By Felix Nieves
In a recent message, Bill Hybels reminded us that in addition to surrendering our lives to Christ, we experience several smaller conversions as the Holy Spirit works to transform specific areas of our lives. As Bill spoke, I thought of how the Holy Spirit first pricked my heart for global ministry.
I was a high school student in July 1989 when I went with a group of peers to Managua, Nicaragua. We had no idea what to expect. We were emotionally under-prepared for this type of trip, but we were eager to serve. While we were there, I met a young boy who looked no older than five or six years old. He was holding a little yellow box filled with Chiclets gum as he approached our group, hoping to sell some to us. His shorts, ragged and frayed, were so soiled that another speck of dirt wouldn’t fit on them. The dirt ascended to his hair, which looked like it hadn’t been washed or combed in weeks.
Then I peered at his face. He was missing his left eye, and it seemed he had not received any medical care. I was not prepared to see children carrying around scars from the violent conflicts of war with the contras, rebel militant groups that ravaged Nicaragua during the previous decade.
The children’s pastor from our host church walked toward this young boy who had every reason to be angry at the world. The pastor got down on one knee, hugged the boy, and introduced us to his young friend. Out of nowhere, the biggest smile I had ever seen crossed the little boy’s face. He could not wait to talk with his pastor, his friend.
Amid so much darkness and despair, the local church showed kindness, love, and dignity to the people in its community. This particular church did not have the resources to provide much for material needs, but what they gave was priceless. They created a community for those who had been orphaned and widowed, a place where they could care for one another and share what limited means they had. Those who had been forgotten were given a place of belonging, and children were loved and known by name.
At that moment when I saw the little boy’s smile, I knew God was tugging my heart toward global outreach. I hoped that one day we, as the church, could do much more.
I kept that memory tucked away—until this past November. I don’t want to give too much away, but a piece of this year’s Celebration of Hope will highlight the work God is doing in the lives of children through the local church in Bolivia. Our team visited Bolivia several times last year, partly to scout locations and stories for a Celebration of Hope video shoot. We accompanied Jose Luis, who leads an outreach program with Red Viva Bolivia, a Christian organization that partners with Willow and local churches throughout the country. With iPhone camera in tow, we shadowed Jose Luis in Oruro, Bolivia and observed as he interacted with countless children who spend most of their time in the streets.
The children are no older than my kids, not yet teenagers, but they work on the streets to help support their families. Some live on those same streets, and several have never attended school. They sell knick-knacks. They shine shoes, cloth wrapped around their faces to guard against fumes. Maybe the cloth protects their identities, too, guarding them from shame. But they should not feel ashamed. Too many are there to escape constant abuse or neglect at home. We watched Jose Luis day after day showing love to these children, telling them about a God who loves them.
And then it happened. A young boy who looked about seven or eight years old emerged from a series of busy, smog-filled city streets. He approached car after car, hoping to earn a few bolivianos that day, which could determine if he went to sleep hungry or not. In his hands, he held a small box. Inside were Chiclets.
Memories of the encounter in Nicaragua flooded my mind, except this time I was not witnessing just the power that love, dignity, and kindness can have in the life of a child. Through Red Viva and its partnership with churches in Oruro, I had the joy of seeing firsthand how the local church is playing a key role in changing the future of children’s lives through both short-term and long-term solutions. Some churches provide assistance with immediate food relief, some help children secure medical and dental care, and others focus on reintegrating children into the school system or providing vocational training. In some cases, churches reunite children with their families. These churches, with help from Red Viva, are helping keep children off the streets.
The statement, “the local church is the hope of the world,” takes on a whole new meaning when you see it in action. We at Willow Creek are excited to partner with Red Viva in supporting the work of the local church in Bolivia. I dare not share more in fear of spoiling an amazing story during our upcoming Celebration of Hope, which starts April 22. Don’t miss it!
Felix Nieves is the Latin America field manager for Willow Global at Willow Creek Community Church.