Venezuela has been in crisis for years, but the situation there has arguably taken an even greater turn for the worse in recent weeks. Recently, a blackout cut off the entire country from electricity. Citizens have also been victim to frequent water shortages and a currency that is losing its value at unprecedented rates.
At the same time, more than three million people have left the country of 31 million people, roughly 10 percent of the population.
The country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, although, like much of Latin America, has experienced the growing influence of Protestantism. According to Pew Research Center’s 2014 numbers, Protestants currently make up 17 percent of the population.
Germán Novelli-Oliveros, the Venezuelan-born-and-raised pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss how oil brought Protestantism to Venezuela, why pastors won’t speak out politically, and his advice for people who want to help.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by the MA in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College Graduate School, preparing leaders to serve the most vulnerable and the church globally. For more information, go to wheaton.edu/HDL.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Kinship United, a non-profit organization working with every day superheroes like you to rescue orphans and widows from abuse, trafficking, or worse, for the past nineteen years. To learn more about how you can save a life, visit KinshipUnited.org.
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March 13 Transcript
Morgan Lee: Venezuela, as many of our listeners I'm sure you already know, has been in crisis for years. But the situation there has arguably taken an even greater turn for the worse in recent weeks. Several days ago, a black out hit nearly every one of Venezuela twenty-three states. Citizens have also been victim to frequent water shortages, and a currency that is losing its value at an unprecedented rate. At the same time more than three million people have left the country of thirty-one million people, so roughly about ten percent of the population.
The successor of former leader Hugo Chavez, Nicolás Maduro, has largely been blamed for this collapse. Since January, many governments, including the United States, have claimed that the Maduro government is illegitimate and instead have recognized Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, as the new president of the country.
The country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, although like much of Latin America, has experienced the growing influence of Protestantism. And according to Pew Research Center's 2014 numbers, Protestants currently make a 17 percent of the population.
So, this week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to learn to what extent the evangélico population is involved in the current political situation and, also how it is being affected by it itself. So, Mark, I would just love to hear your gut check to everything that's going on in Venezuela right now.
Mark Galli: Well I've only paid attention to it spottingly, but it just feels like déjà vu all over again. Unfortunately, in my lifetime, many a Latin American country has experienced social and political turmoil to the point that unless one is an expert in that region, it's hard. They all conflate together after a while. And it does make me feel sad for just how much turmoil, social and political turmoil, that both Latin and South America have had to experience in the last fifty years or so.
Morgan Lee: Similarly, I have also been kind of following this, in and out. It's been interesting, I guess, that it's been in the news again. I pretty much–and I say "the news" I mean the American news, right. And that's partly because the Trump Administration has been a little bit more loud, for a lack of a better word, about what's happening over there. And kind of at times, I don't know if threatened is the right word, but suggested that they might militarily involve themselves in what's happening. And so, to that extent, it's more in our news coverage again because our government is talking about what's happening.
but it seems like this crisis has been going on for a really long time and it's hard to know kind of what rock bottom looks like. I feel the same way about crises like Syria as well, where they just kind of happen.
Mark Galli: And I hate to put in a self-plug, but as a journalist I really appreciate shows like this one, which I can take something I only have a smattering of understanding about and get a better understanding on.
Morgan Lee: Me too.
Mark Galli: Whether it's done audibly on a podcast, or a nice brief new story summary. I think it's very helpful.
Morgan Lee: The only thing I will say about Venezuela, which is, I feel like there's been a couple times in the past couple years where it's touched me a little bit more closely. One of them was just one of my friends who came here to play baseball professionally–he did play baseball professionally, not in the major leagues but in the minors– and I texted with him a couple days ago before we recorded this show, and just asked him what was going on with his family, and how he was doing. And his dad is still in the country, I mentioned 'oh, I heard that there were blackouts recently,’ he said 'yes, that my family was affected by those.' So that's a little bit different when you have that connection.
Then when I was in Orlando last year, my Lyft driver, I kind of ignored him for most of the trip, and then at the end of the trip I started chatting with him and was speaking to him in Spanish. And he told me essentially that he was a political dissident who had protested against Maduro, and then had to flee the country. So that was really fascinated to me. He had actually been kidnapped multiple times, too. Some really just crazy stories.
Alright Germán, we are just really glad, as both Mark and I suggested, that we can get some of this bigger picture information about what is going on. I know we have some questions on here about the religious population, and what's going on with Protestants and evangélicos, but I actually kind of want to know if you want to fill in any of the blanks, in terms of what is actually happening politically right now in the situation, especially for listeners you haven't kept up with everything.
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Yeah. When we start talking about Venezuela, Morgan, we would like to say that this is something that has been happening the last few weeks or the last three months. But the reality is that these crises– political, financial, social crisis– have been affecting the country and the population during the last few years. And in the news, we can talk about the lack of food and medication, but to be honest there are no words to describe the situation happening in Venezuela.
The last few days has been crazy; they have not electric power in the whole country. You can't imagine an entire country without electricity, without electric power, no clean water. So, I have been trying to reach, you know to have connection with my family, but of course because it is not electric power, there is not internet, communications are very difficult with them. And what we have heard, because we got some messages from there, is that the food they had in the refrigerator, it's totally rotten. And now they are losing money, because you know it's hard to find food in a country like that. So yes, unfortunately it is a nightmare, it's a tragedy what's happening there. And this has been that way for at least the last five years.
Mark Galli: Wow.
Morgan Lee: So, you came here in 2012, what was the state that you would say the country was in when you arrived in the United States?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: You know, you can still feel that the situation was getting worse and worse and worse every day, even though seven years ago when I was living in Venezuela. Since than I have been visiting Venezuela almost every year, and it is amazing how you can go back this year, and then you go the next, and you can find a totally different country. And it's even worse every single year.
Now in 2013, when former president Chavez died, the economic situation and reality of the country started getting into a mess in a fast way. Part of that is that, you know we're talking about a country where oil is the main resource, so when the prices of oil came down, you can start feeling the economic situation and more often everywhere. Until that point at my last visit in 2017, when I was walking around the streets of my country, in every single corner you can find people eating from the garbage just because they have no money to eat. And that really breaks your heart. And you say, well this is happening just to that person that I don't know. But then in the last two years I have been listening to stories about people I know, people who were professionals, people who had jobs, that they are looking for food in the garbage because they have no way to provide for their families.
Morgan Lee: Wow. Well, thank you for painting a picture of what it looks like right now in Venezuela. As we try to connect it to some of the things that we talked about in our show, I want to talk about the growth of the protestant church in Venezuela and when that began to emerge in your country's history.
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Yeah, one of the things that I like the most about faith and church is actually its history. Venezuela, remember, was a Spanish colony for three hundred years. So obviously we had a very Roman Catholic influence that has remained, even to our time. Right now, a majority of the Venezuelan population, about seventy percent, maybe less, say that they are Roman Catholic. However, this number which 20 years ago was close to 90 percent, has been decreasing throughout the years. And what we have seen is that the number of Christian evangelical and protestant churches has been increasing.
At this point there is a least one Christian evangelical congregation in every single town of my country. And the history of Christian churches in Venezuela, of course is related to the growing of oil companies in the country. In early twentieth century, American companies began their work in Venezuelan territory, and many of the American workers and oil businessmen who were coming to work in these companies were Protestants and evangelicals. So, they came to work, but also, they saw that Venezuela was an extraordinary mission field.
By 1950, there were many churches offering worship services in English, in German, and of course Spanish, in cities and towns of the country. And I will say that mostly Southern Baptist, the Lutheran Church also came by that time, and other Christian denominations. Since then the Protestant churches have been growing fast, especially in the in the last 50 years.
Morgan Lee: Wow, I had no idea that there was a link between the oil business and the church growth there. That's fascinating to me.
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: And also, there is a link between oil companies and our deep love for baseball.
Morgan Lee: Okay you can have one minute–give me a preview of that. Separate podcast, but I do want to know really quickly: What is the link between them?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: We had a lot of American come into Venezuela very early in the twentieth century, so they brought baseball with them. It's a very important winter league in Venezuela, organized with a lot of baseball players that you can see in the giants like a Pablo Sandoval and other players. They go and play in the winter league in Venezuela too, because you know that's our hobby in Venezuela baseball.
Morgan Lee: Absolutely. Alright, well separate podcast.
So, when I hear you talk about the rise of the protestant church, what I’m thinking in my head is these were kind of more traditional denominations, traditional mainland denominations, that were setting up churches in Venezuela. Have you guys had in your protestant history a growth of the charismatic church as well?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: The Pentecostal church, which we can say that it’s one of the most important charismatic churches and had a lot of impact in Latin America, is one of the most important churches in Venezuela. Actually, 60 percent of the evangelicals who are now in Venezuela are Pentecostal. So yes, there's a lot of influence from the charismatic movement, and of course Baptist, and there's also non-denomination churches that are also growing very fast in different cities, like Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia, or San Cristóbal.
Morgan Lee: Ok so you just named a bunch of cities in Venezuela, and I'm really curious and interested, when we were thinking about the Protestant movement, is this something that has primarily taken place in the city then as opposed to the countryside?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Well, they are everywhere. Especially in the low-income and worker classes areas, where Christianity had a major impact. With the recent political disaster happening there, in which the middle class has disappeared, well we can say that Christians are everywhere, especially in the cities that I just mentioned to you: Caracas, which is the capital city, and also in Maracaibo or Valencia or San Cristóbal, Barquisimeto. There are many cities. As I said, they are mostly in the low-income and working class areas, but also the big cities right now.
Morgan Lee: We know that when Hugo Chavez came to power, he received a lot of support of Venezuelans all throughout the country. Were Protestants generally supportive of him?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Well, you're right. Chavez had a lot of support when he was alive, his political changes were well received by millions of people, especially those in the low income and worker classes. And Christian Protestants, at least in the beginning of the revolution, they supported Chavez, at least most of them. And when Chavez died, the country was not doing well at all, and the crisis got worse. When Maduro became the president and then a dictator, he lost the support of the people who before loved Chavez. And he lost the support of Christian movements.
There are a few pastors and church leaders supporting Maduro of course, but they don't represent the Christian movement in the country, who are really suffering the consequences of communism in Venezuela. Chavez and Maduro's relationship with Cuba, and also with Haiti, also opened the doors of the country to African and Cuban religions which disappointed many Christian followers of the revolution because they openly started talking about the African religion. And I have no doubt that today's situation so generated, not just by political forces and decisions, but also I believe that this is a spiritual battle against the evil forces and Maduro lost a lot of support from the Christianity world in Venezuela, just because they start talking openly about this other religions that, in my opinion, have brought death and destruction to our country as well–in the spirituality side of talking about this.
Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the Dominican Republic. Actually, the synod, the Missouri synod organized a meeting with all of Venezuelan pastors in Dominican Republic last year. Well in my opinion, and this is my personal opinion–and I can give you a bunch of bible verses to strengthen what I’m saying right now–but in my opinion, this is the result that when an entire nation bows down before false gods, you know, you will see how the nation, and the people, is opening the doors for spiritual forces which are not the spiritual forces of the real god, Jesus Christ and the holy spirit. So that's why I'm saying that I believe that our nation opened the doors for the devil and false religions to govern.
Morgan Lee: So, you're talking about pagan religions, African religions, indigenous Caribbean religions? Or are you talking about forms of government like communism?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: No, I'm talking about false religions and pagan religions from Africa, who had a lot of influence in Haiti and Cuba and are now having an influence in Venezuela.
Morgan Lee: When these protests started happening, did you start to see Protestants organizing, or churches organizing and going out in the streets?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Well, there are Christian movements and leaders, who you can see in the protest. We need to understand that the protests in Venezuela are general and are everywhere. And most of the people who are leading theses protests, they do it because they are Venezuelan and they are concerned about the situation–people are dying, they spent entire days without electric power and clean water, violence, lack of food and medication. It's terrible. And, of course, you know when people decide to go out, they don't do it as churches, they just do it as citizens of the country that's falling apart.
There’re some Christian pastors who have been involved in politics in Venezuela. Actually, in the last election that Venezuela had–which I want to say that was not a legal election–president Maduro cancelled all the political parties in Venezuela, but he let some people to participate in that election. And one of the candidates is a Christian evangelical pastor, who run against Maduro. Of course, he didn't have a lot of votes because the country didn't participate, I mean most of the population didn't participate, in that fake election that Maduro organized.
Morgan Lee: And you said previous to Chavez as well, you saw different Protestants running for the election for different types of political office?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Yes, yes, always we have Christian movements who are organized as political parties in Venezuela even before Chavez came 20 years ago. So that was a common thing in our country. They never had a lot of power, I mean influence, because they were small political parties, but they have always been part of the political history of Venezuela.
Morgan Lee: From what you know about Protestant history in your country, have Protestants ever been persecuted for their faith?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Not right now. Maybe in the past you saw eventual cases of prosecution here and there. I'm talking about persecution of religious leaders because of their faith, okay? However, churches, you know they are suffering because of the lack of food, medication, safety, and the economic crisis. But because of their faith, we have never been persecuted. At least not in the last 50 years. in the past, way, way, way back, when the roman catholic where the most important church organization in Venezuela, well you can see some kind of persecution, but just maybe from political leaders who were Roman Catholic. But that was not a general theme.
Morgan Lee: I'm curious right now, how are you seeing the protestant church at work trying to help people who are suffering right now?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: In the midst of a tragedy and this nightmare, it is amazing how we can see the Hand of God working through people, especially through churches. The last couple years, we have been sending food and money to churches in Venezuela–I'm talking about our congregation here in Milwaukee—and I am sure that many others have been doing the same. Many congregations in Venezuela are united in collecting food in order to make meals for people in need, and churches are receiving help on their sister congregations in the world, and that's how we have been helping out.
Look, I have no doubt that once this nightmare is finally over, Venezuela will become the greatest mission field in Latin America, with the support of the churches in America and the whole world. Missionaries, and I believe so, missionaries will go back there, bringing the powerful good news of Jesus Christ to my country. And this is what I pray every single day of my life. Because I’m pretty sure that we will be able to help then to rebuild the country and the nation, and restore democracy, freedom–and when I say freedom, I'm talking about religious freedom as well, so they can keep proclaim in the gospel and serve their people. Not just with words, because the bible encourages us to love with words and with actions, so and talking about both. I'm talking about bringing the word of god and bringing good deeds for people need down in Venezuela.
Morgan Lee: Can you tell what some of the stories and things that you're hearing when you talk to other people in ministry in Venezuela? What are they telling you exactly about what it's like to pastor and minister and this time?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: This meeting that I was talking about a moment ago that we had in the Dominican Republic, it was last October, last November, I think. Of course, I grew up in the Lutheran church of Venezuela, so I met these pastors when I was a teenager, and then I work with and when I became an adult and start working as a church leader in my congregation in Caracas. And what really hit me, it was to just see how much weight they lost. That's one thing. Because of course, you know the where sharing with me that day eat once a day. And they have not getting a good–it's not, “Okay, we'll have a big meal at least once a day.” No, it's a poor meal every single day of their lives. And this is the reality not just of the pastors, but also of the people who are coming to their churches.
The situation in Venezuela is critical. It's critical. There are no words to describe, what it is to live there. At least three million Venezuelans have left the country in the last few years. This is over ten percent of the entire population of a country. And we are talking about young people, here. Venezuela is now country of parents and grandparents. I have friends in churches over there, who are telling me that their Sunday attendance has decreased because many of their members are now in Columbia, in the USA, South and Central America. It's terrible.
And I believe that the church in America must be ready to serve the over two hundred fifty thousand Venezuelan people who are now living in the United States of America. That experience that you, Morgan, will you went to Orlando and you started talking to the taxi driver from Venezuela is something that I have seen in every single place that I’ve visited in the United States. There are Venezuelans everywhere. I live in Wisconsin, and it is amazing the amount of people that I have met who are from Venezuela and for some reason are now living in Wisconsin, in the Midwest of the United States.
And so, it is amazing the kind of story that you hear. People fleeing from the country by foot, they are walking thousands of miles; they walk day after day for ten days until they go to another country like Peru, or Chile, or Argentina, where they can find opportunities to find a job and a decent life. So, it is terrible.
Mark Galli: You mentioned earlier that in the past, there have been Protestant pastors who've run for office. Do Protestant and Evangelical preachers, do they preach on the social situation? Or do they speak out against the government from the pulpit? Or is that something that wouldn’t be considered good form in a Protestant church in Venezuela?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: I told you a moment ago that there was not persecution. I mean, we are not having pastors being imprisoned or in jail because of their political opinions or ideas. This is true. But it doesn't mean that we can speak in public whatever we want to say. Because there a lot of fears among Venezuelan people, even the opposition leaders are afraid of going to jail because many of them are in jail right now. So, of course they use the pulpit to bring a message of hope to the Venezuelan people, and to the people who are coming to their churches. Of course, they talk about the Power of God, they keep telling people that God has not forsaken the Venezuelan country, but they are very careful when they start talking about the government. They can talk about the crisis because it's obvious, they are suffering the crisis, but they are very careful of not talking about the government or the president because they know that's if they start doing that they could end up in jail.
Morgan Lee: You've mentioned, obviously, about this threat that they kind of face, and the fact that many of them are only eating one meal a day. I'm assuming many of them too have had family members leave. When you talk to other Christians who are trying to decide whether or not they should leave the country, what types of questions are they asking themselves and how are they determining what god wants them to do in that situation?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Maybe two, or three, or four years ago, if we had this conversation at that point, you know people would be in that initial stage of start considering the idea of moving to another country. Right now, it is totally different. Right now, people don't even think about it. If they can, they will do it. And if they don't have money to buy an air ticket to go somewhere, they will do it by foot, or they would do it by taking all a bus.
I have family who are now living in Chile and Argentina and also in Colombia, who did have money to pay for an air ticket, so they took the bus. And it took, for them, a few days to reach their destinations, and they did it without thinking about anything. Most of them, they leave everything behind–their careers, their properties–they sell everything they can sell, and they just take everything with them and just go to another country. Of course, they had a lot of concerns. The last time I went to Florida, I saw Venezuelan people living in the parking lot of supermarkets in some vans. And this is not something that I am invented. This is something that you can see in the news, and you can see if you go there. You know, most of the Venezuelan communities are in south Florida, so if you go there–and I hope that many people in south Florida will be listening to this interview, so that they can be prepared to share with which the Venezuelan communities the gospel, the message of Jesus Christ, and not just that, but also they can be prepared to help them with anything.
I met a church in Orlando where they have food pantry for Venezuelan communities, and they are teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, too. And trying to help the community, the Venezuelan community, not just to start a new life here in America, but also to take care of their spirituality and emotional feelings.
Morgan Lee: It sounds like too, what you're saying is that pretty much the people that are going to be staying in Venezuela are often the people that are poorest or are most likely to be children or old people.
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Yes, people who have no chance to come here. You know, the Venezuelans who are here, they came flying in a plane. And to have money to pay for an air ticket, it means you had some kind of privileges in Venezuela. But those who had nothing, they just left the country without nothing in the pockets to buy food, and just walked away.
Morgan Lee: To what extent are you seeing disagreement, or discord among Venezuelan protestant leaders about how to handle this particular situation?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: One of the most terrible things that happened in Venezuela, it was the speech of the president. President Chavez divided the country. Between good and evil. Between socialist and capitalist. Between good and bad. And of course, this affected the church. Churches in Venezuela at some point were very divided because of their political opinions. However, as the situation got worse and worse and worse, what I can see is that they are more united. Christian churches are more united, even among different Christian denominations. Are more united in one goal: help the people, serve the people, take care of the people. Even though this is a crisis in which the shepherd and the sheep both are suffering, what I see is that people in churches are more united in finding ways to serve people and help people. And I think that it says a lot, because you know you start having more faith in human beings when you see that thing–people putting aside their differences and they just are working together.
Morgan Lee: So, for anyone who's listening to this podcast and wants to help the people that are affected, what would you ask them to do?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: If you are a member of a congregation, talk to–most churches have mission organizations working, so just find out what's the organization of your congregation, or your church affiliation, and find out what they're doing for the country of Venezuela.
It is difficult, Morgan. It is not easy to send food and medication to Venezuela at this point. Right now, in the borders of the country are closed, and there was a way in which you can get food coming into Venezuela. Because of this reality, it's not easy. I got a question from my church leaders a few weeks ago, and we are trying to find ways to help, and I said I think that what we can do is just getting organized, because I’m pretty sure, I have faith that the situation in Venezuela will change at any moment and I'm pretty sure that then we will be able to do start sending help to Venezuela. There are many organizations who are helping the situation in Venezuela as much as they can, but right now that's important.
The other thing to our dear listeners, is that if you have ways to talk to your political leaders. At the beginning of this interview Morgan, you said that the administration of president trump was very loud about the situation in Venezuela, so talk to your congressman, talk to your leaders about Venezuela, talk about the reality that's happening over there because we need the support. Not just of the administration of president trump, but also to people in Congress, and that is very important.
We need help. Venezuela is a country that needs a lot of help.
Morgan Lee: What are some specific ways that you would like people to pray for things? If you can just give some very concrete examples, or churches that you think we should pray for in particular, anyone that specifically needs our prayers, what would you recommend?
Germán Novelli-Oliveros: Well Venezuela is experiencing a terrible darkness, and I think that they can see that when night comes, and they have no electric power. Jesus said, 'I am the light of the world, whoever follows me walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.' As I said, this is also a spiritual battle against the forces of evil. So, pray for freedom and democracy. Pray for pastors and churches. Pray for food, for medication, for help. Pray for those who are leaving the country, ninety percent of the people who are living poverty. And we're talking about country that 50 years ago what's one of the richest countries of the world.
Pray for Venezuelan immigrants. Some of them could be closer to you than what you think. And pray so we can see the light of Jesus shining again in Venezuela. Pray for that day, in which the whole world would be united and willing to send humanitarian help to Venezuela, and we can have a government willing to welcome such a help. So, pray for Venezuela. Every Sunday morning, when your pastor asks you for a prayer request, raise your hand and say, I want to pray for the country of Venezuela.