Feature

The Street Church

Story by Antonío Fernández as told to Randy Newburn, translated by Robert Searing

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We work in what police consider the most dangerous zone of the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador—where the city ends, where the worst criminals live. We have not brought religion to this neighborhood; we have brought the Word of God applied to daily life. I began to work on Isla Trinitaria at the ship terminals with men who more than anything else needed Christ. This is what opened my eyes to the needs on the island.

When we came into the area, we did not tell the people to quit drinking or taking drugs. We said, “Are you addicted to something? Is something evil controlling your life? Come, and we will show you how God works. Come. He is ready to help you, to change you.”

First I make friends with them. I will stand on the corner, where the men gather to chat and drink. We cook a meal, sometimes right on the street, and share it with them, and we talk about things they are interested in.

In the beginning the people looked at us as if we were crazy. But with time they realized we were not there to ask for anything or to take anything from them, nor were we there to threaten them. Rather, we were there to help them. We believe what is written in Matthew 25:35–36: ‘“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”’

I have noticed in the short time I have been a Christian that when someone in the church commits a sin, the person is put in discipline. Sin and nakedness are the same—both produce shame. When one is sinning the situation is the same as nakedness, and the worst thing that could happen to that person is to be put on exhibition. It would be better if we would stretch out a hand and help him get back on his feet. Because of this, we judge no one. On the corner, when a drunken friend shows up, we share food with him. Afterward, we say, “If you want to stick around and listen as we talk about spiritual things, you are welcome. But if not, you are free to go; at least you leave with a full stomach.” This is how we have reached into the neighborhood.

Where we are working, the street itself is the dividing line: one gang on one side and the other gang on the other. No one dares to cross to the opposite side. If they did, they would be shot. One of the gangs is called the Jesis because its long-time leader owns a house on that side of the street. For many years Jesi was on the police shoot-to-kill list because he had murdered several officers.

But one day Jesi became a Christian. I could sense the power of God in him when I touched him. God has told me on many occasions when a person is clean or unclean; Jesi was clean. He wasn’t using drugs or killing people, but the police were still looking for him. I brought the police commander, dressed in civilian clothes, to talk to Jesi and later brought another police commander, also dressed as a civilian, to visit Jesi in his home. I knew these two men because both attend Galilea C&MA Church, pastored by Neyo Pin, where I also am a member. They took a risk when they came into the neighborhood without their guns. They were trusting in the Lord. I believe when one begins to walk in the way of the Lord, you begin to realize that nothing happens unless it is His will. We who work in the neighborhood are convinced of that.

In Isla Trinitaria, one thing that impressed us was the number of children. I made friends among them, but the kids were always accusing each other: “See that kid—his father is an assassin.” “That kid over there—his father is a drug addict.” I began to realize that these things were already deeply ingrained in their hearts and minds. And the children from one side of the street would have nothing to do with the kids from the other side because one’s father had killed another’s father or a father had raped the mother of another kid.

We realized that if we wanted to change the neighborhood, we had to reach the children. In our 10-block area we counted 300 to 400 children, and we could divide them into at least six groups that would have nothing to do with each other. Children who were on the streets four years ago when I started working in the neighborhood with my wife are now young men. They carry within them the resentments acquired as children—and they carry guns. That generation got away from me, and there is little I can do. But the younger ones—for them, I still have hope.

Because of attitudes handed down from Spanish colonization, we have been taught, “You are not worth anything. You can’t do this.” And our schools reinforce that. The school system never points to what we can do but to what we can’t. When we go to a parent–teacher meeting, we are not told “Your son is brilliant in math” but rather “Your son is going to flunk because he is failing grammar.” Thus, the child loses a year of study because he flunked one course. In frustration, he drops out of school and joins the neighborhood gang.

We want to give young people a practical education along with truth from the Bible. I can teach electrical wiring to a 15-year-old: how to wire a house, how to fix a fuse, how to fix a blender. You don’t know how valuable the blender is in a Latin American home; when the blender stops, so does most of the cooking. This boy can learn to fix these items, earn two or three dollars and have no need to steal. But more importantly, he will begin to believe that he isn’t worthless, that he can make a living even if he failed grammar.

INTACTO, a large construction supply company here in Guayaquil, put on a workshop for us (one of the owners is a member of our church). The young men were taught how to put up and plaster walls, and then each one was given a diploma. They came out of the course proudly saying, “Now I am a certified assistant to a master wall builder,” and showing the diploma to everyone. It wasn’t money; it wasn’t even a job (though several did find employment). It was proof to them that they were not worthless.

With more of these workshops, we could reach this generation for Christ and take gang mentality off the street. There is still time. Every child we take to Christ is one less child who will become a consumer of drugs or an assassin or a thief.

James 1:27 says: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” We care for about 300 children and 90 street people. A popular singer in Ecuador, Gerardo Mejía, has written a song about us called “The Street Church”—and we have seen the power of God here on the streets of this neighborhood. In this area nobody wants to go to the regular churches because all the members do is tell them “don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t do this, don’t do that and be sure to pay your tithe.” It seems like the churches have forgotten what the gospel is all about: giving, not taking.

We try to give social help to residents of Isla Trinitaria on Monday evenings. We rent a 60-passenger bus to get all the leaders and teachers there. We are constantly adding people to the group and reaching out to the children, adolescents and adults. Each leader organizes his own group under my guidance. People from other denominations help us under the direction of Galilea Alliance, and Randy and Joy Newburn, Alliance international workers, help to run an AWANA program for the children.

Two or three doctors come to hold medical clinics as well. One doctor is helping in a very special way by operating on men and children who have bullets or buckshot in their bodies. The law says that all gunshot wounds must be reported to the police, so many people do not seek medical help for fear of being arrested. One man had been unable to work for years because of bullets in his shoulder. The doctor removed the bullets, and with therapy the man was able to work again. But this had to be kept quiet.

One day I was taken to a house where a young man was in agony. He had just been shot and had 19 pellets in his body. There was blood everywhere.

“Let me take you to the hospital,” I said.

“No, they will call the police and throw me in jail, and I will be killed there,” he replied.

“You are going to bleed to death.”

“I prefer to die at home than go to the hospital.”

I sent a woman to buy a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of alcohol. I poured the whiskey over the area where the buckshot was imbedded, and when the teen stopped grimacing and had taken a few swigs, I took a couple of knitting needles, dipped them in the alcohol and started digging out the pellets with the help of the boy’s mother and another lady. When I finished, I was worn out and soaked in blood. The young man eventually recovered, but he still has 10 pellets in his body. I used up all the whiskey and alcohol disinfecting the fellow. Since there are no pharmacies here on an island of 80,000 people, we do what we can with what we have.

When I began to work on the island, I was very afraid and was always asking God to hide me from the devil. But not long ago the Lord told me that I was not praying correctly. He said: Open your eyes to see where the devil is working and then go there to free the prisoners from their sin through the power of Jesus Christ. This is a spiritual war just like Daniel described in the Old Testament. Look for people to help you who are warriors because this is spiritual warfare. He has called me to train spiritual warriors, for there is much territory to conquer.

The other day I was looking at pictures of our early ministry here, and I began to cry as I saw many faces of those who have died. But I also thought about how God gave meaning to my life and allowed me to share the gospel with so many people. The Lord can raise the fallen and help those that are depressed—and this has been an incredible experience for me.

You ought to see the party that starts when we arrive on Monday evenings. All is happiness—the neighborhood has changed. Sometimes we find that people have set up chairs in the middle of the street, waiting for us to pray for them.

We have impacted just 10 square blocks—a flea in a huge universe. Our church, Galilea Alliance, has a vision to win Guayaquil (population, 2.5 million) for Christ. The police commander said to me, “You have done a miracle.”

I replied, “I am only a Christian doing his job.”

God is working, and all we have to do is plant the seed—He takes care of the rest.

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There is a man called Alejo* who made a living through stealing, killing and kidnapping. It paid well—but he spent everything on drugs. We took him to rehabilitation, but he came back worse. Galilea Alliance members fasted and prayed for him, but nothing worked. Finally, I gave up. I said to God, “Do what you want with Alejo.”

Several months went by. One Sunday Alejo was in church. I was astonished but sat down by him and poked him in the side with my elbow. “Who did you kill?” I asked. “Why are you so scared? Why do you come to ask God to help you?”

“No,” he said, “I didn’t kill anyone. God spoke to me.”

“Oh, really? What did He say?”

“I was getting ready to leave my house this morning,” Alejo answered. “I got my gun out and checked to see if it was loaded. As I walked through the living room, God said to me: If you step out the door with the gun in your pocket, you will die today.

“It scared me so much that I took my gun out of my pocket, hid it at home, grabbed my Bible and headed for church. On the way, a teenage girl saw me and said: ‘Did you leave your gun at home? Because if you didn’t, you are going to die today.’”

Alejo no longer walks in violence. He goes to places where no one else will go and preaches the gospel. Just as he was bad for Satan, today he is fearless for Christ. Before meeting Jesus, Alejo was feared in the neighborhood called Nigeria for what he was doing. Today, he goes there to preach to his former helpers in wickedness, and many are meeting Christ.

God has given Alejo gifts. One day I saw him approach some men who were drinking on the corner. One was so drunk you could have scooped him up from the sidewalk with a shovel. Alejo leaned down, took the drunk’s hand and said, “In the Name of Jesus.” The man stood up like he had been shot out of a gun and was completely lucid. I have never seen anything like it. Alejo prays, and God is right there working through him and in him. He is part of God’s harvest.

*Name changed

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We have to ask God for miracles. One day as I was speaking with a group on the corner, a man approached. His knee was so swollen that it looked like a watermelon; he could barely walk. “Do you think your God can heal my knee?” he asked.

What could I do? I was fairly new in the faith, so I prayed aloud, “Lord, it’s not my name that is in question here—it’s Your Name. Lord, if You want to show Your power here in front of 40 to 50 men, it is up to You. If You don’t want to heal, that’s Your responsibility.” God healed him on the spot; we all saw it happen without anyone touching him. We asked God, and God healed him.

We have seen some unusual things. We got a wheelchair for a woman unable to walk because of problems with her feet. One day when I was helping move her from her bed to the wheelchair, God said to me: Tell her that she needs to forgive. When I said that to her, she answered, “I am a Christian. I love everybody.”

God spoke to me again: Ask her, “Who is Martha?” The Lord gave me the exact name of the person to ask about.

The woman burst out crying and wept and wept. Martha had been her mother-in-law and had been dead 18 years. I asked myself: What had Martha done that this woman still couldn’t forgive her? I explained that forgiveness is not a matter of emotions but of the will, that as Christ forgave her, she should forgive her mother-in-law. She then repented and asked God to forgive her for not forgiving Martha.

Suddenly the woman stood up—she had not been on her feet in years—and said, “I don’t need the wheelchair. God just healed me!” She walked out of her bedroom and is now an active member of our church. She asked me to fold the chair up and give it to someone else.

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Reynaldo* was a big man, very strong and always armed. One day as I was talking to someone on the street, Reynaldo walked up and shot him five times. After that, every time I saw Reynaldo coming, I went the other way. One evening as I was headed to a home for a prayer meeting, I turned a corner and came face to face with him. There was no way to escape.

“Excuse me, I have a favor to ask of you,” he said.

I was petrified. “What do you need? Some money?

Here, take it! What do you want?”

“I need you to pray for me,” he replied.

Hosea 11:4 says: “‘I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.’” I thought, God draws us. He draws us with cords of love. What has God done in the life of this man to bring him to this place?

“I’ll pray for you, but in your home,” I answered.

We sat down in his living room, and in front of me on a small coffee table was a sheet of paper that covered something. When he went to get me a soda, I peeked under the paper and saw an envelope of drugs. Right out in the open on the other end of the table were five more envelopes of drugs.

God was leading, and I prayed for Reynaldo’s salvation. The church sent him to an Encounter group, and last spring we had the joy of seeing him baptized at Galilea. This brought us great joy. Today he is one of the strong leaders ministering on Isla Trinitaria.

*Name changed

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