BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — “Where is Marco Polo?” The question is a legitimate one in Buenos Aires, Argentina: Marco Polo is a pastor who has invested 20 years in the city’s Cildáñez neighborhood, a melting pot of immigrants.
When the question is asked the staff of Parque Indoamericano Baptist Church they know that Polo likely is meeting a need in a nearby villa, or slum area. The church provides about 20 ministries to immigrant neighborhoods, from traditional worship and discipleship to small groups in homes and youth events. Construction continues adjacent to the church on a home for adolescent and single mothers. Daily, 300 infants and preschoolers receive meals and personal nurture in two childcare centers.
The villas near Polo’s church, where people build cinder-block dwellings perched upon one another, house Bolivian and Paraguayan immigrants alongside Argentine neighbors. Spiritually, they practice Catholicism mixed with idolatry and animism.
Despite their poverty, the people warmly greet Polo and his co-pastors, Omar Díaz and Edwin Laime, as they visit church members’ homes.
For Sara Cisneros, the church is her family, providing for needs that arise for her and her children. The church also gives clarity and support in her Christian walk.
“I came from a family that did black witchcraft, white witchcraft and sacrifices,” Cisneros said. “God gave me freedom — a good life, a clean life. I believe His promises and that He has sanctified me.”
The church ministers to hundreds of families much like Cisneros’.
“There is a great openness towards the Gospel [and] … a great need,” Polo said. In spite of insecurities and in spite of drugs, the houses have open doors. The neighbors are easy to reach. It’s easy to go into a home and share.”
But the need is expansive: Nearly 14 million people live in greater Buenos Aires. By the IMB’s estimate, only five of every 100 porteños (people of the port) have a personal relationship with Christ.
Influencing the influential
In another area called Microcentro, people line up in Starbucks for their morning café con leche (coffee with milk) and medialunas (sweet croissants). Dog walkers steer groups of eight or 10 canines through the 3.5 million people bustling into the city’s center for another workday. Thousands of drivers sit gridlocked on Avenida 9 de Julio, touted to be the widest boulevard in the world with 18 lanes.
An air of caution pervades the cosmopolitan area beyond the veneer of custom-made suits and luxury sedans. Signs in Starbucks remind patrons to “keep sight of your personal belongings,” and residents warn tourists to hide valuables.
In a modern high-rise office building, Enrique Vetere juggles appointments as an attorney specializing in bankruptcy cases. With the faltering Argentine economy, business is booming. He also works as a law professor in local universities. About 15 years ago, Vetere was committed to ministry similar to Marco Polo’s, serving lower-class people. But another professional challenged him to reconsider.
The Gospel does not flow “up” economic lines, the peer reminded Vetere. Rather than working in a lower-class area, he should use his status as an attorney to build contacts with businessmen for sharing his faith. Those influential people could then share Christ with their subordinates.
The comments deeply affected Vetere and his wife. In response, they created a ministry called “Prometa,” short for “Professionals in metamorphosis,” through which they host lectures by and for professionals, teas for professional women and other events — always seeking opportunities to witness. Vetere also pastors a church for professionals.
“We have seen [the challenge with] getting professionals to know Jesus is that … they are deep-down inside convinced they don’t need anything,” Vetere said. “They have a good career, they probably have a good quality of life, they have an income, a house, a car, a country club, so they don’t need anything.”
A common denominator in the ministries of Marco Polo and Enrique Vetere is a group of IMB missionaries in Buenos Aires, led by megacity strategist Kevin Baggett and his wife Laura. The team networks with Argentine pastors and leaders in focusing on the city’s spiritually lost people.
“Believers both in Argentina and in the U.S. have a hard time understanding that cities with churches are still a mission field,” Baggett said. “There may be more people [living] in a single apartment building in a megacity like Buenos Aires than … in an isolated [people group] in the jungle or in the countryside. The people in that apartment building could find a church if they were looking for one, but they aren’t, and no one is targeting them with the Gospel, either.”
Having access to the Gospel and having it presented in a way people can understand are two different things, Baggett noted. The churches in Buenos Aires are not reaching the city’s upper-class and educated populations and the young generation (ages 20-40), he said. About 60 percent of porteños claim to be Catholic; after Catholicism, most identify their religious affiliation as “none,” atheism, “other” or agnostic. Only 5 percent say they are evangelical Christians.
To explain this to their national partners, Baggett’s team completed 6,200-plus street surveys. They also launched a prayer emphasis to aid their partners’ work.
Despite the vastness of his adopted city and its pervasive spiritual need, Baggett has hope.
“I believe the church in Buenos Aires has the potential to be used by God to change this city, this country, and make disciples all over the globe,” he said.
“I pray that He would do it in such a way that the whole world would look at Buenos Aires and … see that only God could have caused such a change.”
— by Anne Harman | BP