LAREDO, Texas (BP)--Among the hundreds of places North American Mission Board church planting missionaries work and minister across the United States and Canada, none is more dangerous than Laredo in south Texas, where Chuy and Maria Avila live and 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. It's a center for cold-blooded murder, drugs and chaos.
Nuevo Laredo to Laredo is a thoroughfare for an estimated $20 billion drug market operated by drug cartels between Mexico and the United States. 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 more than 20 wounded. It's routine for Laredo citizens to hear gunfire echoing across the Rio Grande from the Nuevo Laredo side of the border.
Chuy, 48, and Maria -- jointly sponsored by NAMB and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention -- are two of 5,000-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.
"Laredo is a dangerous place to minister," Avila said. "I need prayers and support from my Christian brothers and sisters."
Born into a Catholic family in Juarez, Mexico, Avila was only 5 years old 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," Avila said.
Only 18 months ago, the Avilas were working and living in Tennessee, where he spent 11 years as a Hispanic church start strategist.
"I knew nothing about Laredo at the time," he said. "I was praying for a new challenge and a new vision, and the Lord put Laredo in my mind and in my heart."
After visiting, the Avilas fell in love with the south Texas border town.
In Laredo, Avila's strategy has been to go into neighborhoods -- he calls them "colonias" -- where there is no existing evangelistic work in place and where he feels a need to start something new, such as a 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.
Avila has formed partnerships with local pastors and laypeople and established a missionary house -- a house fully equipped to hold up to 30 people. As people spend a week there, they are hosted, taught and discipled by Avila. The missionary house doubles as a church on Sunday.
"There are only 53 evangelical churches in Laredo," Avila said. "To reach just 25 percent of the population of 300,000, Laredo needs 278 new churches. We now have only 14 Baptist churches, averaging 50 people each. We need to start an additional 50 churches during the next five years just to keep up with Laredo's population growth."
Aside from the danger, Avila said, Laredo is a challenging place to minister.
"The average age of the population is only 30 to 35 years old," he said. "And not only are the people young, 80 to 90 percent speak Spanish and 70 percent are bilingual. So Laredo is a city offering different kinds of situations than other U.S. cities."
Avila's vision is to impact Laredo with the Gospel one family at a time, so he focuses on reaching entire families for Christ.
According to Avila, Baptists have been in Laredo for 135 years, but those efforts have 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.
"We want to start house churches, contemporary churches, traditional churches, cowboy churches, truck driver churches and more Spanish- and English-speaking churches," he said.
Avila sees his role as a catalyst who maps out the city, tries to find where a new church is needed and determines what kind of church to plant.
"Because of the average young age of the population, 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."
While Avila would welcome church planters from the outside, his preference is to train and equip indigenous church planters and then deploy them throughout the Laredo area.
Does Avila's ministry in Laredo make a difference? It did to Angel Contreras.
Just 19, Contreras already had made some serious mistakes in his life by the time he and Avila met. He had gotten married at 16, was the father of a baby girl, but was seeking to divorce his teenage bride.
"Angel passed our church and saw some cars in the parking lot, so he thought there was someone that could pray for him because he was depressed," Avila recounted.
Ironically, Avila was holding a conference on marriage and the family, and with Contreras he had an eager student.
Over coffee the following day, Avila led Contreras to Christ. Contreras is now trying to rebuild his marriage, and Avila is discipling him to be a leader in one of the 50 churches Avila plans to plant in Laredo. Contreras also directs Avila's block party ministry.
"I thank God for Chuy," Contreras said. "If it wasn't for the Lord using Chuy, I really don't know where I would be. He's like my dad. He's always on top of what's going on in my life, calls me up, wants to know how I am. We're like a father-son team."
Avila said Contreras is "one example of how the Lord can provide everything we need in order to accomplish our goals and the vision He gave us for Laredo." Avila imagines Contreras -- who speaks Spanish and English -- as the future pastor of a bilingual church.
"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 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."
Avila graduated from Frontier Baptist Seminary in Juarez, Mexico, in 1991 and from Hardin-Simmons Baptist University in Abilene, Texas, in 1998. He has served as a pastor and missionary in Juarez, a pastor in El Paso, Hispanic church planter in Midland, Texas, and as a Hispanic church start strategist for the North American Mission Board in Brentwood, Tenn.
He and Maria, his wife of 30 years, have four children and six grandchildren.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.
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