Cartagena is a bustling port city located on the northern coast of Colombia. It reminds me of Miami: with enormous skyscrapers overlooking white sand beaches. Only, in Cartagena, donkeys roam the streets and there are more motorbikes than there are cars.
Michael and I landed in Cartagena with the goal to connect with two missionaries and learn how City Church could partner with them and send teams of people for short-term mission trips in the future. Truthfully, we didn’t know what to expect, but our main focus was to try and learn as much as possible about the two men’s ministries and life in the few days we had with them.
We were initially greeted in the airport by Brian Massey, his cowboy hat sticking out through the crowd of taxi drivers trying to hustle us for a ride. Originally from Dallas, Brian has been in Cartagena as a missionary for the International Mission Board (IMB) for over 25 years. Even though he calls Cartagena home now, his unmistakable southern accent is recognizable even when he speaks Spanish.
We spent the bulk of our first day talking to Brian under a mango tree in our hotel courtyard, every now-and-then ducking our heads to avoid the mango’s falling from the branches. We learned that Brian’s primary focus is unreached people groups throughout Colombia, particularly the Zenu Indians. For most of the afternoon he peppered us with his ideas and strategies on how to bring the gospel into Zenu villages and reservations that have never heard it before. At the end of our conversations he invited us to join him the following day for some bible study and leadership meetings at a Zenu village an hour outside of town. Michael and I agreed without hesitation.
The following day with Brian was a blur. We spent the day participating in leadership meetings with the leaders of the Zenu church Brian helped plant. We walked house to house for discipleship meetings; each house offering a cup of coffee as we entered. We met Omar who works 6 days a week as a farm hand and on Sunday pastors the church in his village. For lunch we shared a meal of roasted chicken, yucca, and unidentifiable soup with Brian’s core leadership team, afterwards setting out again for more conversations and house visits.
By the time we got to the car at the end of the day we were exhausted. Two ladies, both in their 80’s, rode with us on the way home. Two of Brian’s earliest converts in Colombia, their stories provided a unique perspective on the ministry happening on the outskirts of Cartagena. Their eagerness to see their families, friends, and neighborhoods know The Lord is something that’ll stick with me the rest of my life.
The latter half of our trip was spent with Alex Rocha. The neighborhood where he lives just a stones throw from the airport, it’s one of the first sights you’ll see in Cartagena, but few would ever tell you to take a closer look. San Francisco has unfortunately garnered a bad reputation. Issues associated with marginalized Colombian communities— violence, drugs, prostitution—have created a stigma for the barrio. The work Alex does seeks to revitalize a part of the city so many have forgotten about.
Alex’s youth center strives to be a safe-haven for many of the kids in the area. A place where kids can learn English, music, dance, and other skills that will help them land job opportunities and break the vicious cycle of poverty and crime in the area. Michael and I got to watch some of the youth who breakdance perform on the neighborhood streets, teach in a few English classes, and play baseball and soccer at a park just down the street. I was amazed at just how many people knew Alex. Everywhere we went Alex had to stop for a few minutes to chat or laugh with someone on their doorstep. It seemed like everyday there were new faces in the Youth Center. The reach Alex is having in the community he is in is remarkable.
Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for Sunday, where Alex has Sunday school for the kids in the area. Alex told us his plans for the future were simple: continuing teaching the youth in the area valuable skills and to one day plant a church in San Francisco.
Michael and I spent our last morning in Cartagena crammed in a little diner down the street from our hotel, the torrent of motorbikes humming outside as we sipped our last cups of Colombian coffee. Finally, we were able to begin digesting all the conversations we had, the people we met, and start thinking of what lies ahead for City Church and Colombia. We both agreed that our time in this South American beach town felt so short, but we're eager to see what being for the gospel and for the city could mean for Cartagena, Colombia.