“We are all mortals until God says, ‘Your time is finished,’” said Mauricio, who works as a pastor in a Colombian “red zone” along with his wife, Dena. “We understand that we live in constant danger.”
The stranger sat down in Dena’s living room chair and made himself comfortable. “Your husband has been gone for three days,” he said knowingly. “He is far from home.” The man then began pulling his shirt off, revealing a crudely stitched knife wound on his shoulder. “I need a shower,” he demanded, “and I need some food.”
Realizing that he could be a member of the paramilitary group that controlled her area, Dena wasn’t surprised that he knew her husband was gone. Villagers often shared information out of fear of the paramilitary, which emerged as one element of a long-standing conflict involving government forces, drug cartels and guerrilla groups like the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia). Dena could tell that the man was only trying to frighten her into doing what he wanted.
“Give me your money,” he ordered, staring at the paper pesos in her hand. Church members had brought her the timely gift earlier that day; the church knew it wasn’t wise to collect a tithe because the paramilitary would only take it from them.
“This is all I have,” she replied.
“Then give me water.”
Silently, Dena began to pray, “Help me know what to do, Jesus.” Remembering that two women from her church were in the back of her home for a prayer meeting, she called out, “Sister, this man needs a drink of water!”
When the man realized there were other women in the home, he stood up and began to curse at her and her friend. He grabbed the money from Dena’s hand and left as abruptly as he had arrived.
Surrounded by Danger
When Mauricio travels to surrounding villages for ministry work, Dena and her three daughters are left vulnerable. She also knows that each time he leaves could be the last time she sees him. Yet she is convinced that the Lord has called them to minister in a Colombian “red zone” — together. Mauricio has been a pastor for more than 17 years and Dena for over eight years.
“I’m not a pastor because I’m a pastor’s wife,” she said. “I knew what I would face because the call is made by God. So there is some fear. I’m a little afraid, but I’m trusting the Lord and praying always. We put our hands in his.”
In order to visit a church outside their village, they must get permission to leave from the paramilitary and then get permission to enter another village. If caught trying to leave without permission, they could be sent back home or even killed. Visiting the 15 churches that Mauricio and Dena oversee is a challenge, and even the type of transportation they use can put them at risk.
When VOM asked them if a motorcycle would be useful, they said it would be too unsafe. “Usually people [paramilitary or guerrillas] who are involved in the conflict use [motorcycles],” Mauricio said. “A person can have whatever motorcycle they want. But if there is a need, it will probably be taken away by people in the conflict.”
Owning a car is also a problem. “When someone begins to acquire stuff, he becomes a target for criminal organizations … or people inside the conflict,” Mauricio explained.
“If a person is starting to have a better standard of living … then the paramilitary or guerrillas will start asking you for contributions to sustain their conflict.”
These contributions are called “vaccines.” They “immunize” Christians and other villagers against further trouble from the paramilitaries and guerrillas. “If you pay one, you must continue paying them until they decide that you don’t have to pay anymore,” Dena said.
To avoid drawing too much attention to themselves, Mauricio and Dena travel to other villages in the back of a large truck that looks like a military transport vehicle. They cram into the back with more than a dozen other people as well as sacks of grain and chickens. “There have been accidents,” Mauricio said. “They turn, and people have flown out of the vehicle. So it’s a problem. But that’s how we get around.”
Transportation isn’t the only danger they face.
While leading a church service in an area where they used to live, Mauricio and Dena were caught in a shoot-out. “We had to lie flat on the floor because bullets were passing over our heads,” Mauricio said.
More than Conquerors
Despite being surrounded by danger, Mauricio and Dena have an eternal perspective. “Yes, we are afraid, but we do it,” Mauricio said. “It’s true sometimes we preach and we know that in the group we may have paramilitary members. So we get in where we are supposed to preach about Jesus, and we preach about Jesus.”
Dena is equally committed to sharing Christ in dangerous areas. “We like expanding the kingdom because sharing the gospel is not an option — it’s a command,” she said. “And he said to share the gospel to every creature. Pray for us because the situation is not easy. But we know that in Christ we are more than conquerors.”
Mauricio and Dena trust fully in God’s plan for their lives, asking only for prayer. “It’s not easy to minister under those conditions,” Mauricio said. “So we need to pray, and we ask the brothers and sisters living in safer places to pray for us.
“I will tell the brothers and sisters that are not living under persecution that it is worth it to serve the Lord. It is worth it to follow Jesus. It is worth it to totally surrender.”