Thursday, August 09, 2007

The United Methodist Church of Venezuela - A Story of the Miracle of Grace

In 1995 Bishops Paulo Lockman of Brazil and Lloyd Knox of North Georgia met with Warren Lathem, then pastor of Mount Pisgah UMC in Alpharetta, GA and Carlos Gonzalez, Hispanic Pastor at Mount Pisgah and a native of Venezuela, to discuss our starting the United Methodist work in Venezuela. In April, 1996, Carlos Gonzalez, Ray Lathem, Roger and Dana Lane left Atlanta for our first venture into Venezuela. They traveled around the country, worked with a mission team from Norcross UMC building a church in La Marita, VZ and contacted pastors and entities who might be interested in becoming United Methodist and begin the organization of the ministry.

Unfortunately, these mission pioneers were killed in the ValuJet Crash in Miami on May 11, 1996 while returning from Venezeula. All of their records and contacts died with them. At least that is what we thought since no records were recovered from the crash scene.

However, by the grace of God, we received pictures from the Norcross team showing them at the work site in La Marita. These are the last pictures we have of these selfless servants and martyrs for the faith.

We had no names to pursue the relationship and our grief blinded us to so obvious options that were available to us. But God was still at work.

In 1997, Bishop Luis Palomo, Bishop of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Venezuela, contacted Warren Lathem telling him he had received inquiries from some pastors in Venezuela asking if he would help them get the Methodist work organized in their country. He said he would visit the pastors and then share with Warren his findings.

What he discovered was the pastors did not understand why there had been no follow up after the initial contact made in April and May of the previous year. They had not known the fate of those who had come to them from the US. As a result of this meeting, Bishop Palomo asked Warren if Mount Pisgah UMC would sponsor a Venezuelan national missionary living in the US. He would move his family to Venezuela and start the Evangelical Methodist Church of Venezuela. As a result of this request, Mount Pisgah provided all the cost for this pastor to move back to Venezuela, provided him with a car, a house and expenses.

At the missionary's invitation, Warren Lathem traveled to Venezuela for the first time in 1998. He was invited to preach an evangelistic crusade in Arcarigua, VZ, the city where the missionary lived. He was accompanied by Rev. Miguel Torres, a native of Maricaibo, VZ and the new Hispanic Minister at Mount Pisgah. While the crusade was effective in leading many people to faith in Christ, it was transformational for Warren Lathem. Additionally, Warren met Tito Santiago, dear friend and colleague in ministry now in Georgia. God broke Warren's heart for the people of Venezuela. In the early morning hours of solitude and prayer in Arcarigua at the mom and pop Posada (Bed and Breakfast), God birthed the vision of a training program for the pastors of Venezuela. This soon became the dream of starting what became the Seminario Wesleyan de Venezuela.

The next year Warren was invited to return to Arcarigua to conduct another evangelistic crusade. He was accompanied by his wife, Jane , Dan and Nancy Dunn, and lay members from Mount Pisgah, along with Rev. Miguel Torres. In was on this trip that God broke Dan Dunn's heart for missions, especially in Venezuela. This began a pilgrimage for the Dunn's that led to Dan being the co-founder of the Seminary and his own journey back to Seminary at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY where he is pursuing a PhD. in Evangelism to enable him to teach in theological schools in Latin America and serve as Dean of Students at Seminario Wesleyano de Venezuela.

Subsequently, successive trips led to an Evangelistic Crusade in Barquisimeto with 10,000 in attendance, the beginning of construction of the Lugar Altissimo Church in memory of Ray Lathem and honor of Jared Lathem, and the inaugural session of the Seminary with Bishop Palomo and another professor teaching. (Never try to do that much in one week!)

The Seminary began its first session in rented space at the Assembly of God Bible Institute in Barquisimeto where it continues to meet even though it has outgrown the space available. In subsequent years, many mission teams from Mount Pisgah returned to build relationships and churches. Many people were involved in these early stages, too many to mention.

Then trouble began to dawn. It became apparent to Dan and Warren that the relationship with the Missionary Mount Pisgah had been sponsoring was untenable. However, they did not want to injure the work of the pastors or seminary and did not know how to proceed. In the grace of God, some of the Methodist pastors asked to meet with Dan and Warren without the presence of the Missionary. At that meeting, they informed us that they could no longer work with this persons due to serious problems, especially related to integrity and leadership. As this was resolved, the relationship with the missionary was terminated, most of the pastors and churches pulled out of the fledgling organization and began to work to form an new association. Warren and Dan traveled to Costa Rica to discuss this decision with Bishop Palomo and discovered he had independently reached the same conclusion.

Virgil and Jo Almond, members of Mount Pisgah, became our first US missionaries spending 3 months in Venezuela securing a house in Cabudare and looking for a potential permanent location for the seminary. After their time, they came back to the US, moved to Suches, GA and discovered their pastor was planning to go to a Latin American country as a missionary. The door closed for them and Virgil shared this with Warren. Warren invited them to consider Venezuela and they became the first long term United Methodist Missionaries to live in Venezuela. They serve there in a partnership between Venezuela Now, Inc. and The Mission Society.

They were soon followed by the second United Methodist missionary family who works primarily with the seminary. Both of these families live in the greater Barquisimeto area and work very closely with the pastor and churches, the seminary and US Mission Teams.

Then in August of 2005, the Bishop and Cabinet of the North Georgia Conference made an historic mission trip to Venezuela. This is the first time an entire US Cabinet has traveled to a foreign country on a mission trip. This was followed in January 2007 by Bishop Lindsey returning to Venezuela to teach in the Seminary.

During the intervening years, several other United Methodist Churches began to work in Venezuela. The first one after Mount Pisgah was McEachern UMC in Marietta. Their long-term partnership with the congregation in Punto Fijo is a model for other churches. Rev. Donna Goff, Minister of Missions at McEachern and veteran missionary of Kenya, led this effort and also teaches in the Seminary.

Work has progressed in drafting a Discipline to form the new United Methodist Church of Venezuela. Many meetings have been held with the pastors interested to being a part of this work. Now we are on the brink of a great next step.

On August 17, 2007 the first Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church of Venezuela will convene in Barquisimeto with Warren Lathem preaching the opening service and presiding until the delegates formally approve the Discipline and elect their first Bishop. Some 50 lay and clergy delegates are expected for this historic event. The exact number is unknown to this author at this time, but it appears there will be about 25-30 churches joining the conference as well as about 20 pastors and their spouses and lay delegates from each church.

We rejoice in Christ for so many things related to Venezuela. The most current is this inaugural conference. However, this is just one of many miracles which have come into our lives through the brothers and sisters in Venezuela. We will be forever grateful to our Gracious Lord Jesus Christ for bringing new life out of death, joy out of tragedy and hope in the face of despair. May our voices ever praise the One who turns darkness into light, who creates something out of nothing, who defeats death with resurrected life! What a joy to be a part of what Jesus is doing in Venezuela. Thank you, Lord!


Jane said...

It is also a blessing that the conference will begin on our wedding anniversary. Venezuela is our second home and the people are our family. God has truly blessed us by our association with the wonderful people of Venezuela.

Belinda Peterson said...

Happy Anniversary!
What an awesome story. Emotions from grief to joy and all inbetween have been a part of this journey. Your committment to God and His people is an inspiration to all. Lenny and I will be praying for you and all that will be happening.
And yes, Praise God!!