Joining What God is Doing in El Salvador

Things don’t just happen to us who love God; They’re molded and shaped, and timed by His clock. Things don’t just happen; they’re planned. (Esther Fields, 1944)
HOW FAR BACK IN YOUR LIFE can you trace the hand of God? The sovereignty of God—the secret history behind every decision, every interaction. Not an accident, but by design, not coincidence but His plan, not chance but Divine direction. “He holds in His hand not only the broad sweep of world history, but the tiniest details of our personal stories.” (Alec Motyer, Psalms by the Day)

As we begin exploring international expansion into El Salvador, it’s interesting to think about the foreknowledge of God as it relates to STCH Ministries International. In 1947, the Brown family carried the Gospel to the Dominican Republic, and a strong beachhead was established for Baptist work. During the same time period, thousands of miles away, Laura Boothe began the process of donating her land for the establishment of South Texas Children’s Home Ministries. 71 years later, those threads were connected through the descendants of the original actors in this God-directed drama!

For several years, STCH Ministries has sensed a need to share what God has enabled us to develop through International in the Dominican Republic since the beginning in 2006. Pre-Covid vision trips took us to Costa Rica, Peru and Mexico. The Covid chaos abruptly impacted those plans and we prayerfully waited and sought God’s wisdom for the future that only He could see.
In the summer of 2021, we met with Ward Hayes, Chief Financial Officer of Texas Baptists, to discuss sharing Faith & Finances training with leaders of small churches. However, Ward had heard of the STCH Ministries international work, and shared his passion for the tiny country of El Salvador, specifically for the Peniel network of churches, led by Edgar Borja, Sr. The “secret” history—God’s sovereign design for STCH Ministries in El Salvador gradually unfolded.

Prayer accompanied our research of these opportunities. El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated Central American country. The capital city, San Salvador, is the oldest and longest-standing capital in Central America. El Salvador is bounded by Honduras to the north and east, by the Pacific Ocean to the south and by Guatemala to the northwest, making it the only Central American country that lacks a Caribbean coast.

El Salvador is largely an ethnically homogenous people. The intermarriage of Spanish settlers with the indigenous Indian population has resulted in a population that is nine-tenths mestizo, with Spanish as their universal language. Coffee, sugarcane and cotton are their major export crops, although today the service sector dominates the economy. They are also a large producer and exporter of hammocks and their most notable dish is the pupusa, a stuffed corn flatbread.

A history of Civil War, crime and violence has marked Salvadoran history for many years. In addition, the country was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and by a major earthquake in 2001. In February 2019, Nayib Bukele, a Millennial who was not aligned with either of the major parties who had dominated the country since the Civil War, was elected president of El Salvador. Although he has suspended due process, according to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) 2020, violent crime has dropped by as much as 60 percent since Bukele became president in June 2019. Tourism is on the rise and the protection of Americans and all foreigners is a high priority for this government.

Prayer and communication began with El Peniel leadership. Their passion to reach people with the transforming power of the Gospel is expressed in Genesis 32:30 which is quoted on their website. In Spanish, it reads, “Vi a Dios cara a cara, y fue librada mi alma.” (I saw God face to face, and my soul was set free).

The Peniel ministry was first established in 1997, and they have been a self-governing, self-multiplying church for 30 years with no outside funding. Today they are a growing network of eight individual churches and two church plants located south of San Salvador, reaching to the coast. They are led by Edgar Borja, Sr. and a strong leadership team of home-grown pastors and their wives. They meet once a month and together they make decisions on strategies, budget and vision. They reach decisions through prayer, discussion and mutual agreement.

The Peniel churches’ objective is two-pronged: to set people free through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and to accomplish life transformation through intentional discipleship opportunities. Their church-planting model starts with a pastor, a building, a soccer team and a school.

One of the most successful outreach methods utilizes the national obsession with soccer, where each church sponsors a soccer team.

People in the neighborhood are attracted to the soccer team but must attend church to be able to play each week. However, if in the excitement of the competition, fighting and bad language occurs, the penalty is a yellow slip and additional attendance requirements! There is no pressure or compulsion to make any additional decisions, but under the teaching from the Word of God, lives are transformed.

A second goal for each church is that every church needs to establish a Christian school. Their goal of discipleship was boldly proclaimed in a large banner that hung over the combination gym/auditorium.

2022—THE YEAR OF GROWTH IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD (Colossians 1:10). The schools have developed a reputation for excellence in their education and offer English and computer classes. Parents are incentivized to attend church by the significant discounts on school tuition which they can earn.

Since May 2022, we have made three exploratory-vision trips. The team members included our Dominican partners, Russell Jerez, Dr. Francisco Paredes and Rebeca Dinzey. Succeeding trips included Eron Green, Kyle Luke and a few selected pastors and leaders as we continued to get to know the Peniel network of churches. At one of the locations that we visited named El Riel, we observed volunteers working with picks and shovels to clear land for a church building. They had been meeting on the school grounds, but as the ministry grew, they needed a larger site. We were inspired by the testimony of Pastor Anselmo.

“I was a falling-down drunk who frequently didn’t make it home at night, and my children would find me asleep in the road and drag me home. My cousin invited me to play soccer but when he told me that I would have to attend church, I refused. Later, I reconsidered and decided I would attend one time, just to be part of the soccer team. At first, church did not impact me. But I did discover that if my wife and I attended additional services, our children would receive discounted tuition! That motivated us to begin to attend more frequently and slowly the Word of God penetrated our hearts and changed our lives and our home. I began to serve, went to school for my Bible training and now I reach others who are caught in the same hopeless circumstances.”

God touched our hearts, and over the succeeding trips, we were led to contribute funds to put up the walls, and later add the roof. They continue to work by faith to add windows and doors in God’s time. We also discovered that the greatest need of the El Riel church and school is for water, as their future growth is limited by a lack of access to this essential commodity. We invite you to pray with us in faith that God will also supply this need.

There are some distinct differences between the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. Obviously, the logistics of lodging, food and transportation are different. Since they are south of the equator, their school calendar is very different from the United States, as their “summer break” is November-January. As a result, many of our ministry activities will focus on participating with the children while in school, as well as discipleship opportunities and construction needs.

We continue to seek God’s guidance as we begin the process of stepping into this expansion gradually, adapting the mission God has given to STCH Ministries to the unique needs of the Salvadorian people and the Peniel ministries. We share a common focus on meeting the needs of children and families and the goal of life transformation through Christ. Our hope is to begin in 2023, partnering together with a few US mission teams. As of December 2022, we have begun to accept some of the children into our Samuel’s Fund sponsorship program.

One of our vision trip participants, Tony Gray, who also serves on the STCH Ministries board, responded after his trip, “It is evident that God is directing us and I am impressed by the discernment you (as leaders) show in your assessment of the countries we have an opportunity to work in. Recognizing it is not the DR, we want to grow in our ability to experience the people and the culture as much as we can. Thanks again for this opportunity you provided Heather and me to visit El Salvador, meet the people and get a feel for the amazing work God is doing there through Peniel.”

Trevin Hoekzma, pastor of Calvert Grace in Maryland, shared his impressions. “While traveling through El Salvador and visiting church plants associated with the El Peniel network of churches, I experienced a vibrant church community focused on making disciples, teaching the next generation and investing in families. Salvadorians reaching their neighbors and rural communities was a beautiful thing to witness.”

Trevin continued, “In speaking with some of the church members, I heard a desire and request for Americans to come teach English to their children and help increase the scope of the church’s outreach. We are eager and delighted to answer that request by sending a team this summer.”

Russell Jerez, from the Dominican Republic, added, “Visiting El Salvador has helped me see the wonders God is doing through the Salvadorian people in their ministry.”

We are excited about the opportunity to serve God through the Peniel network. We trust God to continue to help us plan wisely as we follow His leading. Mutually beneficial partnerships don’t just happen—they are planned in that mysterious interplay between the sovereignty of God and our own choices. We ask for your prayers in the following ways:

1. For volunteer teams
2. For financial support
3. For wisdom and God’s perfect timing.

Most of all, we desire that our vision will be renewed and energized as we celebrate what God has done and seek to transform lives through the power of the Gospel.