rafael’s house. They have been in this new place for about 6 months. The Amaya family is such a pleasure to be with. Their boys are just great. The oldest, Juan David, is 12, the next oldest, Joel, celebrated his 8th birthday yesterday, & Daniel is 4 or so. They have a much better place to live than when I was here before. The old place was rough. This home is comfortable and in a much better neighborhood than the other one. It’s in the main part of the city too, which is great for finding contacts. I am so happy for them!

Not only does Rafael work with the church here in Ibague, he also works w/another one called Agua de Dios (Water of God). It’s about 90 min from here & we will visit it tomorrow afternoon. Rafael travels there regularly in a 30 year old Mazda that is still going, but barely. The Agua de Dios congregation numbers 10-15 I think and is mostly women. Up until the early 60’s, that city was Colombia’s leper colony. Today, they’re still there, just further out of town.

Jaime Restrepo met me here yesterday & translated for me tonight. It’s always good to be with Jaime. He’ll be with me for the remainder of the trip. Earlier today, Henry Jerez & Andres Lopez (they brought me here to Ibague) returned to Bogota. We spent the first part of the day doing a little sight seeing east of town, up in the mountains. They wanted to go to a waterfall, but we couldn’t get to it because the road was washed out from all the rain we had last night. (It poured all night…)

We have a busy day in store for Sunday. Starting here in Ibague, & then out to Agua de Dios in the afternoon.

Thanks to everyone for your prayers, etc. I’ll write again tomorrow night, Lord willing.

Matt

Villavicencio Update 5 May 2017

Villavicencio Update
It is now early on Friday morning. I am just getting to bed. Have had a long full day today. I got to spend time together tonight with Wilson and his wife after services. They are such good people. And, they are extremely thankful for my visit. I got to record a short video of their family tonight where they wanted to send a personal thank you for all that you do for them.

Wilson is doing a good work. He is very, very busy. For example, Sunday he starts the day here in Villavicencio and then travel 75 miles down to Fuente de Oro for an afternoon worship, and then drive back to Acacias for an evening Bible study and worship. On other days of the week he travels between here and those two cities studying the Bible and helping those churches grow. All of this he does riding on a motorcycle. If you saw all the roads that he has to drive down and the weather that he has to endure you would be amazed. All of this travel is at his own expense. Recently, another preacher from Bogotá has moved to Acacias to help Wilson with the work. Fabian Lopez is a good and is busy helping Wilson in his work.

I wish you could know Wilson’s wife, Edilma. She is so special. She has worked hard to make me feel comfortable here in her home, even surrendering her and Wilson’s bedroom for me to sleep in. I am very grateful for their hospitality. She has been busy cooking meals all week for us making sure that we are all well fed and taken care of. Earlier tonight she showed me the house where she and Wilson lived for the first nine years they lived in the city. She said that when it rained there was more water in the house on the street outside. The home they are renting is much nicer. I am very happy for them.

At services tonight, I met a sister named Doris. She is in her mid 40s or early 50s, and is suffering from bone cancer. She has been struggling with this for over three years. She is in constant pain. She said the night before last, she prayed to God to take her life because she could not stand the pain anymore. I also got to speak with her husband who is a great thing. He and Doris, take him small children from a poor neighborhood every week and feed and clothe them. When we started to talk about that you should have seen how her spirits lifted. It was very neat to hear them talk about what they are doing for the kids from the barrio. We were getting ready to leave, Doris came to me and hugged me and said that if she did not see me in this life, she would see me in the next. She was crying and I gave her a long hug.

I also got to see Diego Chavez again tonight. I found out later is the cousin of Ana Reeves. It is a small world indeed. I really enjoyed talking to him and hearing his story. Please be praying for these Christians here in this country and in Venezuela.

Friday is a travel day. I will be getting up in less than five hours to eat breakfast before we hit the road for Bogota to drop off Julio Caesar Tellez. Andres and I will then head to Ibague where I will meet up with Jaime and spend the weekend. Probably looking at 7 to 8 hours on the road on Friday. Please keep me in your prayers we travel. Thanks again for all that you do and for your prayers for this trip. It is been very good to hear from some of you through email or video. I love you all.

Matt

Villavicencio 4 May ’17

Good morning from Villavicencio
Just beginning Thursday morning here. My time in this city is flying by as this is the last full day here with Wilson and his family. I am so enjoying being here. They have been so hospitable to us and have gone out of their way to make us comfortable.

On Wednesday, we took the middle part of the day off and visited a local zoo. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to one, and lets just say that the type of animals you get to see in a Colombian zoo differs from what I remember in the Little Rock zoo as a kid. I am by no means a snake person, but I think the highlight of the visit was seeing the two giant anacondas and the poor old duck the zoo worker was about to feed them with. We walked on before the cycle of life was allowed to take place. I think the best part of the afternoon together was just being together with our brothers and sisters, letting them show off things they’re proud of, and building relationships.

After sharing a lunch together, we made our way back to Wilson’s home where I spent a few hours in preparation for the sermon I delivered at last night’s service. During that time, a giant rain storm developed. This was no ordinary rain storm. It poured heavily, for at least two hours straight. By the time we were off to church, the streets were rivers. I shot and posted some video to Facebook last night that captures just a little of our adventure to the meeting place. The place where they meet is just off the street. The doors and windows are all open to the street so air can get in. As we moved into the service, the rain was pouring and the air was damp. For once, the noise of traffic and people and barking dogs was silent….

After service, we had planned on having a small group study with some of the men from the congregation, but because of the weather, we were prohibited from doing so.

We did go out for a snack last night after our service and while there I got to visit with a young brother who is living here temporarily because of the political/social/economic turmoil in Venezuela. Listening to him really puts a face on what we’re reading in the news about that country. Diego Chavez’s father is a preacher in Venezuela. If you live in a city in that country that doesn’t agree politically with their President Maduro, then he will cut off all food and supplies to that city. People have very little to eat. And, it’s not a matter about sending money to fix the situation, because even if a person had money, there is no food or supplies to buy inside the stores. He mentioned that for those who do have Venezuelan Bolivars in their bank account, they are only allowed to take out so much money at a time, usually very little. Diego is staying with his cousins here in Villavicencio temporarily until the turmoil in Venezuela passes. He may be here for a long time.

Thanks to Jason Schofield, who is supplying you with additional information in regards to my trip. He & I are communicating over the phone and through video conference each day. I am thankful to have him as a partner in this work. His help is invaluable because from the moment I walk out of my bedroom in the morning, until the moment I head to bed at night, I am constantly “on” and its not always possible to sit down and type out a report, etc.

I appreciate all of you so much, and am thankful for your prayers while I am away. I love you all.

Villavicencio 3 May 2017

Good morning from Villavicencio…
We had a great day yesterday traveling to two congregations in this department that our brother Wilson Valbuena works with on a regular basis. Both are located some distance from this city, Acacias is about 30 miles south and Fuente de Oro is about 75 miles from here.

The church in Fuente de Oro (Fountain of Gold) numbers about 6-8 souls. This church began a few years ago after a young couple from Spain moved to Colombia. Shortly after their move they began to study the Bible. They were looking for a church that just taught the Bible and worshipped like the Christians in the Bible. One of them got on Jaime Restrepo’s website (The Gospel Anchor) and spoke with Jaime, who pointed them to Wilson. Wilson began to travel down there twice every week, once on Sunday and once on Tuesday. The Christians were very encouraged by my visit yesterday. I spoke on Colossians 1.9-11 encouraging them to grow in spiritual knowledge and wisdom and the result of that, etc.

The church in Acacias numbers about 15-20 souls. Brother Wilson travels to this church every Sunday and Tuesday. Recently, a brother from Bogota, Fabian Lopez, has moved to help in the work with this church. He has a wife and two small children and lives on next to nothing. Just a very good man. I’m very glad to see him working along side our brother Wilson here in this part of Colombia.

I have been pleasantly surprised as to how nice this part of Colombia is. In my mind, I had envisioned it being more like the part of Colombia I will be in next week. The cities here are clean and safe, people take care of their things, and the landscape outside the city is amazing. Villavicencio and Acacias sit on the eastern slope of the Andes and to the east, Colombian plains stretch from here all the way into Venezuela. Everything is very green and lush. Kind of looks like what artists envision the garden of Eden would have looked like. (OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s very beautiful nonetheless.)

Today we’ll be here in Villavicencio. This afternoon, I’ll be studying with a small group of men here at Wilson’s house and then this evening I’ll be with the church here for a service.

Love to all. Thanks again for your prayers.

Matt