Building Bridges

Missionaries in Uruguay provide a “new” way of thinking


The water was rushing two feet deep over the small bridge on the road to the border town of Chuy, Uruguay, where at least 20 people would soon be waiting for me to teach a class for the Bible Institute. It was getting dark, and it had been raining steadily for two hours.

Could I make it in my little Toyota sedan? About halfway across—with four-foot high water sprays on both sides—I started to get panicky, like the feeling you get when you realize you took the wrong exit and are in a scary part of town! In this area of the country, the water table is so high, rice is the main crop. I thought, Why isn’t there a better, higher bridge over this constantly flooded area? But God was gracious, and I made it safely to the other side and on time for my students.

Uruguay is full of bridges that span its many rivers and lakes. Old, rusted but stately bridges and newly constructed modern ones cross the generous supply of waterways and span two international borders. I began to think about the upper-middle-class people in the capital city, Montevideo. As missionaries, we bridge the gap between the most secular society in Latin America and the gospel of Christ—His message of love, grace and forgiveness.

A Secular Flood

In 2004 our team of three missionary couples began a church-planting effort in the heart of the more affluent neighborhoods of Montevideo. With the blessing of the Uruguayan national C&MA, we began a new project—building a spiritual bridge into the hearts and minds of what has traditionally been the most resistant people group in Latin America.

Not too long ago, a survey revealed that more than 60 percent of Uruguayans consider themselves atheists or agnostics. Even among Roman Catholics, only a few actually practice their faith. One woman recently said, “I consider myself Catholic, but I don’t go to church. I’m into astrology and a few other things too.”

The sharp separation of church and state in the 1907 constitution has rendered the church powerless and ineffectual. Uruguayans grow up without any exposure to Christian life, the Bible or Jesus. They rely on their intellect to face life and hold tolerance and solidarity as core values in society. All spiritual or religious ideas are acceptable in the marketplace.

Spiritual Foundations

Have you ever tried building a bridge into the heart of a secular culture? It takes a lot of time! It takes a lot of patience. And it takes a lot of interaction. One of our team members has learned that it takes 40 hours of relationship-building with an individual to earn 4 minutes of significant spiritual conversation. If that is true, our bridge is not going to be built in the short-term! We will need to be creative to maintain long-term momentum.

When you look at a bridge, it’s what you don’t see—the concrete pylons underneath the water—that supports the whole structure. In the same way, our spiritual bridge must be constructed over spiritual pylons. One of those is community presence. Missionaries must be active in the community, or as I like to say, “out in the marketplace.”

In Montevideo we established a ministry office called Avance (“advance”) to reach the community through counseling, parenting seminars, life planning, English conversation classes and several other personal, family and professional services. An orthodontist we had counseled through Avance volunteered, out of heart full of gratitude, to fix the teeth of needy children. With funds from Alliance Women, we were able to connect him to people who needed his services.

Another couple, the Cohens* came to us for marriage counseling. They were experiencing an empty nest and suddenly found they did not know how to communicate with one another. This led to continual unresolved discussions and disagreements. “How is it possible to change?” asked Mr. Cohen. Through counseling tools such as Prepare/Enrich, we gave this couple new ways to communicate and reflect. Today they are among our best friends, and we have earned the right to talk about spiritual things with them.

It’s Who You Know

Another spiritual pylon is a friendship group. Friendship groups are a vital way to enter into the social fabric of the upper middle class and gain the privilege of sharing the gospel.

Before we left the United States, we met Maria, a woman from Uruguay who had cancer. God miraculously answered our prayers for her to be healed and to be saved, so her brother, Mario, who lived in Montevideo, welcomed us into his home days after we arrived in Uruguay.

Mario became a good friend and soon invited me to his Rotary Club meetings. I was quickly welcomed into the group, and within a few months I was asked to share about my Christian faith, a spiritual perspective unknown to these men.

To abide by the rules governing religious and political discussions in the meetings, I developed a presentation that compared Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In this way I could clearly contrast the essential belief systems of the three great monotheistic religions and present the gospel for what it is—a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Let’s Talk

A third spiritual pylon is a reflection group, a unique setting where people can converse about contemporary topics while being lovingly challenged to explore the Christian perspective. One time I prepared a topic on relationships. I referred to a recent newspaper article, which stated alleged that human beings were not meant for monogamous relationships. Practically everyone nodded “yes.” That is a picture of Uruguay, with an 80 percent divorce rate according to some surveys.

Boy was I in trouble! But we shared the oneness of marriage that the Bible speaks about and the faithful love of God for His people, and by the end of the meeting the group applauded when I declared that human beings were meant to have one monogamous relationship. This reflection group is the spiritual pylon that speaks truth into the souls of our friends.

The most important spiritual pylon is prayer and the presence of God in our work. This pylon must be the deepest of all! Jesus said, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). All our bridge-building efforts will amount to nothing unless we maintain a vital, healthy relationship with Jesus.

In reality, He is the master bridge builder, and we are merely His on-site construction workers! As we remain in Him, we rely on the Holy Spirit to use us to connect people to Jesus.

Together, these four spiritual pylons support the bridge Jesus is constructing through us. Although progress is slow, the initial efforts have been promising. We continually need to review our progress, assess our engineering techniques and obtain improved materials and resources to ensure that what we build will withstand the test of time and the anti-religious skepticism rampant in the culture. God extravagantly works to build a community of faith where people everywhere can belong to His family.

Are you building a bridge in your community? As we live the call together, let us all learn to be bridge builders, connecting people with Jesus and with one another.

*Names changed to protect identity.

Homework Helps the Home Work

When we decided to seek marriage counseling, we were going through a very rough patch where we were simply drifting along and not finding or making any quality time to be together.

As we met once a week for three months, Randy and Alicia radiated inner peace and optimism. They gave us a lot of thought-provoking tasks to work on and often acted out the roles so that we could identify with the situation.

With every session, we made progress. We reflected on various things and opened up about what was really hurting us. We mistakenly thought we knew each other well, but there are many things that were deeply hidden. Unless we learned to dig to the bottom, we may never have discovered what makes the other tick.

For “homework,” we had to talk about things and do things that we knew our partner liked. Gradually, we found that we were not only able to talk to each other but most importantly, to listen. Randy and Alicia showed us how easy it is to learn how to listen and how to interpret correctly. Too often, couples argue about trivial matters and each one is convinced that he or she is right. Through listening and gaining a deep insight into each other’s thoughts, we found the right path once again.

—The Cohens

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