Published April 21, 2011
LAREDO, Texas — Among all the hundreds of places North American Mission Board church planting missionaries minister, none is more dangerous than Laredo in south Texas, where Chuy and Maria Avila serve.
Laredo – with a population of 300,000 in the city proper – sits on the north bank of the Rio Grande, right across the river from Nuevo Laredo in Mexico. The Laredo-Nuevo Laredo metro area has a combined population of more than 700,000 American and Mexican citizens.
Nuevo Laredo to Laredo is a thoroughfare for an estimated $20 billion drug market operated by drug cartels between Mexico and the U.S. With the drugs come unchecked violence and bloodshed. A recent local shootout between Mexican Federal Police officers and drug cartel members left a dozen dead and over 20 wounded.
Chuy, 48, and Maria – jointly sponsored by NAMB and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention – are two of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. They are among the missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 6-13. With a theme of “Start Here,” the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like the Avilas.
“Laredo is a dangerous place to minister,” says Avila. “I need prayers and support from my Christian brothers and sisters.”
Born into a Catholic family in Juarez, Mexico, Avila was only five when a missionary came to town to hold a tent revival. “This is the way the Gospel came to our family. My mom got saved, my father was saved and I got saved when I was 21 years old. The next year, I was called into the ministry.”
Only 18 months ago, the Avilas were working and living in Tennessee, where Chuy spent 11 years as a Hispanic church start strategist. “I knew nothing about Laredo at the time,” he says. “I was praying for a new challenge and a new vision, and the Lord put Laredo in my mind and in my heart.”
In Laredo, Avila’s “M.O.” has been to go into neighborhoods – he calls them “colonias” – where there is no existing evangelistic work in place – where he feels a need to start something new, a brand-new Baptist church. He begins with block parties and Vacation Bible Schools, and every Laredo family that shows up at a block party receives a free Bible.
He has formed partnerships with local pastors and laypeople, and established a “missionary house” – a house fully equipped to hold a group of up to 30 people. Spending a week there, they are hosted, taught and discipled by Avila. The missionary house doubles as a church on Sunday.
According to Avila, Baptists have been in Laredo for 135 years. But that 135 years has only produced 14 Baptist churches. With his goal of 10 new churches a year – for a total of 50 new churches in five years – Avila will have started more churches in five years than past Baptists started in Laredo in the last 135.
Avila sees his role as a catalyst, who maps out the city, tries to find the right place a new church is needed, and determine what kind of church to plant.
“[For young people], we may need a contemporary church. In an area of empty nesters, we might need a traditional church. For the Texas cowboys, we would need a cowboy church. My role is to discover the needs of the city and then try to find?the right person to start a church,” he says.
While Avila would welcome church planters from the outside, his preference is to use indigenous church planters, train and equip them locally, and then deploy them throughout the Laredo metro area.
“The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering helps us a lot,” Avila said. “Through that and prayer, we feel the support. Every morning when I wake up and then walk to the [mission] field in the streets, I do not feel alone. I know there are hundreds of people praying for me. I want to encourage Baptists to keep giving because through their giving, we can do our ministry here.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
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