Twenty-four members of the Disciples of Christ (DOC) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) visited Venezuela in late August to help members of the Union of Evangelical Pentecostal Church of Venezuela (UEPV) celebrate fifty years as a denomination. The two Rocky Mountain area denominations have been active in a Global Partnership with the UEPV for ten years. Delegates from Venezuela have visited five times, and the committee has sponsored 21 short term missions to Venezuela. These have included medical missions, construction trips, education trips, delegate visits and youth trips. The youth trips have had a profound effect on the participants, who have looked on their experience as a means of seeing what the world is really like. A member of the committee also served as a monitor in the Presidential recall election in 2004.
Our group was made up of a number of committee members, four youth, a medical team and both Tom Rehling, Conference Minister of the Rocky Mountain Conference and Ron Parker, Regional Minister of the Rocky Mountain Region of the DOC. We worked together well as a team, learned a lot about the political situation in Venezuela, were introduced to the culture of an indigenous tribe, the Wayuu, attended the UEPV Celebration/Annual Meeting, and participated in enthusiastic and personally involving worship.
Many people had wondered about our safety in going to Venezuela because the media coverage of things in that country is so negative, but our safety was never an issue. In fact, we were greeted by nothing but friendship. Publicity about Venezuela focuses on Chavez and his seeming hunger for power. Our Venezuelan hosts tell us we are misinformed. What we don't hear about is a positive change in living conditions for many people. Real changes in medical care, literacy, and infrastructure are taking place. Several members of our group who had been to Venezuela previously commented on the improvement in cleanliness on many of the streets. We observed many newly painted buildings and a significant decrease in trash in the streets in Maracaibo where the convention was held. We heard a lecture about proposed changes in the constitution. It has been reported in the US that one of the changes is to make Chavez president for life. The reality is that the change is that there will be no term limits, so Chavez can be re-elected as many times as the people desire.
The second day of our trip, we visited one of the villages of the Wayuu where we held a medical clinic. We were greeted like rock stars with many a "Bienvenidos" and hugs and tears from the crowd as we descended from the bus. We were treated to a colorful native dance depicting the Wayuu dating rituals. We had brought a variety of medications with us, some purchased, some donated by churches. Over 80 people were treated at the clinic in a period of just about two hours. Our U.S. clinic team included a doctor and several nurses and nurse practitioners. The clinic was also assisted by a Cuban doctor, one of many serving in Venezuela. While we were there, our youth engaged in a vigorous game of volleyball with youth from the village even though the temperature was in the high 90's with humidity of about the same. We marveled at their fortitude.
Later in the week, the UEPV from churches across Venezuela and their guests gathered for a celebration and business meeting that went on for a period of three and a half days. It is impossible to describe the worship; the singers are almost rapturous, and the rhythm and passion of this music have a spirituality which is dazzling. The worshipers exhibit a warmth and passion unheard of in our churches. One is greeted with a hug when introduced to a stranger, and the hugging never stops. Under those circumstances, knowledge of the language is not important. We had translators to help us understand some of the content of sermons, and discussion and items of business which are involved in any annual meeting. Ron Parker preached a sermon, and Tim Bobbitt, a minister in the DOC led one of the Bible studies. Both Tom Rehling and Ron Parker presented letters from the Rocky Mountain Region and Conference expressing congratulations and appreciation for the Global Partnership. The Global Partner Committee presented Global Partner 10 Year Commemorative Posters to the UEPV.
Altogether, it was an unforgettable experience. One that must be experienced to be believed. The Global Partner Committee is currently busy planning several short term mission trips for 2008. To find out more, check the Rocky Mountain UCC or DOC web sites.