George Otis Jr presents vivid stories of the transformation of cities and regions in the two videos Transformations 1 and 2. This article about some of those cities is from Chapter 1 of his book Informed Intercession.
This article is also a chapter in Transforming Revivals.
For some time now, we have been hearing reports of large-scale conversions in places like China, Argentina and Nepal. In many instances, these conversions have been attended by widespread healings, dreams and deliverances. Confronted with these demonstrations of divine power and concern, thousands of men and women have elected to embrace the truth of the gospel. In a growing number of towns and cities, God’s house is suddenly the place to be.
In some communities throughout the world, this rapid church growth has also led to dramatic sociopolitical transformation. Depressed economies, high crime rates and corrupt political structures are being replaced by institutional integrity, safe streets and financial prosperity. Impressed by the handiwork of the Holy Spirit, secular news agencies have begun to trumpet these stories in front-page articles and on prime-time newscasts.
If these transformed communities are not yet common, they are certainly growing in number. At least a dozen case studies have been documented in recent years, and it is likely that others have gone unreported. Of those on file, most are located in Africa and the Americas. The size of these changed communities ranges from about 15,000 inhabitants to nearly 2 million.
Given the extent of these extraordinary stories I have limited my reporting to select highlights. Despite their brevity, these abridged accounts nevertheless offer glorious “snapshots” of the Holy Spirit at work in our day. Readers interested in more details can find them in books like Commitment to Conquer (Bob Beekett, Chosen Books, 1997), The Twilight Labyrnth (George Otis, Jr., Chosen Books, 1997) and Praying witb Power (C. Peter Wagner, Regal Books, 1997).
Miracle in Mizoram
One of the earliest and largest transformed communities of the twentieth century is found in Mizoram, a mountainous state in northeastern India. The region’s name translates as “The Land of the Highlanders.” It is an apt description as a majority of the local inhabitants, known as Mizos, live in villages surrounded by timbered mountains and scenic gorges.
The flora is not entirely alpine, however, and it is not uncommon to see hills covered with bamboo, wild bananas and orchids. The Mizos are hearty agriculturists who manage to grow ample crops of rice, corn, tapioca, ginger, mustard, sugar cane, sesame and potatoes.
But it is not farming prowess that sets Mizoram’s 750,000 citizens apart. Nor, for that matter, is it their Mongol stock. Rather it is the astonishing size of the national church, estimated to be between 80 and 95 percent of the current population. This achievement is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that Mizoram is sandwiched precariously between Islamic Bangladesh to the west, Buddhist Myanmar to the east and south, and the Hindu states of Assam, Manipur and Tripura to the north.
Before the arrival of Christian missionaries in the late nineteenth century, local tribes believed in a spirit called Pathan. They also liked to remove the heads of their enemies. But in just four generations Mizoram has gone from being a fierce head-hunting society to a model community – and quite possibly the most thoroughly Christian place of comparable size on earth. Certainly in India there is no other city or state that could lay claim to having no homeless people, no beggars, no starvation and 100 percent literacy.
The churches of Mizoram currently send 1,000 missionaries to surrounding regions of India and elsewhere throughout the world. Funds for this mission outreach are generated primarily through the sale of rice and firewood donated by the believers. Every time a Mizo woman cooks rice, she places a handful in a special ‘missionary bowl.’ This rice is then taken to the local church, where it is collected and sold at the market.
Even the non-Christian media of India have recognized Christianity as the source of Mizoram’s dramatic social transformation. In 1994 Mizoram celebrated its one-hundredth year of contact with Christianity, which began with the arrival of two missionaries, William Frederick Savage and J. H. Lorraine. On the occasion of this centennial celebration, The Telegraph of Calcutta (February 4, 1994) declared:
Christianity’s most reaching influence was the spread of education … Christianity gave the religious a written language and left a mark on art, music, poetry, and literature. A missionary was also responsible for the abolition of traditional slavery. It would not be too much to say that Christianity was the harbinger of modernity to a Mizo society.
A less quantifiable but no less palpable testimony to the Christian transformation of Mizorarn is the transparent joy and warmth of the Mizo people. Visitors cannot fail to observe “the laughing eyes mid smiling faces,” in the words of one reporter, on the faces of the children and other residents of Mizoram. And nowhere is this spirit of divine joy more evident than in the churches, where the Mizo’s traditional love of music and dance has been incorporated into worship. The generosity of the people is also seen in their communal efforts to rebuild neighbours’ bamboo huts destroyed by the annual monsoons.
Eighty percent of the population of Mizorarn attends church at least once a week. Congregations are so plentiful in Mizoram that, from one vantage point in the city of Izol, it is possible to count 37 churches. Most fellowships have three services on Sunday and another on Wednesday evening (1).
The state of Mizoram is governed by a 40-member assembly that convenes in the capital of Aizawl. Although there are different political parties, all of them agree on the ethical demands of political office in Mizorwn. Specifically, all candidates must be:
- persons with a good reputation
- diligent and honest
- clean and uncorrupt
- morally and sexually unblemished
- loyal to the law of the land
- fervent workers for the welfare of the people
- loyal to their own church
How many of our political leaders could pass this test? For that matter, how many of our religious leaders could pass?
In the mid-1970s, the town of Almolonga was typical of many Mayan highland communities: idolatrous, inebriated and economically depressed. Burdened by fear and poverty, the people sought support in alcohol and a local idol named Maximon. Determined to fight back, a group of local intercessors got busy, crying out to God during evening prayer vigils. As a consequence of their partnership with the Holy Spirit, Almolonga, like Mizoram, has become one of the most thoroughly transformed communities in the world. Fully 90 percent of the town’s citizens now consider themselves to be evangelical Christians. As they have repudiated ancient pacts with Mayan and syncretistic gods, their economy has begun to blossom. Churches are now the dominant feature of Almolonga’s landscape and many public establishments boast of the town’s new allegiance.
Almolonga is located in a volcanic valley about 15 minutes is west of the provincial capital of Quetzaltenango (Xela). The town meanders for several kilometres along the main road to the Pacific coast. Tidy agricultural fields extend up the hillsides behind plaster and cement block buildings painted in vivid turquoise, mustard and burnt red. Most have corrugated tin roofs, although a few, waiting for a second story, sprout bare rebar. The town’s brightly garbed citizens share the narrow streets with burros, piglets and more than a few stray dogs.
Although many Christian visitors comment on Almolonga’s “clean” spiritual atmosphere, this is a relatively recent development. “Just twenty years ago,” reports Guatemala City pastor Harold Caballeros, “the town suffered from poverty, violence and ignorance. In the mornings you would encounter many men just lying on the streets, totally drunk from the night before. And of course this drinking brought along other serious problems like domestic violence and poverty. It was a vicious cycle.”
Donato Santiago, the town’s aging chief of police, told me during an October 1998 interview that he and a dozen deputies patrolled the streets regularly because of escalating violence. “People were always fighting,” he said. “We never had any rest.” The town, despite its small population, had to build four jails to contain the worst offenders. “They were always full,” Santiago remembers. “We often had to bus overflow prisoners to Quetzaltenango.” There was disrespect toward women and neglect of the family. Dr. Mell Winger, who has also visited Almolonga on several occasions, talked to children who said their fathers would go out drinking for weeks at a time. “I talked to one woman,” Winger recalls, “whose husband would explode if he didn’t like the meal. She would often be beaten and kicked out of the home.”
Pastor Mariano Riscajché one of the key leaders of Almolonga’s spiritual turnaround, has similar memories. “I was raised in misery. My father sometimes drank for forty to fifty consecutive days. We never had a big meal, only a little tortilla with a small glass of coffee. My parents spent what little money they had on alcohol.”
In an effort to ease their misery, many townspeople made pacts with local deities like Maximon (a wooden idol rechristened San Simon by Catholic syncretists), and the patron of death, Pascual Bailón. The latter, according to Riscajché, “is a spirit of death whose skeletal image was once housed in a chapel behind the Catholic church. Many people went to him when they wanted to kill someone through witchcraft.” The equally potent Maximon controlled people through money and alcohol. “He’s not just a wooden mask,” Riscajché insists, “but a powerful spiritual strongman.” The deities were supported by well-financed priesthoods known as confradías (2).
During these dark days the gospel did not fare well. Outside evangelists were commonly chased away with sticks or rocks, while small local house churches were similarly stoned. On one occasion six men shoved a gun barrel down the throat of Mariano Riscajché. As they proceeded to pull the trigger, he silently petitioned the Lord for protection. When the hammer fell, there was no action. A second click. Still no discharge.
In August 1974 Riscajché led a small group of believers into a series of prayer vigils that lasted from 7 P.M. to midnight. Although prayer dominated the meetings, these vanguard intercessors also took time to speak declarations of freedom over the town. Riscajché remembers that God filled them with faith. “We started praying, ‘Lord, it’s not possible that we could be so insignificant when your Word says we are heads and not tails.’”
In the months that followed, the power of God delivered many men possessed by demons associated with Maximon and Pascual Bailón. Among the more notable of these was a Maximon cult leader named José Albino Tazej. Stripped of their power and customers, the confradías of Maximon made a decision to remove the sanctuary of Maximon to the city of Zunil.
At this same time, God was healing many desperately diseased people. Some of these hearings led many to commit their lives to Christ (including that of Madano’s sister-in-law Teresa, who was actually raised from the dead after succumbing to complications associated with a botched caesarean section).
This wave of conversions has continued to this day. By late 1998 there were nearly two dozen evangelical churches in this Mayan town of 19,000, and at least three or four of them had more than 1,000 members. Mariano Riscajché’s El Calvario Church seats 1,200 and is nearly always packed. Church leaders include several men who, in earlier years, were notorious for stoning believers.
Nor has the move of God in Almolonga been limited to church growth. Take a walk through the town’s commercial district and you will encounter ubiquitous evidence of transformed lives and social institutions. On one street you can visit a drug-store called ‘The Blessing of the Lord.’ On another you can shop at ‘The Angels’ store. Feeling hungry? Just zip into ‘Paradise Chicken,’ ‘Jireh’ bakery or the ‘Vineyard of the Lord’ beverage kiosk. Need building advice? Check out ‘Little Israel Hardware’ or ‘El Shaddai’ metal fabrication. Feet hurt from shopping? Just take them to the ‘Jordan’ mineral baths for a good soak.
If foreigners find this public display of faith extraordinary, Mariano sees it as perfectly natural. “How can you demonstrate you love God if you don’t show it? Didn’t Paul say, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel’?”
The contents of the stores have also changed. Mell Winger recalls visiting a small tienda where the Christian proprietor pointed to a well-stocked food shelf and said, “This was once full of alcohol.” Town bars have not fared any better. Harold Caballeros explains: “Once people stopped spending their money on alcohol they actually bought out several distressed taverns and turned them into churches. This happened over and over again.” One new bar did open during the revival, but it only lasted a couple of months. The owner was converted and now plays in a Christian band.
As the drinking stopped, so did the violence. For 20 years the town’s crime rate has declined steadily. In 1994, the last of Almolonga’s four jails was closed. The remodelled building is now called the ‘Hall of Honour’ and is used for municipal ceremonies and weddings. Leaning against the door, police chief Donato Santiago offered a knowing grin. “It’s pretty uneventful around here,” he said.
Even the town’s agricultural base has come to life. For years, crop yields around Almolonga were diminished through a combination of and land and poor work habits. But as the people have turned to God they have seen a remarkable transformation of their land. “It is a glorious thing,” exclaims a beaming Caballeros. “Almolonga’s fields have become so fertile they yield three harvests per year.” In fact, some farmers I talked to reported their normal 60-day growing cycle on certain vegetables has been cut to 25. Whereas before they would export four truckloads of produce per month, they are now watching as many as 40 loads a day roll out of the valley.
Nicknamed “America’s Vegetable Garden,’ Almolonga’s produce is of biblical proportions. Walking through the local exhibition hall 1 saw (and filmed) five-pound beets, carrots larger than my arm and cabbages the size of oversized basketballs (3). Noting the dimensions of these vegetables and the town’s astounding 1,000 percent increase in agricultural productivity, university researchers from the United States and other foreign countries have beat a steady path to Almolonga.
“Now,” says Caballeros, “these brothers have the joy of buying big Mercedes trucks -with cash.” And they waste no time in pasting their secret all over the shiny vehicles. Huge metallic stickers and mud flaps read ‘The Gift of God,’ ‘God Is My Stronghold’ and ‘Go Forward in Faith.’
Some farmers are now providing employment to others by renting out land and developing fields in other towns. Along with other Christian leaders they also help new converts get out of debt. It is a gesture that deeply impresses Mell Winger. “I think of Paul’s words to the Thessalonians when he said, “We not only gave you the gospel of God but we gave you our own souls as well.’” (4).
Caballeros agrees: “And that’s what these people do. It is a beautiful spectacle to go and see the effect of the gospel, because you can actually see it – and that is what we want for our communities, for our cities and for our nations.”
Despite their success, believers in Almolonga have no intention of letting up. Many fast three times a week and continue to assault the forces of darkness in prayer and evangelism. On Halloween day in 1998, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 believers gathered in the market square to pray down barriers against the gospel in neighbouring towns and around the world (5). Many, unable to find seats, hung off balconies and crowded concrete staircases. Led by the mayor and various Christian dignitaries, they prayed hand in hand for God to take authority over their lives, their town and any hindering spirits.
How significant are these developments? In a 1994 headline article describing the dramatic events in Almolonga, Guatemala’s premier newsmagazine Cronica Semanal concluded “the Evangelical Church … constitutes the most significant force for religious change in the highlands of Guatemala since the Spanish conquest (6).
The Umuofai of Nigeria
The Umuofai kindred are spread out in several villages situated near the town of Umuahia in Abia State in southeastern Nigeria (7). A major rail line links the area with Port Harcourt, about 120 kilometers to the south. Like most parts of coastal Africa, it is distinguished by dense tropical flora and killer humidity.
It is possible, even likely, veteran travellers will not have heard of the Umuofai or their homeland. This is not surprising seeing that the kindred’s claim to fame has virtually nothing to do with their size or setting. While their history does claim centuries-old roots, the truly newsworthy events are still tender shoots.
Indeed the interesting chapter of the Umuofai story began as recently as 1996. Two Christian brothers, Emeka and Chinedu Nwankpa, had become increasingly distressed over the spiritual condition of their people. While they did not know everything about the Umuofai kindred, or their immediate Ubakala clan, they knew enough to be concerned. Not only were there few Christians, but there was also an almost organic connection with ancestral traditions of sorcery, divination and spirit appeasement. Some even practiced the demonic art of shape-shifting. Taking the burden before the Lord, the younger brother, Chinedu Nwankpa, was led into a season of spiritual mapping. After conducting a partial 80-day fast, he learned that his primary assignment (which would take the good part of a year) was to spend one day a week with clan elders investigating the roots of prevailing idolatry – including the role of the ancestors and shrines. He would seek to understand how and when the Ubakala clan entered into animistic bondage. According to older brother Emeka, a practicing lawyer and international Bible teacher, this understanding was critical. When I asked why, Emeka responded, “When a people publicly renounce their ties to false gods and philosophies, they make it exceedingly undesirable for the enemy to remain in their community.” (24).
The study was finally completed in late 1996. Taking their findings to prayer, the brothers soon felt prompted to invite kindred leaders and other interested parties to attend a special meeting. “What will be our theme?” they asked. The Master’s response was quick and direct. “I want you to speak to them about idolatry.”
On the day of the meeting, Emeka and Chinedu arrived unsure of what kind of crowd they would face. Would there be five or fifty? Would the people be open or hostile? What they actually encountered stunned them. The meeting place was not only filled with 300 people, but the audience also included several prominent clan leaders and witch doctors. “After I opened in prayer,” Emeka recalls, “this young man preaches for exactly 42 minutes. He brings a clear gospel message. He gives a biblical teaching on idolatry and tells the people exactly what it does to a community. When he has finished, he gives a direct altar call. And do you know what happens? Sixty-one adults respond, including people from lines that, for eight generations, had handled the traditional priesthood.
“Let me give you an idea of what 1 am talking about. There is a local spirit that is supposed to give fertility to the earth. The people of the community believed this particular spirit favoured farmers who planted yams – an old uncle to the potato. A male from each generation was dedicated to this spirit to insure his blessing. When this priest was ready to die, he had to be taken outside so that the heavenly alignment could be undone. He was buried in the night with his head covered with a clay pot. Then, a year after the burial, the skull was exhumed and put in the shrine. These skulls and other sacred objects were never allowed to touch the ground. Of course, sacrifices were also made from time to time. This was the way of life in our community for eight generations.”
When the minister finished the altar call, the Nwankpa brothers were startled to see a man coming forward with the sacred skull in his hands. Here in front of them was the symbol and receptacle of the clan’s ancestral power. “By the time the session ended,” Emeka marvels, “eight other spiritual custodians had also come forward. If I had not been there in the flesh, I would not have believed it.”
As Emeka was called forward to pray for these individuals, the Holy Spirit descended on the gathering and all the clan leaders were soundly converted. The new converts were then instructed to divide up into individual family units – most were living near the village of Mgbarrakuma – and enter a time of repentance within the family. This took another hour and twenty minutes. During this time people were under deep conviction, many rolling on the ground, weeping. “I had to persuade some of them to get up,” Emeka recalls.
After leading this corporate repentance, Emeka heard the Lord say, ‘It is now time to renounce the covenants made by and for this community over the last 300 years.” Following the example of Zechariah 12:10-13:2, the Nwankpas led this second-phase renunciation. “We were just about to get up,” Emeka remembers, “and the Lord spoke to me again. I mean He had it all written out. He said, ‘It is now time to go and deal with the different shrines.’ So 1 asked the people, ‘Now that we have renounced the old ways, what are these shrines doing here?’ And without a moment’s hesitation they replied, ‘We need to get rid of them!’”
Having publicly renounced the covenants their ancestors had made with the powers of darkness, the entire community proceeded to nine village shrines. The three chief priests came out with their walking sticks. It was tradition that they should go first. Nobody else had the authority to take such a drastic action. So the people stood, the young men following the elders and the women remaining behind in the village square. Lowering his glasses, Emeka says, “You cannot appreciate how this affected me personally. Try to understand that 1 am looking at my own chief. I am looking at generations of men that I have known, people who have not spoken to my father for thirty years, people with all kinds of problems. They are now born-again!”
One of these priests, an elder named Odogwu-ogu, stood before the shrine of a particular spirit called Amadi. He was the oldest living representative of the ancestral priesthood. Suddenly he began to talk to the spirits. He said, “Amadi, I want you to listen carefully to what 1 am saying. You were there in the village square this morning. You heard what happened.” He then made an announcement that Emeka will never forget..
Listen, Amadi, the people who own the land have arrived to tell you that they have just made a new covenant with the God of heaven. Therefore all the previous covenants you have made with our ancient fathers are now void. The elders told me to take care of you and I have done that all these years. But today I have left you, and so it is time for you to return to wherever you came from. I have also given my life to Jesus Christ, and from now on, my hands and feet are no longer here (8).
As he does this, he jumps sideways, lifts his hands and shouts, “Hallelujah!”
“With tears in my eyes,” Emeka says, reliving the moment, “I stepped up to anoint this shrine and pray. Every token and fetish was taken out. And then we went through eight more shrines, gathering all the sacred objects and piling them high.
“Gathering again back in the square I said, ‘Those who have fetishes in your homes, bring them out because God is visiting here today. Don’t let Him pass you by.’ At this, one of the priests got up and brought out a pot with seven openings. He said to the people, ‘There is poison enough to kill everybody here in that little pot. There is a horn of an extinct animal, the bile of a tiger and the venom of a viper mixed together.’ He warned the young men, ‘Don’t touch it. Carry it on a pole because it is usually suspended in the shrine.’ This was piled in the square along with all the ancestral skulls.” Soon other heads of households brought various ritual objects-including idols, totems and fetishes-for public burning. Many of these items had been handed down over ten generations.
Emeka then read a passage from Jeremiah 10 that judges the spirits associated with these artifacts. Reminding the powers that the people had rejected them, he said, “You spirits that did not make the heavens and the earth in the day of your visitation, it is time for you to leave this place.” The people then set the piled objects on fire. They ignited with such speed and intensity that the villagers took it as a sign that God had been waiting for this to happen for many years. When the fire subsided, Emeka and his brother prayed for individual needs and prophetically clothed the priests with new spiritual garments. Altogether the people spent nine hours in intense, strategic-level spiritual warfare.
Emeka recalls that when it was over, “You could feel the atmosphere in the community change. Something beyond revival had broken out.” Two young ministers recently filled the traditional Anglican church with about 4,000 youth. And in the middle of the message, demons were reportedly flying out the door! Having renounced old covenants, the Umuofai kindred have made a collective decision that nobody will ever return to animism. “Today,” Emeka says, “everybody goes to church. There is also a formal Bible study going on, and the women have a prayer team that my mother conducts. 0thers gather to pray after completing their communal sweeping.” (9).
In terms of political and economic development, good things have begun to happen but not as dramatically as in Almolonga. Still, there is evidence that God has touched the land here much like He has in the highlands of Guatemala. Shortly after the public repentance, several villagers discovered their plots were permeated with saleable minerals. One of these individuals was Emeka’s own mother, a godly woman whose property has turned up deposits of valuable ceramic clay.
For years this searing valley in southern California was known as a pastor’s graveyard. Riddled with disunity, local churches were either stagnant or in serious decline. In one case, street prostitutes actually transformed a church rooftop into an outdoor bordello. The entire community had, in the words of pastor Bob Beckett, “a kind of a nasty spiritual feeling to it.”
When Beckett arrived on the scene in 1974, Hemet had the personality of a sleepy retirement community, a place where people who had served their tour of duty came to live out a life of ease (10). Having achieved most of their goals, people simply wanted to be left alone. Though a fair number attended church, they had no appetite for anything progressive, much less evangelistic. Spiritually lethargic clergy were content to simply go through the motions.
But things were not all they seemed. Underneath the surface of this laid-back community was a spiritual dark side that was anything but lethargic. “We discovered,” said Beckett, “that illegal and occult activity was thriving in our community.” It was a rude awakening.
The Hemet Valley was fast becoming a cult haven. “We had the Moonies and Mormons. We had the ‘Sheep People,’ a cult that claimed Christ but dealt in drugs. The Church of Scientology set up a state-of-the-art multimedia studio called Golden Era, and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi purchased a property to teach people how to find enlightenment.” The latter, according to Beckett, included a 360-acre juvenile facility where students were given instruction in upper-level transcendental meditation. “We’re not talking about simply feeling good; we’re talking about techniques whereby people can actually leave their bodies.”
These discoveries got Beckett to wondering why the Maharishi would purchase property in this relatively obscure valley and why it would be located in proximity to the Scientologists and the spiritually active Soboba Indian reservation. Sensing something sinister might be lurking beneath the town’s glazed exterior, Beckett took out a map and started marking locations where there was identifiable spiritual activity.” Noticing these marks were clustered in a specific area, he began to ask more probing questions. “I began to wonder,” he said, “if there was perhaps a dimension of darkness I had failed to recognize. 1 didn’t realize it at the time, but I was led into what we now call spiritual mapping.”
The deeper this rookie pastor looked, the less he liked what he was seeing. It seemed the valley, in addition to hosting a nest of cults, was also a notable centre of witchcraft. And unfortunately this was not a new development. Elderly citizens could recollect looking up at the nearby mountains on previous Halloweens and seeing them illumined by dozens of ritual fires. In Hemet and the neighbouring community of Idyllwild, it was not uncommon to find the remains of animal sacrifices long before such matters became part of the public discourse.
Nor were cults the only preexisting problem. Neighborhood youth gangs had plagued the Hemet suburb of San Jacinto for more than a century. When pastor Gordon Houston arrived in 1986 the situation was extremely volatile. His church, San Jacinto Assembly, sits on the very street that has long hosted the town’s notorious First Street Gang. “These were kids whose dads and grandfathers had preceded them in the gang. The lifestyle had been handed down through the generations.”
The danger was so great around the main gang turf that the police refused to go there without substantial backup. “One time I was walking out in front of my church,” Gordon recalls. “Three First Street guys came up behind me, while four others closed in from across the street. They moved me to the centre of the street and asked, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” It was a scary scenario.
“We were one of the first school districts that had to implement a school dress code to avoid gang attire. It was a big problem. There were a lot of weapons on campus and kids were being attacked regularly. The gangs were tied into one of the largest drug production centres in Riverside County.”
It turns out the sleepy Hemet Valley was also the methamphetamine manufacturing capital of the West Coast. One former cooker I spoke to in June 1998 (we’ll call him Sonny) told me the area hosted at least nine major production laboratories. The dry climate, remote location and ‘friendly’ law enforcement combined to make it an ideal setup. “It was quite amazing,” Sonny told me. “I actually had law officers transport dope for me in their police cruisers. That’s the way it used to be here.”
Sonny cooked methamphetamine in Hemet from 1983 to 1991. His minimum quota was 13 pounds every two weeks – an amount capable of supplying more than a quarter of a million people. And there were times when he and his colleagues doubled this production. Most of the deliveries went to Southern California, Arizona or Utah. Often the deadly powder was trucked out of town disguised as 4×8-foot forms of Sheetrock. “It was fascinating to see it done,” Sonny remembered. “Even the paper backing was torn off afterward and sold to people in prison.”
The spiritual turnaround for Hemet did not come easily. Neither the Beckerts nor the Houstons were early Valley enthusiasts. “I just didn’t want to be there,” Bob recalls with emphasis. “For the first several years, my wife and 1 had our emotional bags packed all the time. We couldn’t wait for the day that God would call us out of this valley.”
The Houstons didn’t unpack their bags to begin with. When the San Jacinto position first opened up in 1984, they drove into town in the middle of summer. Gordon remembers it being scorching hot that day. “We had our six-month-old baby in a Pinto Runabout with vinyl seats and no air-conditioning. We drove down the street, took one look at the church and said, “No thank you.” We didn’t even stop to put in a resumé.”
It would be three years before the Houstons were persuaded to return to the Hemet Valley. “Even then,” Gordon says, “we saw it as a chance to gain some experience, build a good resumé, and then look for other opportunities. God, of course, had something else in mind. I remember him saying, “I have a plan, and I’ll share it with you – if you will make a commitment to this place.” And I’ll be honest with you. It was still a tough choice.”
For a while, Bob Beckett’s spiritual mapping had provided certain stimulation. Then, it too reached a dead end. “The flow of information just seemed to dry up,” he remembers. “That was when God asked if we would be willing to spend the rest of our lives in this valley. He couldn’t have asked a worse question. How could I spend the rest of my life in a place 1 didn’t love, didn’t care for and didn’t want to be a part of?”
Yet God persevered and the Becketts eventually surrendered to His will. “As soon as we did this,” Bob reports, “the flow of information opened back up. In retrospect I see that God would not allow us to go on learning about the community’s spiritual roots unless we were committed to act on our understanding. I now realize it was our commitment to the valley that allowed the Lord to trust us with the information (12).
“Once we made this pact, Susan and 1 fell in love with the community. It might sound a little melodramatic, but 1 actually went out and purchased a cemetery plot. I said, “Unless Jesus comes back, this is my land. I’m starting and ending my commitment right here.” Well, God saw that and began to dispense powerful revelation. I still had my research, but it was no longer just information. It was information that was important to me. It was information I had purchased; it belonged to me.”
One new area of understanding concerned a prayer meeting Bob had called 15 years prior. Unable to interpret his spiritual site map or a recurring dream that depicted a bear hide stretched over the valley, he had asked 12 men to join him in prayer at a mountain cabin in nearby Idyllwild. Around two o’clock in the morning the group experienced a dramatic breakthrough – just not the one they were expecting. Rather than yielding fresh insight into the site map or bear hide, the action stimulated a new spiritual hunger within the community.
Now that the Beckets had covenanted to stay in the community, God started to fill in the gaps of their understanding. He began by leading Bob to a book containing an accurate history of the San Jacinto mountains that border Hemet and of the Cahuilla Nation that are descendants of the region’s original inhabitants. “As 1 read through this book I discovered the native peoples believed the ruling spirit of the region was called Tahquitz. He was thought to be exceedingly powerful, occasionally malevolent, associated with the great bear, and headquartered in the mountains. Putting the book down, I sensed the Lord saying, “Find Tahquitz on your map!”
“When 1 did so, I was shocked to find that our prayer meeting 15 years earlier was held in a cabin located at the base of a one-thousand-foot solid rock spire called Tahquitz peak! I also began to understand that the bear hide God had showed me was linked to the spirit of Tahquitz. The fact that it was stretched out over the community was a reminder of the control this centuries – old demonic strongman wielded, a control that was fuelled then, and now, by the choices of local inhabitants. At that point I knew God had been leading us.”
Bob explained that community intercessors began using spiritual mapping to focus on issues and select meaningful targets. Seeing the challenge helped them become spiritually and mentally engaged. With real targets and timelines they could actually watch the answers to their prayers. They learned that enhanced vision escalates fervour.
When I asked him to compare the situation in Hemet today with the way things used to be, he did not take long to answer. “We are not a perfect community,” he said, “but we never will be until the Perfect One comes back. What I can tell you is that the Hemet Valley has changed dramatically.”
The facts speak for themselves. Cult membership, once a serious threat, has now sunk to less than 0.3 percent of the population. The Scientologists have yet to be evicted from their perch at the edge of town, but many other groups are long gone. The transcendental meditation training centre was literally burned out. Shortly after praying for their removal, a brushfire started in the mountains on the west side of the valley. It burned along the top of the ridge and then arced down like a finger to incinerate the Maharishi’s facility. Leaving adjacent properties unsinged, the flames burned back up the mountain and were eventually extinguished.
The drug business, according to Sonny, has dropped by as much as 75 percent. Gone, too, is the official corruption that was once its fellow traveller. “There was a time when you could walk into any police department around here and look at your files or secure an escort for your drug shipment. The people watching your back were wearing badges. Man, has that changed. If you’re breaking the law today, the police are out to get ya. And prayer is the biggest reason. The Christians out here took a multimillion-dollar drug operation and made it run off with its tail between its legs.”
Gangs are another success story. Not long ago a leader of the First Street Gang burst down the centre aisle of Gordon Houston’s church (San Jacinto Assembly) during the morning worship service. “I’m in the middle of my message,” Gordon laughs, “and here comes this guy, all tattooed up, heading right for the platform. I had no idea what he was thinking. When he gets to the front, he looks up and says, “I want to get saved right now!” This incident, and this young man, represented the first fruit of what God would do in the gang community. Over the next several weeks, the entire First Street family came to the Lord. After this, word circulated that our church was off limits. ‘You don’t tag this church with graffiti; you don’t mess with it in any way.’ Instead, gang members began raking our leaves and repainting walls that had been vandalized.” More recently, residents of the violent gang house across from San Jacinto Assembly moved out. Then, as church members watched, they bulldozed the notorious facility.
Nor are gang members the only people getting saved in Hemet Valley. A recent survey revealed that Sunday morning church attendance now stands at about 14 percent – double what it was just a decade ago. During one 18-month stretch, San Jacinto Assembly altar workers saw more than 600 people give their hearts to Christ. Another prayer-oriented church has grown 300 percent in twelve months.
The individual stories are stirring. Sonny, the former drug manufacturer, was apprehended by the Holy Spirit en route to a murder. Driving to meet his intended victim he felt something take control of the steering wheel. He wound up in the parking lot of Bob Beckett’s Dwelling Place Church. It was about 8 o’clock in the morning and a men’s meeting had just gotten underway. “Before I got out of the car,” Sonny says ruefully, “I looked at the silenced pistol laying on the seat. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing.’ So I covered it with a blanket and walked into this prayer meeting. As soon as 1 did that, it was all over. People are praying around me and I hear this man speak out: ‘Somebody was about to murder someone today.’ Man, my eyeballs just about popped out of my head. But that was the beginning of my journey home. It took a long time, but I’ve never experienced more joy in my life.”
As of the late 1990s, Hemet also boasted a professing mayor, police chief, fire chief and city manager. If this were not impressive enough, Beckett reckons that one could add about 30 percent of the local law enforcement officers and an exceptional number of high school teachers, coaches and principals. In fact, for the past several years nearly 85 percent of all school district staff candidates have been Christians.
The result, says Gordon, is that “Our school district, after being the laughing stock of Southern California, now has one of the lowest drop-out rates in the nation. In just four years we went from a 4.7 drop-out rate to 0.07. Only the hand of God can do that.”
And what of the Valley’s infamous church infighting? “Now we are a wall of living stones,” Beekett declares proudly. “Instead of competing, we are swapping pulpits. You have Baptists in Pentecostal pulpits and vice versa. You have Lutherans with Episcopalians. The Christian community has become a fabric instead of loose yarn.”
Houston adds that valley churches are also brought together by quarterly concerts of prayer and citywide prayer revivals where speaking assignments are rotated among area pastors. “Different worship teams lead songs and salvation cards are distributed equally among us. It is a cooperative vision. We are trying to get pastors to understand there is no church big enough, gifted enough, talented enough, anointed enough, financially secure enough, equipped enough, to take a city all by itself. Yes, God will hold me accountable for how I treated my church. But I am also going to be held accountable for how I pastored my city.”
One fellowship is so committed to raising the profile of Jesus Christ in the valley that they have pledged into another church’s building program. To Bob Beckett it all makes sense. “It’s about building people, not building a church. In fact, it is not even a church growth issue, it is a kingdom growth issue. It’s about seeing our communities transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
For years Colombia has been the world’s biggest exporter of cocaine, sending between 700 hundred and 1,000 tons a year to the United States and Europe alone (13). The Cali cartel, which controlled up to 70 percent of this trade, has been called the largest, richest and most well-organized criminal organization in history (14). Employing a combination of bribery and threats, it wielded a malignant power that corrupted individuals and institutions alike (5).
Randy and Marcy MacMillan, copastors of the Communidad Christiana de Fe, have labored in Cali for more than 20 years. At least 10 of these have been spent in the shadow of the city’s infamous drug lords.
Marcy inherited the family home of her late father, a former Colombian diplomat. When illicit drug money began pouring into Cali in the 1980s, the Cocaine lords moved into the MacMillan’s upscale neighbourhood, buying up entire blocks of luxurious haciendas. They modified these properties by installing elaborate underground tunnel systems and huge 30-foot (10-metre) walls to shield them from prying eyes-and stray bullets. Video cameras encased in Plexiglas bubbles scanned the surrounding area continuously. There were also regular patrols with guard dogs.
“These people were paranoid,” Randy recalls. “They were exporting 500 million dollars worth of cocaine a month, and it led to constant worries about sabotage and betrayal. They had a lot to lose.”
For this reason, the cartel haciendas were appointed like small cities. Within their walls it was possible to find everything from airstrips and helicopter landing pads to indoor bowling alleys and miniature soccer stadiums. Many also contained an array of gift boutiques, nightclubs and restaurants.
Whenever the compound gates swung open, it was to disgorge convoys of shiny black Mercedes automobiles. As they snaked their way through the city’s congested streets, all other traffic would pull to the side of the road. Drivers who defied this etiquette did so at their own risk. Many were blocked and summarily shot. As many as 15 people a day were killed in such a manner. “You didn’t want to be at the same stoplight with them,” Randy summarized.
Having once been blocked in his own neighbourhood, Randy remembers the terror. “They drew their weapons and demanded to see our documents. I watched them type the information into a portable computer. Thankfully the only thing we lost was some film. I will always remember the death in their eyes. These are people that kill for a living and like it.”
Rosevelt Muriel, director of the city’s ministerial alliance, also remembers those days. “It was terrible. If you were riding around in a car and there was a confrontation, you were lucky to escape with your life. I personally saw five people killed in Cali.”
Journalists had a particularly difficult time. They were either reporting on human camage – car bombs were going off like popcorn – or they were becoming targets themselves. Television news anchor Adriana Vivas said that many journalists were killed for denouncing what the Mafia was doing in Colombia and Cali. “Important political decisions were being manipulated by drug money. It touched everything, absolutely everything.”
By the early 1990s, Cali had become one of the most thoroughly corrupt cities in the world. Cartel interests controlled virtually every major institution – including banks, businesses, politicians and law enforcement.
Like everything else in Cali, the church was in disarray. Evangelicals were few and did not much care for each other. “In those days,” Rosevelt Muriel recalls sadly, “the pastors’ association consisted of an old box of files that nobody wanted. Every pastor was working on his own; no one wanted to join together.”
When pastor-evangelists Julio and Ruth Ruibal came to Cali in 1978, they were dismayed at the pervasive darkness in the city. “There was no unity between the churches,” Ruth explained. Even Julio was put off by his colleagues and pulled out of the already weak ministerial association.
Ruth relates that during a season of fasting the Lord spoke to Julio saying, “You don’t have the right to be offended. You need to forgive.” So going back to the pastors, one by one, Julio made things right. They could not afford to walk in disunity – not when their city faced such overwhelming challenges.
Randy and Marcy MacMillan were among the first to join the Ruibals in intercession. “We just asked the Lord to show us how to pray,” Marcy remembers. And He did. For the next several months they focused on the meagre appetite within the church for prayer, unity and holiness. Realizing these are the very things that attract the presence of God, they petitioned the Lord to stimulate a renewed spiritual hunger, especially in the city’s ministers.
As their prayers began to take effect, a small group of pastors proposed assembling their congregations for an evening of joint worship and prayer. The idea was to lease the citys civic auditorium, the Colisco El Pueblo, and spend the night in prayer and repentance. They would solicit God’s active participation in their stand against the drug cartels and their unseen spiritual masters.
Roping off most of the seating area, the pastors planned for a few thousand people. And even this, in the minds of many, was overly optimistic. “We heard it all,” said Rosevelt Muriel. “People told us, ‘It can’t be done,’ ‘No one will come,’ ‘Pastors won’t give their support.’ But we decided to move forward and trust God with the results.”
When the event was finally held in May 1995, the nay-sayers and even some of the organizers were dumbfounded. Instead of the expected modest turnout, more than 25,000 people filed into the civic auditorium – nearly half of the city’s evangelical population at the time! At one point, Muriel remembers, “The mayor mounted the platform and proclaimed, ‘Cali belongs to Jesus Christ.’ Well, when we heard those words, we were energized.” Giving themselves to intense prayer, the crowd remained until 6 o’clock the next morning. The city’s famous all-night prayer vigil – the ‘vigilia’ – had been born.
Forty-eight hours after the event, the daily newspaper, El Pais, headlined, “No Homicides!” For the first time in as long as anybody in the city could remember, a 24-hour period had passed without a single person being killed. In a nation cursed with the highest homicide rate in the world, this was a newsworthy development. Corruption also took a major hit when, over the next four months, 900 cartel-linked officers were fired from the metropolitan police force (16).
“When we saw these things happening,” Randy MacMillan exulted, “we had a strong sense that the powers of darkness were headed for a significant defeat.”
In the month of June, this sense of anticipation was heightened when several intercessors reported dreams in which angelic forces apprehended leaders of the Cali drug cartel. Many interpreted this as a prophetic sign that the Holy Spirit was about to respond to the most urgent aspect of the church’s united appeal.17 Intercessors were praying, and heaven was listening. The seemingly invincible drug lords were about to meet their match.
“Within six weeks of this vision,” MacMillan recalls, “the Colombian government declared all-out war against the drug lords.” Sweeping military operations were launched against cartel assets in several parts of the country. The 6,500 elite commandos dispatched to Cali (18) arrived with explicit orders to round up seven individuals suspected as the top leaders of the cartel.
“Cali was buzzing with helicopters,” Randy remembers. “The airport was closed and there were police roadblocks at every entry point into the city. You couldn’t go anywhere without proving who you were” (19).
Suspicions that the drug lords were consulting spirit mediums were confirmed when the federalés dragnet picked up Jorge Eliecer Rodriguez at the fortune-telling parlour of Madame Marlene Ballesteros, the famous ‘Pythoness of Cali” (20). By August, only three months after God’s word to the intercessors, Colombian authorities had captured all seven targeted cartel leaders – Juan Carlos Arminez, Phanor Arizabalata, Julian Murcillo, Henry Loaiza, Jose Santacruz Londono and founders Gilberto and Miguel Roddguez.
Clearly stung by these assaults on his power base, the enemy lashed out against the city’s intercessors. At the top of his hit list was Pastor Julio Ceasar Ruibal, a man whose disciplined fasting and unwavering faith was seriously eroding his manoeuvring room.
On December 13, 1995, Julio rode into the city with his daughter Sarah and a driver. Late for a pastors’ meeting at the Presbyterian Church, he motioned to his driver to pull over. “He told us to drop him off,” Sarah recounts, “and that was the last time I saw him.”
Outside the church, a hit man was waiting in ambush. Drawing a concealed handgun, the assassin pumped two bullets into Julio’s brain at point-blank range.
“I was waiting for him to arrive at the meeting,” Rosevelt remembers. “At two o’clock in the afternoon I received a phone call. The man said, ‘They just killed Julio.’ I said, ‘What? How can they kill a pastor?’ I rushed over, thinking that perhaps he had just been hurt. But when 1 arrived on the scene, he was motionless. Julio, the noisy one, the active one, the man who just never sat still, was just lying there like a baby.”
“The first thing 1 saw was a pool of crimson blood,” Ruth recalls. “And the verse that came to me was Psalm 116:15: ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.’ Sitting down next to Julio’s body, I knew 1 was on holy ground.
“I had to decide how 1 was going to deal with this circumstance. One option was to respond in bitterness, not only toward the man that had done this terrible thing, but also toward God. He had, after all, allowed the early removal of my husband, my daughters’ father and my church’s pastor. Julio would never see his vision for the city fulfilled. My other choice was to yield to the redemptive purposes of the Holy Spirit, to give Him a chance to bring something lasting and wonderful out of the situation. Looking down at Julio I just said, ‘Lord, 1 don’t understand Your plan, but it is well with my soul.’”
Julio Ruibal was killed on the sixth day of a fast aimed at strengthening the unity of Cali’s fledgling church. He knew that even though progress had been made in this area, it had not gone far enough. He knew that unity is a fragile thing. What he could not have guessed is that the fruit of his fast would be made manifest at his own funeral.
In shock, and struggling to understand God’s purposes in this tragedy, 1,500 people gathered at Julio’s funeral. They included many pastors that had not spoken to each other in months. When the memorial concluded these men drew aside and said, “Brothers, let us covenant to walk in unity from this day forward. Let Julio’s blood be the glue that binds us together in the Holy Spirit.”
It worked! Today this covenant of unity has been signed by some 200 pastors and serves as the backbone of the city’s high profile prayer vigils. With Julio’s example in their hearts, they have subordinated their own agendas to a larger, common vision for the city.
Emboldened by their spiritual momentum, Cali’s church leaders now hold all-night prayer rallies every 90 days. Enthusiasm is so high that these glorious events have been moved to the largest venue in the city, the 55,000-seat Pascual Guerrero soccer stadium (21). Happily (or unhappily as the case may be), the demand for seats continues to exceed supply.
In 1996 God led many churches to join in a collective spiritual mapping campaign. To gain God’s perspective on their city, they began to gather intelligence on specific political, social and spiritual strongholds in each of Cali’s 22 administrative zones (a scene reminiscent of the 41 Hebrew clans that once rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem). The results, stitched together like panels on a patchwork quilt, gave the church an unprecedented picture of the powers working in the city. “With this knowledge,” Randy explained, “our unified intercession became focused. As we prayed in specific terms, we began to see a dramatic loosening of the enemy’s stranglehold on our neighbourhoods.
“A few weeks later we used our spiritual mapping intelligence to direct large prayer caravans throughout Cali. Most of the 250 cars established a prayer perimeter around the city, but a few paraded by government offices or the mansions of prominent cartel leaders. My own church focused on the headquarters of the billionaire drug lord, José Santacruz Londono, who had escaped from Bogota’s La Picota prison in January (22). His hacienda was located just four blocks from my home. The next day we heard that he had been killed in a gun fight with national police in Medellin!” (23).
In partnership with the Holy Spirit, Cali’s Christians had taken effective control of the city. What made the partnership work are the same things that always attract the presence of the Lord: sanctified hearts, right relationships and fervent intercession. “God began changing the city,” according to Ruth Ruibal, “because His people finally came together in prayer” (24).
As the kingdom of God descended upon Cali, a new openness to the gospel could be felt at all levels of society – including the educated and wealthy. One man, Gustavo Jaramillo, a wealthy businessman and former mayor, told me, “It is easy to speak to upper-class people about Jesus. They are respectful and interested.” Raul Grajales, another successful Cali businessman, adds that the gospel is now seen as practical rather than religious. As a consequence, he says, “Many high-level people have come to the feet of Jesus.”
During my April 1998 visit to Cali, I had the privilege of meeting several prominent converts, including Mario Jinete, a prominent attorney, media personality and motivational speaker. After searching for truth in Freemasonry and various New Age systems, he has finally come home to Christ. Five minutes into our interview Jinete broke down. His body shaking, this brilliant lawyer who had courageously faced down some of the most dangerous and corrupt figures in Latin America sobbed loudly. “I’ve lost forty years of my life,’ he cried into a handkerchief. “My desire now is to subordinate my ego, to find my way through the Word of God. I want to yield to Christ’s plan for me. I want to serve Him.”
Explosive church growth is one of the visible consequences of the open heavens over Cali. Ask pastors to define their strategy and they respond, “We don’t have time to plan. We’re too busy pulling the nets into the boat.” And the numbers are expanding. In early 1998, 1 visited one fellowship, the Christian Centre of Love and Faith, where attendance has risen to nearly 35,000. What is more, their stratospheric growth rate is being fuelled entirely by new converts. Despite the facility’s cavernous size (it’s a former Costco warehouse), they are still forced to hold seven Sunday services. As I watched the huge sanctuary fill up, I blurted the standard Western question: “What is your secret?” Without hesitating, a church staff member pointed to a 24-hour prayer room immediately behind the platform. “That’s our secret,’ he replied.
Many of Cali’s other churches are also experiencing robust growth, and denominational affiliation and location have little to do with it. The fishing is good for everybody and it’s good all over town. My driver, Carlos Reynoso (not his real name), himself a former drug dealer, put it this way: “There is a hunger for God everywhere. You can see it on the buses, on the streets and in the cafes. Anywhere you go people are ready to talk.” Even casual street evangelists are reporting multiple daily conversions – nearly all the result of arbitrary encounters.
Although danger still lurks in this city of 1.9 million, God is now viewed as a viable protector. When Cali police deactivated a large, 174-kilo car bomb in the populous San Nicolis area in November 1996, many noted that the incident came just 24 hours after 55,000 Christians held their third vigilia. Even El Pais headlined: “Thanks to God, It Didn’t Explode” (25).
Cali’s prayer warriors were gratified, but far from finished. The following month church officials, disturbed by the growing debauchery associated with the city’s Feria, a year-end festival accompanied by 10 days of bull fighting and blowout partying, developed plans to hold public worship and evangelism rallies.
“When we approached the city about this,” Marcy recalls, “God gave us great favour. The city secretary not only granted us rent-free use of the 22,000-scat velodrome (cycling arena), but he also threw in free advertising, security and sound support. We were stunned!” The only thing the authorities required was that the churches pray for the mayor, the city and the citizens.
Once underway, the street witnessing and rallies brought in a bounty of souls. But an even bigger surprise came during the final service which, according to Marcy, emphasized the Holy Spirit “reigning over” and “raining down upon” the city of Cali. As the crowd sang, it began to sprinkle outside, an exceedingly rare occurrence in the month of December. “Within moments,” Marcy recalls, “the city was inundated by torrential tropical rain. It didn’t let up for 24 hours; and for the first time in recent memory, Feria events had to be cancelled!”
On the evening of April 9, 1998, I had the distinct privilege of attending a citywide prayer vigil in Cali’s Pascual Guerrero stadium. It was no small event, even in the eyes of the secular media. For days leading up to the vigilia, local newspapers had been filled with stories linking it to the profound changes that had settled over the community. Evening newscasters looked straight into the camera and urged viewers, whatever their faith, to attend the all-night event.
Arriving at the stadium 90 minutes early, I found it was already a full house. I could feel my hair stand on end as I walked onto the infield to tape a report for CBN News. In the stands, 50,000 exuberant worshipers stood ready to catch the Holy Spirit’s fire. An additional 15,000 ‘latecomers’ were turned away at the coliseum gate. Undaunted, they formed an impromptu praise march that circled the stadium for hours.
Worship teams from various churches were stationed at 15-metre intervals around the running track. Dancers dressed in beautiful white and purple outfits interpreted the music with graceful motions accentuated by banners, tambourines and sleeve streamers. Both they and their city had been delivered of a great burden. In such circumstances one does not celebrate like a Presbyterian, a Baptist or a Pentecostal; one celebrates like a person who has been liberated!
Judging from the energy circulating in the stands, I was sure the celebrants had no intention of selling their emancipation short. They were not here to cheer a championship soccer team or to absorb the wit and wisdom of a big-name Christian speaker. Their sole objective on this particular evening was to offer up heartfelt worship and ask God to continue the marvellous work He had been undertaking in their city for 36 consecutive months.
“What you’re seeing tonight in this stadium is a miracle,” declared visiting Bogota pastor Colin Crawford. “A few years ago it would have been impossible for Evangelicals to gather like this.” Indeed, this city that has long carried a reputation as an exporter of death is now looked upon as a model of community transformation. It has moved into the business of exporting hope.
High up in the stadium press booth somebody grabbed my arm. Nodding in the direction of a casually dressed man at the broadcast counter he whispered, “That man is the most famous sports announcer in Columbia. He does all the big soccer championships.” Securing a quick introduction, I learned that Rafael Araújo Gámez is also a newborn Christian. As he looked out over the fervent crowd, I asked if he had ever seen anything comparable in this stadium. Like Mario, he began to weep. “Never,” he said with a trembling chin. “Not ever.”
At 2:30 in the morning my cameraman and I headed for the stadium tunnel to catch a ride to the airport. It was a tentative departure. At the front gate crowds still trying to get in looked at us like we were crazy. I could almost read their minds. Where are you going? Why are you leaving the presence of God? They were tough questions to answer.
As we prepared to enter our vehicle a roar rose up from the stadium. Listening closely, we could hear the people chanting, in English, “Lift Jesus up, lift Jesus up.” The words seemed to echo across the entire city. I had to pinch myself. Wasn’t it just 36 months ago that people were calling this place a violent, corrupt hell-hole? A city whose ministerial alliance consisted of a box of files that nobody wanted?
In late 1998, Cali’s mayor and city council approached the ministerial alliance, with an offer to manage a citywide campaign to strengthen the family. The offer, which has subsequently been accepted, gives the Christians full operational freedom and no financial obligation. The government has agreed to open the soccer stadium, sports arena and velodrome to any seminar or prayer event that will minister to broken families.
As remarkable as the preceding accounts are, they represent but a fraction of the case studies that could be presented. Several others are worth mentioning in brief.
Topping this list is Kiambu, Kenya, one-time ministry graveyard located 14 kilometres northwest of Nairobi. In the late 1980s, after years of profligate alcohol abuse, untamed violence and grinding poverty, the Spirit of the Lord was summoned to Kiambu by a handful of intercessors operating out of a grocery store basement known as the “Kiambu Prayer Cave.”
According to Kenyan pastor Thomas Muthee, the real breakthrough came when believers won a high profile power encounter with a local witch named Mama Jane. Whereas people used to be afraid to go out at night, they now enjoy one of the lowest crime rates in the country. Rape and murder are virtually unheard of. The economy has also started to grow. And new buildings are sprouting up all over town.
In February, 1999, pastor Muthee celebrated their ninth anniversary in Kiambu. Through research and spiritual warfare, they have seen their church grow to 5,000 members – a remarkable development in a city that had never before seen a congregation of more than 90 people. And other community fellowships are growing as well. “There is no doubt,” Thomas declares, “that prayer broke the power of witchcraft over this city. Everyone in the community now has a high respect for us. They know that God’s power chased Mama Jane from town” (26).
Vitória da Conquiste, Brazil
The city of Vitória da Conquiste (Victory of the Conquest) in Brazil’s Bahia state, has likewise, experienced a powerful move of God since the mid 1990s. As with other transformed communities, the recovery is largely from extreme poverty, violence and corruption.
Vitória da Conquiste was also a place where pastors spent more pulpit time demeaning their ministerial colleagues than preaching the Word. Desperate to see a breakthrough, local intercessors went to prayer. Within a matter of weeks conviction fell upon the church leaders. In late 1996 they gathered to wash one another’s feet in a spirit of repentance. When they approached the community’s senior pastor – a man who had been among the most critical – he refused to allow his colleagues to wash his feet. Saying he was not worthy of such treatment, he instead lay prostrate on the ground and invited the others to place the soles of their shoes on his body while he begged their forgiveness. Today the pastors of Vitória da Conquiste are united in their desire for a full visitation of the Holy Spirit (27).
In addition to lifting long-standing spiritual oppression over the city, this action has also led to substantial church growth. Many congregations have recently gone to multiple services. Furthermore, voters in 1997 elected the son of evangelical parents to serve as mayor. Crime has dropped precipitously, and the economy has rebounded on the strength of record coffee exports and significant investments by the Northeast Bank.
San Nicolás, Argentina
Ed Silvoso of Harvest Evangelism International reports similar developments in San Nicolás, Argentina, an economically depressed community that for years saw churches split and pastors die in tragic circumstances. According to Silvoso, this dark mantle came in with a local shrine to the Queen of Heaven that annually attracts 1.5 million pilgrims.
More recently, pastors have repented for the sin of the church and launched prayer walks throughout the community. They have spoken peace over every home, school, business and police station and concentrated intercession over 10 “dark spots” associated with witchcraft, gangs, prostitution and drug addiction. The pastors have also made appointments with leading political, media and religious (Catholic) officials to repent for neglecting and sometimes cursing them.
As a result of these actions the Catholic bishop is preaching Christ and coming to pastors’ prayer meetings. The mayor has created a space for pastors to pray in city hall. The local newspaper has printed Christian literature. The radio station has begun to refer call-in problems to a pastoral chaplaincy service. The TV station invites pastors onto live talk shows to pray for the people. In short, the whole climate in San Nicolás has changed.
Villages, cities, countries
In other parts of the world God has been at work in villages (Navapur, India; Serawak, Malaysia [Selakau people]; and the North American Arctic) in urban neighbourhoods (Guatemala City; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Resistencia, Argentina; Guayaquil, Ecuador) and even in countries (Uganda). The United States has witnessed God’s special touch in places as far-flung as New York City (Times Square); Modesto, California; and Pensacola, Florida.
Early in my ministry I never thought of investigating transformed communities. I was too preoccupied with other things. In recent days, however, I have become persuaded that something extraordinary is unfolding across the earth. It is, I have come to realize, an expression of the full measure of the kingdom of God. Finding examples of this phenomenon has become my life. And the journey has taken me to the furthest corners of the earth.
1. Most of the churches are either Baptist or Presbyterian. But there are also Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Salvationist and Pentecostal congregations.
2. Although these confradías are no longer welcome in Almolonga, they can still be found in the nearby communities of Zunil and Olintepeque.
3. Almolonga’s fields also grow cauliflower, broccoli, radishes, tomatoes, squash, asparagus, leeks and watercress. Their flower market sells gorgeous asters, chrysanthemums and estaditas.
4. See 1 Thessalonians 2:8, KJV.
5. Crowd estimates were provided by Mariano Riscajché based on 10,000 plus seats, rotating local believers and the capacity of adjacent buildings. The event was also carried on local cable television.
6. Mario Roberto Morales, “La Quiebra de Maximon,” Cronica Semanal, June 24-30, 1994, pp. 17,19,20. (In English the headline reads ‘The Defeat of Maximon.’)
7. In African social hierarchy, kindreds are situated between nuclear families and tribes. They can often be spread out in several towns or villages.
8. This is a local expression that means ‘I have pulled myself our of your clutches.’ 9. George Otis Jr., The Twilight Labyrinth (Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 1997), p. 284.
10. Television personality Art Linkletter made the area famous by proposing it as a mobile home centre.
11. This action was taken around 1976.
12. Bob believes that community pastors need to be willing to make an open-ended commitment that only God can close.
13. This is based on estimates developed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Colombia is also a major producer of marijuana and heroin. See ‘Colombia Police Raid Farm, Seize 8 Tons of Pure Cocaine,’ Seattle Times, October 16, 1994, n.p.
14. This statement is attributable to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. See also Pollard, Peter. ‘Colombia,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online [database online]. Book of the Year: World Affairs, 1995 [cited March 11, 19971. Available from http://www.eb.com/.
15. To keep tabs on their operations, cartel founders Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela installed no fewer than 37 phone lines in their palatial home.
16. Documenting the dimensions of Colombia’s national savagery, Bogota’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo, cited 15,000 murders during the first six months of 1993. This gave Colombia, with a population of 32 million people, the dubious distinction of having the highest homicide rate in the World. See Tom Boswell, ‘Between Many Fires,’ Christian Century, Vol. III, No. 18, June 1-8, 1994, p. 560.
17. Two years earlier, as a Christmas ‘gift,’ the Rodriguez brothers had provided the Cali police with 120 motorcycles and vans.
18. Otis, Jr., The Twilight Labyrinth, p. 300.
19. Ibid. This unique group was comprised of Colombian police, army personnel and contra guerrillas. Note: The June 1995 campaign also included systematic neighbourhood searches. To insure maximum surprise, the unannounced raids would typically occur at four A.M. “Altogether,” MacMillan reported, “The cartel owned about 12,000 properties in the city. These included apartment buildings they had constructed with drug profits. The first two floors would often have occupied flats and security guards to make them look normal, while higher-level rooms were filled with rare art, gold and other valuables. Some of the apartment rooms were filled with stacks of 100-dollar bills that had been wrapped in plastic bags and covered with mothballs. Hot off American streets, this money was waiting to be counted, deposited or shipped out of the country.”
The authorities also found underground vaults in the fields behind some of the big haciendas. Lifting up concrete blocks, they discovered stairwells descending into secret rooms that contained up to 9 million dollars in cash. This was so-called ‘throwaway’ money. Serious funds were laundered through banks or pumped into ‘legitimate’ businesses. To facilitate wire transfers, the cartel had purchased a chain of financial institutions in Colombia called the Workers Bank.
20. Dean Latimer, ‘Cali Cartel Crackdown?’ High Times [database online, cited 8 August 1995]. Available at http://www.hightimes.com.
21. The vigils have been held in the Pascual Guerrero stadium since August 1995. 22. After serving six months of his sentence, Santacruz embarrassed officials by riding out of the main gate of the maximum-security prison in a car that resembled one driven by prosecutors.
23. As the authorities probed the mountain of paperwork confiscated during government raids, they discovered at least two additional “capos” of the Cali cartel. The most notorious of these, Helmer ‘Pacho’ Herrera, turned himself in to police at the end of August 1996. The other, Justo Perafan, was not linked to the Cali operations until November 1996 because of a previous connection with the Valle cartel.
24. To appreciate the extent of these changes on the city, one has only to walk past the vacant haciendas of the drug barons. In addition to serving as monuments of human folly, these ghost towns stand as eloquent testimonies of the power of prayer.
25. “Gracias a Dios No Explotó,” El Pais, Cali, November 6, 1996; “En Cali Desactivan Un ‘Carrobomba,’ El.Pais, Cali, November 6, 1996, n.p.
26. For a more complete version of the Kiambu story, see The Twilight Labyrinth pp. 295-298.
27. The pastors came out of this season with a five-part strategy for turning their community around: (1) set aside a day for fasting and confession of sin; (2) require Christian men to improve the way they treat their wives and families; (3) promote reconciliation between churches; (4) raise up trained intercessors for the city, and (5) conduct spiritual mapping.
This article is from Chapter 1, “Snapshots of Glory” (pp. 15-53) of Informed Intercession (Renew 1999) by George Otis Jr., reproduced with permission of Gospel Light publications, Ventura, California, USA ( www.gospellight.com ). See Peter Wagner’s review comments in the Reviews section of this Renewal Journal.
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