Thursday, 6 May 2010

A visit to El Alto

Last month I (Ed) spent a day up in El Alto (the migrant city above La Paz at an altitude of over 4000m above sea level), visiting the work that FH has been doing with the Churches there.

There are many Evangelical Churches in El Alto. In just one section of the city you can easily find over 30 Assemblies of God Churches, let alone the other denominations present in the same area. Sadly however, the quantity of churches is no indicator of the quality of the churches or their outreach to the communities around them. Unlike most evangelical Churches in the UK many are closed to the community around them, and are only interested in those within its walls.

Over the last 5 years a two-man team has worked with around 250 Churches all over the city, in a program called Church Strengthening. The idea of the project has been to work with Churches that were interested in learning about; a biblical worldview, integral ministry and the place of the Church within the community.

Worldview or paradigm is the way in which every person views the world around him or her, which effects how he or she responds to it. No one culture or worldview is better than another; each has good and bad points, thus the idea of this part of the training was to look at what was good within their culture. From there they were to look at what God says is a good and healthy worldview based on what the bible says. Through this training they seek to help the Church understand its role as a church. Over time they have seen that whilst teaching the churches has had a positive effect, they have seen far greater results when they have walked with people on their journey of discovery and built up personal relationships opening up their eyes to God’s plans.

Through a series of training workshops with the Pastors and their congregations over the period of 3 years, our staff are teaching the churches: their place within their community so they can minister to the community, meeting its needs whether that is in health, education or developing the local economy, what is integral ministry, how to think and plan for the future (not common here, especially where the Aymara language only has a past and present tense) and to get the Church to carry out seed projects within their community. These are simple projects like cleaning the streets of rubbish (of which there is always a lot), or putting up street signs. These are to be short projects, just a morning or afternoon, that are resourced completely from the church in terms of finances and people (breaking the begging bowl mentality of dependence). They are created with the aim to serve the community and through which demonstrate God’s love. In doing these projects twice a year the churches learn how to plan and organise.

Such work is not always as easy as it sounds as many of the pastors have full time jobs, and so need to work around these jobs to be able to come to the training sessions. The other issue is that many of the pastors lack a basic education, with most having ever only received between 2 ½ to 5 years of basic education. This means that many are not even able to read and write.

If pastors lack a basic education and in many cases the ability to read it makes you wonder how they are leading and teaching their congregations (in case you are wondering pod casts and recordings of sermons are not a resource available to these people), what is their theological training? The answer to these questions is poorly. Therefore this is part of the challenge when working with the Churches helping them to understand the different themes at a suitable level to their understanding.

Another part of the program that the FH team runs is TOT, (Training Of Trainers). Over the past 5 years they have learned that although they have a very good reputation in El Alto among the Churches, they are still strangers. Because of this they have begun to train people within the Churches in these same themes, so that they are then equipped to share within their Church in a way that is more effective. The idea being that the work then multiplies with the trainers training new trainers.

This is long and hard work that often goes unseen for some time, but they are seeing results now in a few of the Churches, which has been very encouraging. During the day I visited 5 Churches all of which were very different. One Church had started a Christian School and was teaching its pupils Biblical Principles. Positive changes have already been seen in the children and now parents want their children to go there because of this. This year they are seeing their first students graduate as professionals, people who will take the Biblical Principles they have learned into the work place, generating change. Another church was next to a University and had started a longer-term project using its own resources to run a restaurant to provide a cheap but balanced diet for the Students as this is a need the Church has seen and acted on. It is also providing opportunities for evangelism.

We then went to a completely different Church where the pastor had died and his teenaged son had taken over responsibility. With an elderly and sick congregation (of about 20 people) they had built a small Church for about 50 people from their own resources. The pastor of the next church was a rarity. He was older and normally the older pastors do not like any suggestions of change (sound familiar!), as it may threaten their job and their security so they do not want to listen. However, this pastor has changed his way of thinking and taken it to another level. For 5 years they have been running with a child sponsorship program with another organisation called Compassion for around 300 children, which runs classes for the children in the mornings and afternoons. The pastor has realised that one day the funding from Compassion will stop and so instead of residing to fate, he has told his church that they need to start thinking about how they can fund this project in the future to keep it going. Finally I went to a Church that was just beginning the process of changing its thinking. There were about 50 people of all ages learning about God’s intention for the Church.

To see some more of the results of this program and what can happen when the Church has its eyes open to the needs around it. Check out the project FH is involved with (and looking for funding from the UK) in a community called Puerto Camacho on the edge of El Alto. FH started there with Church Strengthening work and now FH is helping the Church to reach out into the community and help change the lives of some of the children living in that area.

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