Simple joys are difficult to find in Venezuela.
The country’s economy has been in a downward spiral as oil prices, which account for 96 percent of export and nearly half of budget revenues, have plummeted. The government’s rigid price and currency controls make it difficult to import supplies and have led to unprecedented scarcity of basic goods. People queue for hours in order to buy diapers, milk, cooking oil and toilet paper, though few succeed. Inflation is near 70 percent. An oppressive political climate makes dissent a challenge, even while high-ranking government officials are known to be involved with the drug cartels. Some 90 percent of Colombian drugs are smuggled through Venezuela, and money laundering is a significant problem.
In the midst of these troubles, a small church in a town outside of Caracas is connecting with its neighbors in a remarkably simple way: through an enjoyable game of basketball. Actually, the Church of Faith and Hope in Guatire has a vibrant sports ministry, consisting of more than just basketball. On any given weeknight, you might find people participating in a number of sports-related programs, including soccer, karate, dance, aerobics and weightlifting.
Pedro Clemente runs the church’s weightlifting gym. He believes Venezuelans today are especially receptive to the gospel.
“Due to the political situation, there’s a lot of receptivity in Venezuela,” he says. “There’s a lot of hopelessness. Many people need something. They’re asphyxiated by debts, lack of work, [they feel] unsafe; they’re afraid. So it has been easier for people to look for help in the church — to look for Jesus Christ in the church.”
In addition to his duties of training weightlifters and keeping the gym clean and organized, Pedro leads a short devotional and prayer time with the men who frequent the gym. He has seen people change through their experiences there. Men who never have prayed before pause in the middle of their workout and participate in the time of devotion.
“The most important thing I’ve seen is that, in the three hours we’re there during the day, I have to give an example of how a good Christian is,” Clemente says. To do this, he focuses on avoiding bad conversation and gossip and maintains a posture of service toward the gym attendees. Being attentive to people’s needs and taking the time to listen has a far greater impact than he would have imagined.
Both Clemente and his wife, Tricelis, are committed to evangelism through sports ministry, and Tricelis co-leads the church’s aerobics program. Started nearly 12 years ago, it has now grown to 80-90 women who meet three times a week and turn the church sanctuary into an aerobics space. Before the bass-thumping music is turned up and the heart rates start to increase, Tricelis leads the women in a time of devotion, and she has really seen these women’s lives impacted by God’s Word. “Many of them have received the Lord,” she says. “They already read their Bibles at home, and they say that their relationships have changed with their children, with their husbands, with neighbors, by the Word of God who penetrates their hearts.” Even outside of class, Tricelis and some of the ladies find opportunities to support each other. If someone is sick or has lost a relative, for example, they will go together to encourage her. Tricelis regularly reminds these women that God loves them.
Though many women have accepted the Lord, the aerobics program is primarily a ministry for nonbelievers.
“The purpose of the ministry,” Tricelis says, “is to create an atmosphere of love through verbal expressions, through service, teaching the Word of God, teaching each woman how to find Bible verses … all the time sowing the Word in them.”
Though these sports programs bring a little bit of fun and joy into the lives of some Venezuelan people, the overall ministry is part of the church’s vision for the country. Jaime Tablante is one of the pastors at the Church of Faith and Hope as well as an avid and accomplished basketball player. In 1977 he was the leading scorer on the Venezuelan national championship team, so it makes sense for sports ministry to be at the forefront of the church’s vision. “The church’s vision in Guatire is very clear,” he says. “It is to generate a message that allows an impact, not just in Guatire, but in the state of Miranda, in Venezuela and in the world. … For us, it is important to do double work. One is to establish, within the community, a source of reinforcement of values. For that, we try to offer to the community sports — activities that most attract the community — and then, through those activities, we reinforce values and we present the message of Jesus Christ.”
Tablante believes the sports ministry has been the most effective outreach. “Each church has its work program and the way of doing it,” he says. “In the Evangelical Church of Faith and Hope, what has given us the best results has been through sports. … [If] we arrive in a neighborhood with Bibles, they close the doors and they disappear. On the other hand, let’s say we go to a court, we come with a ball … it fills up, we share, we play, we begin to sing, we give the message of the gospel, and they ask us when we will be returning again.”
As the situation in Venezuela worsens, the Church of Faith and Hope continually strives to meet the needs of their community. “We are a church that always tries to generate changes,” Tablante says. “We are not satisfied with one method, one way. We are always looking for opportunities. And we consider that today the situation in the country has brought new needs. We investigate those needs, and we try to satisfy them … What’s important is to have people who are prepared and ready to present the Gospel when the opportunity arises.”
Pedro and Tricelis Clemente are examples of those people. Clemente says that even when waiting in a long line, he tries to encourage those around him to find joy and to find God in the midst of suffering. Pedro tries not to complain, but to see God working in his country.
“The possibilities of [sharing] Christ’s message have become easier in Venezuela due to all those economical and unsafe situations we’re living in,” Pedro says. “People want and need something. We previously were fine. We had everything, and people lived very well, but those [times] aren’t anymore. I’d never complain from the situation we’re living, because I see it’s a work God is doing here in Venezuela.”
-Written by Megan Darreth
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