It was a homecoming of sorts. In August 2002 I traveled to Venezuela for the first time and visited two rural churches in the state of Monagas. On Sunday, February 22, 2004, I returned to Bethel Lutheran Church in Rio Chiquito and Roca de Eternidad (Rock of Ages) Lutheran Church in Quebrada Seca. The occasion was the first Holy Communion services at these churches in nearly five months.
I traveled with Pastor Rudy Blank, who worked in the area as a young Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod missionary in 1963, his wife Ramona, my wife Luz Maria and her daughters, Charli and Sarai, and two members of Cristo Rey Lutheran Church in Maturin, Amichel Ventura and Richard Cartagena.
The churches in Rio Chiquito and Quebrada Seca were established 50 years ago and at one time were flourishing congregations. However, neither church has had a fulltime pastor for 10 to 15 years. Although the faithful still meet for devotions and Bible study, lack of leadership has led to declines in active membership. There are many children who have been baptized but never confirmed, and many children waiting to be baptized.
Some of the rural churches in eastern Venezuela have closed their doors. At San Felix de Caicara, for example, someone now keeps a fighting rooster in the room where Sunday school was once taught. One of the main reasons for this is as the economy of Venezuela has declined, poverty in rural areas has greatly increased and the remaining members of the rural churches can no longer afford to pay fulltime church workers. One of the goals of the Monagas farm project, with which I am involved, is to generate income to support support church work in these areas.
As we started early in the morning for Rio Chiquito, I was reminded of a major challenge for any evangelistic outreach in rural Venezuela: transportation. The roads, I am told, were worse before they were paved, but even now they're not in the best of shape. Many of the rural towns are high up in the mountains and thus geographically isolated. The sign for Rio Chiquito is on the main highway where buses run regularly between Maturin and the resort town of Caripe, but Bethel Lutheran Church is located seven miles from the highway at the other end of a winding secondary road. Fares are low for the buses and other forms of public transportation in Venezuela, but the tradeoff is you can't expect to cover a lot of territory in a short time.
The people were waiting for us in Rio Chiquito. There were about 20 people at the service. Richard led everyone in song with his guitar. There were no other musical instruments. It happened to be the Sunday of the Transfiguration and Pastor Blank preached sermon comparing the Transfiguration with the masks worn during Carnival.
It is the time of Carnaval in Venezuela. Carnaval is celebrated during 40 days before Good Friday. Most businesses shut down for a four-day weekend.There are parades and lots of partying, and people dress up in all kinds of outlandish costumes. Actually, in some cases, "dress up" is not quite the right phrase. Let's just say this year's Superbowl half-time show would not have raised a lot of eyebrows in Venezuela. But, I am told, Carnaval in Venezuela doesn't get as wild and crazy as Carnaval in Brazil.
Anyway, the point of the sermon was that during Carnaval people dress up as characters stronger and more beautiful than they really are. But CarnavLa Iglesia Luterana Betelal is only an illusion and afterward they are still the same people with the same problems. But in the Transfiguration, Christ for a brief time took on His true form and was revealed in His power and glory.
Afterward all of us went to visit the families of the farm's workers from Rio Chiquito. These included Russbelia and Helio Rengel, and Marelis Bolivar.
After stopping for fire-roasted chicken and salad in Guana Guana, we headed for Quebrada Seca in the afternoon. There they hadn't heard we were coming, so Luz Maria and Cruz Rodriguez, one of the mainstays of the Roca de Eternidad congregation, quickly canvassed the area and invited as many people as they could. In the end there were about 12 to 15 people at the service. In the last picture you can see Luz Maria's daughter, Charli, entertaining the children before the service.
We finally made it back to Maturin after nightfall. The carryings-on for Carnival were only getting started unscathed and dry (a favorite pastime during Carnival is throwing water through open windows of slow-moving vehicles, and if you have to maneuver around Carnival activities, you will be driving slowly).