I am the pastor of an average-sized church. Not wanting to see our congregation focus only on its own local agenda and programs, we asked God to show us a missionary opportunity in another country. I also asked my denomination’s headquarters to put me in contact with a dedicated congregation, who just needed some extra resources to make an impact.
I was given the name of a pastor in Bogotá, Colombia, who seemed to be just what we were looking for. But being the pragmatic and somewhat skeptical individual that I am, I thought it would be important that we met this pastor and talked face to face. We decided to pay for him to visit our congregation. He could give us a sermon and we could hear of his plans and passion for Christ.
It is now seven years ago that I went to the San Francisco airport to pick up our guest. I had only a vague idea of what he looked like, but I told him to look for someone holding a copy of this magazine in plain view. Soon a gentleman approached me and said, "You must be Pastor Swagerty." And I said, "You must be Hector Barrero from Bogotá, Colombia." And thus began what has proven to be a continuing history of friendship and cooperation.
Hector spoke to us of his passion for Christ and showed us how we could help him. We all felt God had brought us together, and we agreed to become partners in his church’s outreach in Colombia.
For the next several years we wired to the church account in Bogotá several thousands of dollars from our missionary fund. It helped our Colombian partners to have a regular radio program, to purchase their own building, to host training seminars for other budding pastors and ministry leaders, and to grow. We were sent pictures and emails, and kept up on the progress. But it was still from a distance.
Hector and his wife had repeatedly invited me to visit them. Our church advisory council and my wife Sandy were in favor of this idea. There was only one holdout: me!
Because I am a "status quo" kind of guy. Getting passports, enduring long flights, dealing with the hassles of international travel and simply having to leave the comfort of my routine did not excite me at all. I told all the folks who urged me that I would go only if and when I was convinced the Holy Spirit wanted me to go.
They told me they would continue to pray my mind would change, but I ignored them. Until one morning I was praying, and in a way I have experienced only four or five other times in my life, a clear voice came into my mind with this question: "Why do you continue to resist going to Bogotá?" Before I could give an answer, the voice continued, "You don’t have an answer. You are just a stubborn and hard-headed man. Now go to Bogotá and I don’t want to bring up this subject again!" I don’t ever want to be spoken to like that again. I bought the tickets and Sandy and I flew to Colombia.
After picking up our luggage and clearing customs, we were met by our wonderful hosts, Hector and Paulina Barrero. What a joy to see them. I was more than a little nervous about going to a strange country. My Spanish would best be described as "Spanglish." But I learned a valuable lesson about speaking someone else’s language. If you are willing to swallow your pride and overcome your fears, and just try, most people will love you for it. They don’t care if you are perfect or not.
During the next week we spent some very happy hours with them and their two talented and gifted sons, Juan Carlos, and Andres Philip. Between activities, we laughed and cried, told stories, compared ministries and shared our hopes, dreams, trials and failures.
I had asked Hector ahead of time to pack our week with as many church-related events as he could. I wanted to get the fullest exposure to his church and ministry. During our stay we visited two churches he oversees, watched him make his radio broadcast, met with his ministry leaders and his youth group and attended a double wedding and the renewing of vows by three other couples.
I began to see that the Body of Christ crosses every cultural barrier. My context for Christianity has been solely American. But the Holy Spirit is active with every nation, language and culture.
We were so warmly received by these congregations we visited. We ate their food, shared their music, and heard of their hopes and dreams. I even gave about half of my sermons in Spanish. I far exceeded what I thought I could do, but I made plenty of mistakes to keep my audience in stitches as well. One kind lady in Bogotá came to me after my sermon and said she really enjoyed my message. I asked what really impressed her. She said it was that I was so funny! Humor was never more beautiful!
I have had time to reflect on our visit. I am so glad now that I listened to the Holy Spirit and "just did it"! The many smiling faces and wonderful times spent together will be with me for life. Words and pictures can only go so far. But to actually experience something firsthand, with full exposure to all the five senses, stands in a class by itself. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a visit is worth a thousand pictures.
Who knows? Maybe in a year or two that voice will again come into my mind and say, "You know, I think it is time to go back again!" With such fond memories I am sure the next time I won’t be so hard to convince.