Evangelicals face uncertainty during transition from Somoza to Sandinista.

With the civil war ended, Nicaraguan evangelicals face the uncertain peace with mixed feelings—thanksgiving for their protection and a preoccupation with wondering which way the new government, still struggling to organize itself, will head.

As in several recent disasters in Central America, casualties among believers were relatively low. Following the seven-week war that toppled dictator Anastacio Somoza, estimates of the death toll ranged from 20,000 to 40,000. Many of the bodies were buried or burned on the spot, but only a handful of evangelical Christians were known to be among them.

Stories of miraculous escapes abound. Efrain Flores, a professor at CAM International’s (formerly Central American Mission) Nicaragua Bible Institute in Managua, was typical. He and his family were pinned in their home for 12 straight days as Sandinista guerrillas and National Guardsmen fought for control of their neighborhood. “The houses across the street, on both sides, and behind us were hit by rockets and mortar shells,” said Flores, “but we didn’t even have one bullet hole in our home.” When government troops ordered everyone to evacuate the area as the end of the offensive in Managua neared, Flores and his family got out without a scratch, although shells exploded around them as they left the house.

Damage to church buildings and believers’ homes also was relatively light. CAM’s El Alba Bookstore was looted, but the Baptist and Nazarene bookstores were untouched. Churches continued Sunday morning services during much of the fighting, but most evening meetings ceased and had not resumed.

The new government has promised religious freedom, and a number of pastors are serving on neighborhood civil defense committees, which the government has organized. The committees are handling cleanup operations and distribution of relief supplies on a city block basis.

The bulk of the evangelical relief effort is being channeled through CEPAD, the Evangelical Committee for the Relief of Victims, which functioned effectively throughout the war. CEPAD currently is supplying food to 50,000 families throughout the country. About half of the supplies have come from the International Red Cross; the rest is being funded by Protestant relief agencies.

The CEPAD food distribution program was to be terminated September 15. For the remainder of the year, CEPAD has requested $2 million from various relief agencies for programs to help restart or set up small businesses, and for low-cost housing.

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The new government needs all the material help it can get. Somoza and his allies looted the treasury before they left, and much of the industry around Managua is in ruins, having been bombed, looted, or burned by forces from both sides. Almost all the shopping centers in the capital city were stripped bare by mobs, and commerce is almost at a complete standstill, except for the thriving open markets. Unemployment before the war was estimated at nearly 50 percent, and now may be closer to 90 percent.

“The majority of the Christians were strengthened by their experiences during the fighting,” said Gustavo Parrajón, a doctor, and president of CEPAD. However, there was, and still is, tension in the churches, he said. Some pastors supported the Somoza regime on the basis of Romans 13, while many young people from Christian homes joined with the Sandinistas. “As the church, we have to minister to both sides,” said Parrajón.

One of the greatest needs in Nicaragua is for spiritual rebuilding—for the ability to forgive the wrongs done on both sides. And as church leaders face an uncertain political future, they are preparing themselves for what may come. Said one national leader, “We need to really get into our Bibles—and get ready to testify to a Communist government.” Early indications, however, were that a collective leadership was adopting a pragmatic mix of socialism and private initiative in governing, including guarantees of human rights. The Roman Catholic Church for the most part supported the Sandinista revolution. The archbishop of Managua, Monsignor Miguel Ovando Bravo, and the national hierarchy, had publicly criticized the Somoza regime, and two Catholic priests are members of the cabinet of the new government: Miguel D’Escoto, minister of foreign relations, and Ernesto Cardenal, minister of culture.

However, in recent weeks the Catholic church has disengaged itself, at least partially, from Sandinista politics. A pastoral letter issued by the Nicaraguan bishops last month contained what the government claimed was a veiled criticism of the new regime. The bishops stressed that the church should not align itself with any political power system. “God is the source,” they said, “not only of life, but also of social law and order. When power systems ignore this source, they end up by becoming absolutist and make man into a slave instead of liberating him.”

Counting It All Joy

Most of the family was still in bed when 10 guerrillas surrounded the home of Wycliffe Bible translator Stan McMillen at 7 A.M. last July 16 in Las Pacayas, Guatemala. The guerrillas herded the parents and four children outside and proceeded to ransack the house. Later they allowed the McMillens to dress, and took them to the village plaza. The guerrillas then gathered the townspeople and berated the McMillens publicly until noon.

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“They [the guerrillas] were Marxist Communists,” said the 37-year-old McMillen. “They told the people the gringos [North Americans] were stealing the land and keeping people poor.”

Then as the guerrillas left town, the McMillens saw smoke: they had set fire to the McMillens’ house and clinic. Ben, 16, was the first to reach the house. He found that a motorcycle had been set on fire under their car, from which the gas cap had been removed. Amazingly, the vehicle did not explode, and Ben was able to pull out the burning bike and save the car. That and a generator were all that was salvaged of the family’s possessions.

Lost were five years of translation materials, including notes, Bible stories, literacy materials, and most of the published copies of the Gospel of Mark. McMillen estimates that the fire set him back two years in translating the New Testament into the Uspanteco language.

The guerrilla Army of the Poor, which carried out the attack, has been active recently in northern Quiché province in Guatemala. Guerrillas briefly occupied several towns and killed a number of plantation owners. This was the first incident involving missionaries, but it appears to have been directed against them more as North Americans than as missionaries. An ex-Peace Corps paramedic, Joe Nark, who had a clinic in the same area as the McMillens, was also threatened and has left, leaving the village with no medical care.

The guerrillas had warned the McMillens to leave the area and not to return. But they plan to continue their translation work, temporarily from a base in a large town several hours’ drive from the village. “I want to go back and demonstrate that we want to help the people in every way possible,” Stan said.

As they poked through the ashes of their home, Margot, 36, said, “I was reminded of the verse, ‘Count it all joy …’ I realized it was all right because we have a big God.”


South Africa
Church Also Tarred by Brush of Scandal

The so-called information scandal that has shaken the South African government now has spilled over to the churches. And doing the “spilling” has been the former top civil servant in the government’s now defunct Department of Information, Eschel Rhoodie.

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In an investigation a judicial commission had found that the department secretly used public tax money for payoffs to politicians, establishing “front” companies, and secret funding of newspapers and magazines. Rhoodie was extradited last month from France to South Africa, where he would face charges of theft and fraud involving the Information Department’s secret fund. The trial may be conducted in secret.

In several of its summer issues, however, the Dutch magazine Elseviers published Rhoodie’s version of how some of the secret funds were used. Rhoodie alleged that more than $450,000 per year was channeled to the conservative Christian League of South Africa, which is headed by Methodist minister Frederick Shaw. Rhoodie says the league used the funds for operating and expanding its newspaper, Encounter, to step up its guest program for overseas visitors, to organize seminars, and to launch a publishing program designed to expose Marxist ties to the World Council of Churches. Shaw has denied Rhoodie’s claims.

Rhoodie’s latest revelations involving another group have been confirmed. He said that Information Department funds totalling $180,000 were provided to launch an Ecumenical Organization Bureau under the auspices of the powerful white Dutch Reformed Church. The bureau intended both to counter efforts by overseas churches to influence the South African economy, and to establish ties with other church bodies opposed to the WCC.

Spokesmen for the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (the official name of the Dutch Reformed Church involved) have confirmed Rhoodie’s charge that its ecumenical agency was a “front” for the government. The funding ceased last October when the information scandal broke.

The church has received the inevitable criticisms for its involvement with the secret activities of the Department of Information. The English-language national paper, the Rand Daily Mail, rebuked the Dutch Reformed Church for not giving evidence to the Commission of Inquiry that investigated the information scandal. “By its silence,” said the newspaper, “this large and influential church failed, in a time of moral crisis, to give its flock a lead.”


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