From the complex history of Pablo Escobar, drug trafficking, and violence in Medellín, to the barriers to preaching the gospel among indigenous villages, we learn about the challenges of following Jesus in Colombia. In this episode of Neighborhoods and Nations, Steven Morales talks to Pastor Diego Cardona to understand what it is like to be a Christian in Colombia.
This story is wild.
Earlier this year a 13-year-old managed to survive a plane crash and then survived another 40 days in a remote Colombian jungle. Although, I should mention, she wasn’t on her own. She did this while also taking care of her three younger siblings, including a one-year-old girl.
After their tiny plane crashed in a remote part of a Colombian jungle, every adult on board was killed, including their mother. And it seemed like they wouldn’t last long either.
But this big sister had something most other people don’t have: serious survival skills.
Growing up in an indigenous tribe in a remote village, the girl named Lesly had learned how to collect drinking water and edible fruits in the forest—and how to avoid jungle dangers like snakes and other wild animals.
Colombia’s president called the siblings “an example of total survival.” Others called it “a miracle,” but the children’s grandmother had a different take. She told a reporter: “I give thanks to Mother Earth, because she released them.”
That way of thinking isn’t uncommon among Colombia’s indigenous groups, whose religious beliefs usually revolve around ideas about spiritual forces connected to nature.
Most don’t believe in one God, Creator of all things and the Savior of sinners.
And here’s the thing: Many have never even heard of Him. Some are living unreached by the gospel.
That’s sort of surprising because Colombia is a very reached nation, considered 95% Christian. And this is where we need to look beyond nation borders and understand reached and unreached. Green zones and red zones.
Because countries are more complex, they can actually have both. And Colombia is more like a green zone with red edges.
But the question is, what is keeping those red edges red, especially when they’re surrounded by green?
Medellín: A City Transformed
Medellín is an incredible city known for its natural beauty and great weather. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend it.
The drug lord Pablo Escobar grew up here, and he made Medellin the headquarters for an international drug trade that made him one of the most wanted men in the world.
You can still visit the abandoned prison Escobar once designed for himself or the neighborhood where he lived or even watch a show about him on Netflix, but a lot of Colombians aren’t exactly excited about that kind of tourism industry.
For them, it’s a reality they lived, not a show they watched. Plus, they’d rather people know something else about Medellin: Things got a lot better here.
This is Comuna 13.
If Medellin was once considered the murder capital of the world, this was one of the most dangerous parts of it. But after Escobar’s death, things did start to improve. The homicide rate has dropped 80 percent and now Comuna 13 is a tourist attraction because of how vibrant it’s become, instead of how dangerous it once was.
The dangerous times had a big influence on Medellín, including the churches.
Diego Cardona: My early years of ministry coincided with the years when we experienced great violence in Medellin due to drug trafficking, specifically, later on, due to paramilitary groups and guerrillas who invaded urban areas in Colombia.
In my particular case, I grew up in a very poor neighborhood in the south of the Aburra Valley, and in that area, more than half of my friends and schoolmates became hitmen for Pablo Escobar.
The majority of young people in the neighborhood where I grew up were killed before the age of 19 because they were young individuals who, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, did whatever Pablo Escobar, known as “el patrón” told them to do.
This is Diego Cardona, a pastor who grew up in Medellin and has seen it go through incredible changes. He’s seen how years of turmoil in Medellín were hard on everyone, including on churches that were already struggling to grow.
Diego Cardona: The church in Medellin has always been a minority church. Medellin is considered one of the least evangelized cities in Colombia, and perhaps even in Latin America. In addition to that, the emergence of violence and the mass displacement of missionaries who had to literally leave or flee from Medellin due to the violence, especially during the 1990s, greatly affected the growth of the church.
But churches pressed on even through the difficulties, and as violence dropped, things gradually improved for society in general and also for evangelical churches in the predominantly Catholic nation.
Diego Cardona: In the year 1991, a new Constitution was approved that allowed evangelical Christian churches to be called churches. Until 1991, churches were not recognized in Colombia. In 1991, there were other changes as well, including the introduction of the direct election of mayors and governors. This allowed us to start seeing younger mayors in the city of Medellin, who were very interested in restoring the presence of the state in the poorest communities.
For example, until 2004 or 2005, Medellin had a population of more than 5,000 children living on the streets. These abandoned children were subjected to violence, abuse, and had become entangled in drug addiction. When these new mayors took office and initiated large social programs to address and counteract this phenomenon, they worked to provide safe spaces where these children could be educated and protected, among other things.
You can actually see some of those changes as you walk around Medellín.
When city planners started thinking about how to remake Medellin after its crime rate started dropping, they decided it was important to pursue projects that included some of the city’s marginalized citizens who had often been overlooked.
These escalators and cable cars are one way to help low-income residents living high in the hills to commute a lot quicker to the city below to go to work or school.
Of course, there’s still poverty in Medellín, and there’s still violence. It’s certainly not perfect, but a lot has changed for good.
And Diego, along with many other Colombian believers, are hopeful for a future for churches in a city that had once really lost its way.
Diego Cardona: Well, we work and pray for more church planting. We actively engage in mission work and social outreach, mobilizing our church to make a positive impact.
Every city and region in Colombia has its own story, but overall, lots of believers head to churches on Sunday mornings, and they worship in ways that might look a lot like your own church.
But the questions remains: Where are the red zones in Colombia? And why they haven’t heard the gospel? For that, we need to head outside the city and look to some places that are a little less seen.
Unreached People Groups in Colombia?
Even if you’ve never been to Colombia, you’ve probably had their coffee. Colombia produces around 13 million bags of coffee every year, and their beans are grown right here in these mountains. But there’s a lot more happening here.
For decades, these mountains have been a haven for armed groups fighting with the Colombian government.
It’s a long-running, complex conflict that can make life difficult for ordinary citizens living in rural areas. For Christian pastors, it can get especially complicated when they speak out against criminals in their villages.
And sometimes, just existing as a church is a problem.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported: “Illegal armed groups on both the left and the right often perceive the presence of a strong or growing church as a threat to their authority.” In other words, if you’re loyal to the church, you might not be loyal to us.
But in other rural areas, there are hardly any churches at all. And that brings is back to Colombia’s indigenous groups.
Indigenous groups are descendants of the earliest peoples to live in Colombia, and they now make up a minority of Colombia’s population. Many still follow ancestral practices and religions, and maintain beliefs tied to nature and spiritual forces.
Even though Colombia has religious freedom laws, a 1998 ruling by the Constitutional Court said indigenous leaders can enforce their people’s participation in indigenous religious traditions while on indigenous lands. Some leaders use that law to forbid practicing other religions—including Christianity.
Now, how this plays out varies from community to community, but it can be really tough for an indigenous person to embrace the gospel. Some might be punished or even driven off their ancestral lands. And that makes it difficult to reach those who haven’t heard the gospel at all.
Operation World reports that 37 indigenous languages in Colombia do not have a New Testament, and 25 have no Scripture at all.
Don’t Miss the Red in the Green
It’s wild to think that even in a country that’s predominantly Christian, you still have believers who have to meet in secret.
One Christian worker in a mountainous region told us he regularly meets with believers from an indigenous group, and that they often walk hours to gather in secret. They study stories form the Bible, including ones that show God’s power over nature. And instead of worshipping nature or spirits, he said it’s encouraging to gather around a meal and pray: “Lord, thank You for providing this harvest.”
To go from worshiping creation, to knowing and treasuring the Creator.
For some of our unseen brothers and sisters in Colombia, making that change can cost a lot—maybe even everything. But as another jungle missionary once said before losing his own life: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”