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 May 8, 2000 GC-037

Colombian church grows in impact

CLEVELAND (UMNS) — Colombia is often in the news for its drug cartels and civil war, but Bishop Isaías Gutiérrez says his country is also home to a rapidly growing Methodist presence that is addressing many of the nation’s most pressing problems.

Gutiérrez leads the Methodist Church of Colombia and is president of the Council of Evangelical Methodist Churches in Latin America and the Caribbean (CIEMAL). He spoke to reporters May 8 during a press conference at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, which runs through May 12 in Cleveland.

"You think of Colombia as so shaken by wars, drugs and earthquakes," he said. "But there is a Methodist community emerging with so much strength and reflecting the new face of the gospel. Other churches are watching to see this new way of doing church."

Gutiérrez is attending General Conference to support a petition urging the U.S. government to stop all military aid to Colombia, support negotiation to end the country’s civil war, divert funds used for military raids to economic programs and support indigenous people’s right to self-determination.

The bishop is also promoting the Encounter With Christ in Latin America and the Caribbean, an effort that is supported by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries through CIEMAL. "The Encounter With Christ has been one of the doors that has opened to us as a way to help us serve our brothers and sisters in the greatest need," Gutiérrez said.

The Methodist Church of Colombia comprises 12 congregations, primarily in Bogotá and Cali, with 17 pastors and more than 1,300 members, according to Gutiérrez. Despite its size, he said the church has a tremendous vision of how it can be in social ministry.

After the Jan. 25, 1999, earthquake in Colombia, the Methodist Church was one of the first organizations on the scene offering assistance to survivors. Several of the pastors are also doctors and provided medical services, especially to children. The church provided solid food in several villages and helped organize the local people in their relief efforts.

The church is involved in all levels of education in Colombia. In the city of Cali, infamous for its drug cartels, a 350-member Methodist church with a school is providing basic and secondary education for more than 300 children.

"Cali has five churches and one in formation," Gutiérrez said. "Despite so many years of war, the presence of paramilitary squads and drug addiction, a new church has emerged that is united in the love of Jesus Christ and is committed to rescuing the people in these situations."

The church also has plans for the John Wesley Academy, an advanced education facility for which the government has promised support, the bishop said. Efforts are also under way to open a ministry training and agricultural schools.

Despite its successes, the Methodist Church of Colombia has its challenges. Many of the pastors coming out of seminary have little means of supporting themselves and their families and need housing, Gutiérrez said.

"In addition to prayer support, the best way to help is with financial contributions," he said. "I would like most to have the presence … of North Americans."

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-- Michael Wacht

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