Evangelicals win favorable exposure and grope for unity.
“For me the best sermon was seeing so many people gathered to hear the preaching of the gospel.” Aristómeno Porras, editor of the prestigious Bible in Latin America magazine, was describing his reaction to the “Mexican Congress with Billy Graham” in Mexico City early last month.
Baptist leader Augustín Acosta, who served as the congress president, tripped off long applause in the Sports Arena, converted to a spiritual birthplace, when he declared, “This is the greatest exposure this city has had to the gospel.”
Evangelicals in the largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world (68.2 million) felt they had reason to rejoice. They had won a public hearing in a country that checks public proclamation of all religious messages, and which had, until recent decades, indulged in widespread suppression of Protestant Christianity.
Isolated incidents of persecution persist—mostly in small, rural villages. But the prevailing attitude among the middle and upper classes in Mexico City, however, is a combination of materialism and inattention to personal spiritual relationships. Many officials and private leaders refer to themselves as “free thinkers,” while atheistic leftists flourish in the universities.
The climate did not seem propitious for a mass evangelistic crusade. For one thing, current laws restrain public proclamation of religious messages—laws which developed as a reaction to the stifling Roman Catholic domination of the nation in the last century. Liberal leaders such as Benito Juarez, a personal admirer and friend of Abraham Lincoln and a reader of the Bible, sought to wrench from the Catholic church its vast land holdings. Violent battles between the church and the liberal government continued for decades, until the government gained legal control of the situation. The Catholic church still exercises a stronger control over the people in Mexico than in most Latin American countries.
By law, all church buildings in Mexico belong to the state. Shortly after constructing a church, congregational leaders turn the building over to government authorities. All religious services must be held in recognized church buildings, except for private religious meetings of a family nature, and these may be held only after the door is closed. Neither the church nor the clergy may hold land or public office, and Catholic priests are not allowed to wear their habits in the streets. One international traveler noted, “Mexico has one of the strictest constitutional controls of religion that exists in the world.”
Law and practice are often at variance, however, as the Pope’s visit signaled. President López Portillo met him at the airport, then took pains to point out that he welcomed him only as a private citizen. The foreign pontiff spoke in many public places and celebrated Mass on city squares; public pressure extends beyond the most carefully honed legal language.
Undaunted by these obstacles, evangelical leaders continued to press the invitation they had extended to Billy Graham nearly 10 years ago. (Graham had preached in Mexico City in 1958.) The obstacle was always the lack of a signed contract for a large stadium. The same issue almost aborted this congress at the last minute.
Contacts were made, and a verbal agreement arrived at for the use of the 50,000-seat Inde Sports Stadium belonging to the government-operated Sports Federation. But only three weeks before the congress, the verbal agreement was canceled. The explanation given to congress officials was that a shakeup in the Sports Federation caused the suspension of all previous agreements. Private sources confided, however, that government observers noted disunity among evangelicals, and for that reason suspended the stadium agreement.
Congress officials called for united prayer, then began a desperate search for solutions. With what a local newspaper called “extra-official support” from the government, they signed the contract for a 19,500-seat downtown Mexico arena just one hour before Graham flew into the city. The publicity effort was a shambles.
Initial press attitudes toward the evangelist were negative, with several accusations of political motives for his mission. Then Gonzalo Baez-Camargo, a noted Methodist journalist and the nation’s most illustrious evangelical, defended Graham in his editorial column, challenging his opponents to go hear him—especially since the meetings were free!
The climate changed as front-page articles appeared in several of the city’s newspapers. One publication marveled that “the nation’s television, radio, and press sought extensive interviews with Dr. Graham since he arrived in the country.” Another lamented the limited size of the Sports Arena, since so many people wanted to hear Graham.
The arena filled to capacity each of the five evenings (eight had been scheduled at the stadium), and on three evenings, thousands were turned away at the doors. The crowds that couldn’t enter gathered outside to sing, pray, or organize impromptu street meetings. Traffic jams tied up the arena area for hours each evening.
Nearly 3,500 Mexicans responded to Graham’s urgent appeals to receive Jesus Christ as Savior, and an equivalent number registered other decisions. Evangelist Guillermo Villanueva, who served as Graham’s interpreter, pointed out, “Because of the arena layout, the inquirers couldn’t come forward as usual, but stood during the invitation. I know that counselors couldn’t get to many of them, so the actual response was higher than the reported figures.”
Congress officials were alarmed when an usher reported on the last night that two men with a revolver had eluded him and disappeared in the crowds. As Graham prepared to preach, Salvation Army officers sealed off access to the platform and mounted an intense guard. Their faces radiated relief when the service ended safely.
Top-level government authorities congratulated congress president Acosta on the order and respect displayed by evangelicals during the meetings. Over 350 churches in the world’s largest city (estimated urban population: 17 million) participated in the congress.
Meanwhile, 1,300 Christian leaders from Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Texas met for a four-day School of Evangelism. Under the guidance of Presbyterian pastor Vidal Valencia, 23 outstanding Mexican and American evangelical leaders shared their knowledge and experience in evangelistic concepts and methods. Morning plenary sessions gathered all the Christian workers in a large downtown church, while in the afternoons 16 different workshops were offered in five centrally located churches.
In his address to the school, Billy Graham stressed the priority of evangelism, but added that Christians must also demonstrate their love to neighbors in practical ways. One Christian leader commented, “These men are getting ideas and tools that will revitalize their ministry all over this country.”
At the close of his Mexico City meetings, and before proceeding to another three-day series of evangelistic rallies in the oil-rich state of Tabasco—where an adequate stadium was assured—Graham made a brief visit to President López Portillo.
Tabasco, to most of the world, means hot sauce. But in Mexico, Tabasco stands for chocolate, oil, and evangelicals. The Vermont-sized state on Mexico’s humid southeastern gulf coast boasts vast plantations producing the cacao bean, but the enormous petroleum deposits below them have created a boom area.
According to the 1980 census, at least 10 percent of Tabasco’s 800,000 people are evangelicals, mostly Presbyterians. Mexican missionaries (Presbyterian) first preached in the then severely underdeveloped region around 1880, and today Villahermosa, the state capital, is the center of the nation’s major concentration of evangelical Christians.
Between 1930 and 1935, however, an intense ntireligious campaign orchestrated by Toámas Garrido, the state governor, could have finished off the young church. Church buildings were closed, Bibles burned, and pursued preachers taught believers in secret house meetings.
But when Billy Graham arrived in Villahermosa for his four-day gospel campaign last month, he could not have found a greater contrast. The present governor’s personal assistant was the first to meet the preacher as he got off the plane. “We have been looking forward to your coming to Tabasco, and welcome you with open arms,” he said. “You are free here to carry out your activities.” A thousand people were outside the airport, also waiting to welcome Graham.
The crowds grew as 10,000 filled the city’s “February 27” baseball stadium for the largest crusade dedication service in the history of Graham’s crusades. More people came on the following nights, and 35,000 people attended on the last two nights—a record for Protestant meetings in Mexico.
More than 8,000 inquirers indicated conversion decisions. Young people made up more than half the inquirers, reflecting the fact that 50 percent of Mexico’s population is under 15 years of age.
Santiago Marín, a local businessman who served as general secretary for the Villahermosa meetings, publicly thanked Graham for coming to southeastern Mexico, and led the huge crowd in thanking God for blessing his people. Marín had arranged the donation of one evening’s offering ($4,215) to the Mexican Red Cross. This silenced critics who had charged that evangelicals are interested only in spiritual matters.
In summing up the congress, Pedro de Koster, one of Mexico’s leading Protestants, noted: “We have seen the unity of God’s people as never before. Denominational barriers to fellowship were removed. A tremendously positive impression was made on the government. The lieutenant governor’s wife called to compliment us on the people’s respectful behavior, as well as on Dr. Graham’s messages. And we are experiencing spiritual harvest. I can see 30 churches coming out of these meetings on a short-term basis, and many more in coming years.”
One evangelical leader expressed concern, however, that no ongoing fellowship to stimulate evangelical cooperation was being formed following the Mexican congress. “At one point in the congress preparations,” he commented, “federal officials asked when we evangelicals are going to work together. They intimated we might enjoy better church-state relations if we do. We’ve seen in Mexico City and in Villahermosa what the various churches can do when they join hands. Are we too selfish, or is there some suspicion among us? We’ve started to move together, and we must keep it up!”
Believers Are Targeted As Terrorism Escalates
Some kind of terrorist threat was inevitable. But when Virgilio Zapata, director of the Instituto Evangelica Latina America (IEAL) in Guatemala City, received a threat to his son’s life on March 11, it was still a shock.
Within the hour, the 17-year-old high school senior was spirited out of the country to friends in the U.S. He is already attending a local high school and hopes to graduate in June as planned. But the family has no illusions that the danger is over.
Violence and in timidation have been escalating in this Central American nation, and missionaries have been warned to leave the country or be killed. Some have left. Others have made secret plans to flee in an emergency. Several Guatemalan Christian leaders have already been killed.
Zapata, a native Guatemalan, fears civil war is imminent. The IEAL board closed the girls’ dormitory on the institute’s main campus in Guatemala City because of the girls’ vulnerability to capture or attack. The school’s offices have been ransacked twice in the past year by terrorists and a $7,000 payroll was taken at gunpoint.
Guatemala has the potential for prosperity, rich as it is in coffee, cotton, and oil. Its Mayan ruins and breathtaking beauty lure thousands of tourists each year.
But the prosperity isn’t now enough to go around. Many Indian laborers earn less than $1 a day. Guatemala’s per capita gross national product, second only to Costa Rica in Central America, is still just $1,000 a year, and illiteracy stands at 53 percent.
Poverty from within and the pressure of subversive exploitation from without are building up the tension. The military dictatorship of General Romeo Lucas García is making “too little, too late” efforts to restore confidence and gain the support of the Guatemalan people.
One of these efforts led to the threat on young Zapata’s life. The government launched a campaign to persuade every literate Guatemalan over the age of 18 to “teach,” for 120 hours, at least three illiterates how to read and write. As a result, IEAL opened 15 literacy classes at the school, and young Virgil Zapata himself was teaching 11 “reluctant” students.
Protestant roots and fruits south of the border
Mexico shares a border with the country that sends out the largest number of evangelical missionaries. Yet it has not seen the large-scale conversions to Christ witnessed in some other Latin American nations.
Evangelical historians note that the first Protestant services were conducted in 1847 in the Ambassador’s Room of the National Palace. Soldiers of invading U.S. and French armies gave Bibles to local people, who read them avidly. Most of the early converts were from the mixed masses (mestizo), rather than from the upper-class Spanish elite or the lower-class Indian peasants.
In 1873, one evangelical congregation with 75 communicants served Mexico City. But by 1894, 18 Protestant churches functioned in the city, and 469 congregations were scattered throughout the nation.
1894 was a big year for Mexican evangelicals, for evangelist D. L. Moody and companion Ira Sankey crusaded there for Christ. Moody preached in the National Theater of the capital city, and also addressed a congress of evangelical missionaries. His ministry stirred local believers to greater evangelistic action. Methodist and Presbyterian schools aided the budding church. During the latest revolutionary period (1910–1920), evangelicals suffered, as did all elements of Mexican society. However, they continued to grow, spurred at intervals by Evangelism in Depth, Billy Graham, and Luis Palau.
According to the 1970 census, there were 900 thousand evangelicals in the nation, or 1.8 percent of the total population. By 1980, however, that figure had almost tripled to 2.4 million, and made up 3.5 percent of the country’s 68 million people. Church leaders believe the number of evangelicals in Mexico may be higher than census figures indicate, since many census takers didn’t ask about religous affiliation, assuming the persons they interviewed were Catholics.
But the terrorists, fearing that the government would swing the populace in its favor with such a move, reacted with threats of violence. The typewritten note, delivered by an unknown messenger to Zapata’s office, demanded an end to literacy classes and school-sponsored evangelism. The student body of 5,000 (largest Christian school in all of Latin America) has an aggressive sports evangelism and gospel team ministry, and has produced hundreds of Christian professional and business leaders in its 25-year history.
Zapata, who was appointed by the Evangelical Alliance of Guatemala to head up the massive relief program after the 1976 earthquake, has also established development programs in several towns severely damaged by the earthquake and has carried on literacy programs in those areas for several years.
In a phone call to Christian Nationals Evangelism Commission, which has assisted IEAL financially for a number of years, young Zapata emphatically denied that his father or the board of IEAL would agree to the terrorists’ demands. “They know that one of them will be next on [the terrorists’] list, but they are determined to continue with the program. In fact, 34 of our graduates this year are planning to open literacy centers and hope to reach 200,000 people in this way. The only adjustments they’ve made are to move the centers into private homes so that the terrorists won’t know where they are hiding.” said Zapata from his U.S. hideaway.
Westernizing The Eastern Church: Two Models
The branch of Christianity that most prizes its heritage in the unifying church councils of the first seven centuries has assumed a fragmented form in the New World. Orthodox churches have appeared to most as cultural extensions of various nationalities from eastern Europe. Over the last decade, however, third-and fourth-generation Americans in these churches have begun to adapt them to American culture and psychology.
For decades, the two-million-member Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America has depended on a steady supply of Greek immigrants to bolster membership. The new arrivals reinforced intense loyalties of the fatherland.
But the same language and culture traits that have sustained the immigrants have begun to alienate Greek-American young people, causing many to drift away. For instance, those who never learned the language of their parents cannot follow much of the Greek liturgy.
Archbishop Iakovos (pronounced YA-ko-vos), the 69-year-old head of the Greek Orthodox in the Americas, has led his church through the initial stages of a sometimes anguishing search for a formula to broaden its constitutency. Two years ago he pushed through a plan to subdivide his archdiocese into dioceses headed by bishops who are given considerable autonomy. Although the archbishop retains control, the move was seen widely as an indication of his willingness to share power and to respond to the American penchant for participatory forms of governing.
Iakovos also has encouraged ecumenical gestures. This has attracted new people to the church, but at the same time caused a few of the more conservative clergy to break away and form splinter parishes.
Last year the archbishop hired the Gallup organization to explore the attitudes and practices of his constitutency, with a special survey of teen-agers. As a result, the archdiocese has given new priority to waging a public relations campaign to explain Greek Orthodoxy to a broader cross section of Americans. For the first time, a priest, Alexander Karloutsos, has been given responsibility for a strengthened department of communications. In February, a communications commission, composed of lay Greek Orthodox professionals in the field, was formed to provide direction.
As one member of the Archdiocesan Council put the problem: “Every time we’re given national exposure we’re looked upon as a curiosity. We must reach out not only to Greek ethnics but to anyone who has a spiritual hunger.”
At the January Synod of Bishops, Iakovos carried the decentralization process a step further, appointing three bishops to oversee the establishment of monastic orders, the operation of parochial schools, and spiritual renewal. Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh, who was tapped for the spiritual renewal role, is described by a sympathetic evangelical observer as a kindred spirit who evaluates his priests and parishioners on the basis of their “Christ-centeredness.” Nevertheless, he has been instructed to issue a booklet describing his church’s position on renewal and giving guidelines as to what actions will and will not be countenanced for the faithful.
This carefully nurtured change is all contained within strict parameters: all Orthodox in the New World are part of the diaspora from the Old. As such, they are subordinate and accountable first of all to the national Orthodox church in their country of origin, but more especially to Demetrios I, the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul). The ultimate desirability of a national American Orthodox church is acknowledged, but that can be initiated and confirmed only by the ecumenical patriarchate.
For this reason, the Greek Archdiocese’s Synod of Bishops took sharp and public exception to a current move by the predominantly Russian Orthodox body that negotiated autonomy from its national church 11 years ago. The one-million-member Orthodox Church in America (which the Greek Orthodox still insist on referring to by its former name—the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America) announced at the beginning of the year that its archbishop, Metropolitan Theodosius, was moving his see from New York to Washington, D.C.
The OCA, with headquarters in Syosset, New York, intends to split off the churches of Washington, its suburbs, and Baltimore, from its New York-New Jersey diocese to form a new minidiocese. It professes the basic reason to be that diocesan administration of the larger unit tied Theodosius down and hampered him in performing his duties as head of the wider church across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. A small, manageable diocese is being created to free his schedule.
Critics are sure this explanation is disingenuous. They note that traditionally the secular capital has become the capital of the see of the church. They believe the OCA is symbolically moving to establish itself as the national Orthodox church. And, they complain, “the symbolism takes on a certain reality.”
Behind the tension lies a different history and mindset of the Russian Orthodox. The Russians arrived in the New World before the U.S. Civil War, organizing a mission in Alaska in 1794, setting up a center in San Francisco in 1872, and moving it to New York in 1905. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Moscow was no longer able to exercise effective control over its North American establishment, which developed the habit of making its own decisions. The spread of communism in Europe after World War II set other ethnic Orthodox groups adrift from their old-country moorings. Russian immigration dried up at the same time. A majority of OCA clergy were born in North America, and 5 of its 13 bishops are converts.
To the Russian-American way of thinking, history has already created an autonomous North American Orthodox church, and as the oldest form of Orthodoxy in the West, it feels entitled to offer its negotiated autonomy from Moscow as a vehicle for the other nationalities, asking them to join with it in the OCA while retaining their identities as distinct “jurisdictions.” A Romanian group accepted that invitation in 1970, and smaller Bulgarian and Albanian groups have joined up since.
But these claims have not been recognized by most Orthodox bodies whose primates are members of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, chaired by Archbishop Iakovos. (Still, the OCA remains a member of SCCOBA.)
Behind the Greek gradualist approach to change in Orthodoxy in the Americas and the more radical Russian course lie differing views of the patriarch in Constantinople. All Orthodox take strong exception to the Roman Catholic dogmas of papal supremacy and infallibility. The primate of each national Orthodox church is equal to every other. However, the bishop of Constantinople has the place of honor among the primates; he is the “first among equals.” (If the Western and Eastern churches were to be reunited, the place of honor would pass to the bishop of Rome.)
To the OCA, the ecumenical patriarch is simply entitled to chair gatherings of all the primates. It would hope to obtain his eventual blessing on a united national Orthodox church in the Americas. To the Greeks, the place of honor of the patriarch goes well beyond that. He is the head, and the body cannot move without a signal from the head.
Be that as it may, the process of acculturation goes on, reinforcing a general desire for a greater measure of oneness within Eastern Orthodoxy, and increasing embarrassment over the anomaly of national, ideological, and sometimes personal rivalries that divide a theoretically singular, uniform church.
Summer Institute of Linguistics work in Mexico is currently in a holding pattern, since a majority of its linguists have left the country. Over the last two years, SIL has been accused in an intense national press campaign of destroying indigenous cultures. Leaders of the sister organization to Wycliffe Bible Translators have responded that the dictionaries and grammars prepared for tribal peoples give them group identification and pride in their culture, as well as contribute to preservation of their cultural heritages. Some linguists figure Mexico has 150 separate, mutually unintelligible languages. SIL has published New Testaments in 57 of these languages, including six new translations printed last year.
After the kidnapping of Chet Bitterman, the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board made official its unwritten rule never to pay ransom if one of its workers is kidnapped. Its statement said that to pay ransom for a missionary “would raise serious questions regarding our theology, our mission concepts, and our stewardship. It would place every other member of our missionary family in immediate jeopardy.” However, the board noted that missionaries are permitted to decide for themselves whether to leave or stay in “troublesome areas,” and that “unnecessary risks are discouraged.”
West Germans have formed their first national Bible society. In February, representatives of the 34 regional societies approved the founding of the German Bible Society. With headquarters in Stuttgart, the amalgamated society will be among the largest worldwide, with 60 full-time staff.
Evangelicals have joined in relief efforts after the recent earthquake in southern Greece. Three strong quakes between February 24 and March 4 resulted in 22 dead and some 500 injured, and caused considerable structural damage to many towns and villages. The epicenter was just a few miles northeast of Corinth. Several major Protestant churches in Athens, some 50 miles to the east, reported minor damage to their buildings. The mother church of the Free Evangelical Church (a Greek denomination unrelated to others with similar names) may have to rebuild the old home it used for offices and Sunday school classrooms.
Soviet authorities are adopting new tactics in countering religious dissidents, according to reports reaching Keston College. An imitation of the samidzat (typewritten, secretly distributed) journals is being produced, with KGB sanction, by two authors who testified against Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin at his trial last August. Also, dissidents who recanted have been recruited to persuade activists to stop sending information about violations of believers’ rights to the West. Authorities have undertaken to deal with these violations themselves, they are saying, so there is no longer any need to enlist support from abroad.
The International Assistance Mission has decided on a temporary withdrawal of all its personnel from Afghanistan following the murder of Erik and Eeva Barendsen (CT, Feb. 20, p. 52). The IAM is a group of Christian workers serving the people of Afghanistan through medical and rehabilitation programs. Recuperation and assessment were given as reasons for the standby furloughs; but most staff expressed their willingness to return.
A two-year visa crunch for missionaries to Indonesia appears to be easing. Authorities stopped issuing new visas in early 1979, and in July of that year began stamping as unrenewable, six-month visas for all missionaries who had first entered the country more than five years previously. Since then, however, unrestricted renewals have resumed, and the nonextendable visas have been renewed on appeal. Last month the Southern Baptists reported receipt of two visas for new missionaries. The general Indonesian policy of encouraging foreigners to train Indonesians to replace them is still in effect.
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