February Highlight: Ministry to the Venezuelan Migrants
Over 68 million people were displaced from their homeland worldwide in 2018 due to war, economic hardships, natural disasters, and human rights violations. In our corner of the world, 3 of the 32 million total Venezuelans have left their country since their oil-dependent economy crashed in 2015. Around 5,000 of them continue to leave daily, almost always on foot, most often to the neighboring countries of Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, and Argentina.
Economic hardship is such a sterile term. It is not simply a dip in income, or a struggle to get by. It is a country-wide collapse. It is not being able to find food or toiletries, receive prenatal care or medication. It is dozens of children dying from a gastrointestinal illness that would have been quite survivable if IV supplies had been available. It comes with deadly protests, displaced people, and traumatized families. This economic hardship has affected every Venezuelan. Each one has a story.
There are currently over 220,000 Venezuelan refugees here in Ecuador, a significant number considering our small total population of 16 million; 45,000 entered Ecuador in January of this year alone. Many more have already passed through, with their hopes set on Peru and Argentina. Almost one in five Venezuelan migrants or refugees are children. There are also many pregnant women. Some families travel together; for some the journey means leaving children or other family members behind.
Venezuelans on the Ecuadorian border, traveling on foot
Venezuelans on the Ecuadorian border, traveling on foot
The sheer number of migrants entering our country can seem daunting. They come with so many unmet needs. As one might imagine, this migration has stressed our economy and social stability. There have been several sad incidents of exploitation and acts of violence against Venezuelan immigrants here in Ecuador.
As a church, we know what our response must be. The Lord taught us that when we receive a foreigner or alien (xenos in Greek, where we also get the word xenophobia), in His name we receive Him. We are doing our best to receive the Venezuelans who are in the cities where we serve. Our desire is to recognize and minister to each of them as a person made and loved by God.
To help convey the personal impact of what has happened in Venezuela, the following excerpts are presented from an interview with Deanna Capaldi, the director of Arco Cuenca’s ministry to Venezuelans.
How many Venezuelans are involved in the ministry here at Arco?
Our Saturday morning program serves an average of 120 people weekly. In the past four months we have served 400 different individuals. Many have migrated to other countries, and a small amount have returned to Venezuela. They arrive to Arco mostly by word of mouth.
What does the ministry involve for the Venezuelan community here in Cuenca?
Medical attention through our Family Health Foundation
Clothing and school uniforms
Saturday breakfast gatherings
Pastoral care and counseling
Bible study and discipleship programs for adults and children
Help with starting a business, and managing a budget with access to micro loans
Networking (help finding jobs, housing, and residency)
A family enjoying the Saturday breakfast time
Preparing food baskets
What testimonies have you seen from our Venezuelan brothers involved in the ministry?
Many have expressed how they feel loved and accepted as a part of a family. They are getting fed not just physically but spiritually. Many that come on a regular basis have quickly become involved in different ministries.
One great testimony is from Yenny, who realized that she was very attached to the material things of life; she had many possessions that she had to leave behind in Venezuela. She came to Cuenca with her family and just one suitcase of clothes. She didn't have a close personal relationship with God.
Through the Saturday meetings and one of the leaders pouring into her life, she realized she needed the Lord to reign over her life and she gave her life to the Lord. She then prayed and asked God to provide her with an oven. She is a chef and was offered a contract but needed an oven. Two days later a truck from a well known appliance store pulled up in front of her house and asked if she was Yenny. He asked her to please sign on the dotted lines because he was there to deliver her oven and gas tank, pots and pans. It was all paid for. To this day know one knows who paid for it, but we know that God answers prayers! She is now trusting God to fulfill all her needs and has a close personal relationship with Him!
Yenny with her new stove!
What is the vision these Venezuelans have for their future?
Their futures are very uncertain; many are adapting into the Ecuadorian culture and trying to establish themselves here. Most hope to return to their country some day, but some now feel called to stay in Ecuador because they are a part of the church community.
We feel the responsibility to help the refugees adjust and adapt to this country, to help get them back on their feet. Above all we want to evangelize, share the gospel and disciple them. So if they stay in Ecuador or eventually go, they are well equipped in their faith to be leaders and to disciple others. We even envision many new church plants in other countries and Venezuela itself.
How has your involvement and direction in the ministry blessed you personally?
Deanna (right), helping hand out school supplies
Oh my goodness! All the smiles, hugs, and gratitude from so many people make me know that I am where I'm supposed to be and I am fulfilling my calling.
For many people, I don't have to give them anything but a listening ear, hear their personal stories and struggles, love on them, give a hug and pray for them. It can mean so much more than material or physical needs. I am truly blessed and grateful for the opportunity that I have been entrusted with in this ministry.
I feel like God has been preparing me for this role through my own life struggles and journey. I can sympathize and relate to everyone to a certain level. What has become clear to me is that regardless of our social, economic, or education status, we all need to have a community and feel loved. We all have a purpose that only God can fulfill!
Cuenca isn’t the only city ministering to Venezuelan migrants. The Arco network of churches in the El Oro province of Ecuador have had regular contact with them as well, as many pass through the border there to Peru. Though one of the poorer provinces of Ecuador, our churches there have been working tirelessly and giving sacrificially to provide support ranging from snacks and lunches, to jobs and assistance with documents.
In Huaquillas in southern Ecuador, preparing to cross the border to Peru
Arco church volunteers distributing lunches at the border point. Lots of children!
A few of the many mattresses offered by the local Arco churches in El Oro
Alfonso Beltrán, the presiding elder of Arco Santa Rosa in El Oro tells us it has been very difficult for the Venezuelans to find work. The church assists them in processing documentation for legal work status and has provided jobs as well as materials for jobs, such as cooking equipment for food sales. “What I enjoy is helping people in need, especially the most needy” says Pastor Alfonso. There are scores of Venezuelans that are now part of the churches in El Oro and meet regularly for fellowship, communion, and support.
This ministry along with several others that Arco churches provide to those in need come with great rewards but also great costs in regards to finances and human resources. Please join with us here at Arco Ecuador as we serve our neighbors. We appreciate your prayers and support!
Ecuadorian Ministry of the Interior statistical report on Venezuelan migrants. Accessed 6 February, 2019.
Google Maps. “South America” and “Ecuador”. Accessed 5 February 2019. Available at maps.google.com
Interview with Deanna Capaldi in Cuenca, Ecuador. Conducted 31 January 2019.
Interview with Alfonso Beltrán from Santa Rosa, Ecuador. Conducted 9 February 2019.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Guidance Note on the Outflow of Venezuelans , March 2018, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/5a9ff3cc4.html. Accessed 30 January 2019.