Jason Byassee: Gumption and holiness in an infant church

Juan de Dios and the Methodist Church in El Salvador are raising up leaders for their church and society. And for the rest of us.

“We want to build capacity in young people so they can be leaders.” It’s the kind of vanilla statement one might expect from a denominational bureaucrat. Except that the speaker, Juan de Dios Peña, is no ordinary church bureaucrat.

He’s the presiding elder of the Evangelical Methodist Church of El Salvador -- a very young (16 years old) mission outfit with 10 established congregations and four more fledgling faith communities. Out of those 14 congregations, this small but growing outpost of Methodism has some 40 candidates who’ve stepped forward seeking ordination. “Twenty have real promise,” Juan told me during a visit to Duke. Not a bad rate of producing church leaders.

Methodist life in El Salvador is frenetic. The 14 churches together run three medical clinics. In a nation with overwhelming health-care needs, it is an invaluable service. El Salvador’s few hospitals often lack personnel, equipment and medicines, and adequate care is available only to those able to pay the high cost. An appointment with a physician can cost as much as $40 just to be seen, but at the Methodist clinics, the cost is only $3, thanks in large part to the support of physician and other short-term missionaries from the United States.

“And we have medicine,” Juan crowed. “We’ve run health clinics for four years and seen over 80,000 patients, and we still haven’t paid a doctor.”

Methodists in El Salvador also build houses for poor people, much like Habitat for Humanity, with whom it partners. The homes are mostly for widows, which the country has in abundance after years of civil war and immigration to the United States by men who sometimes forget their family back home. They also sponsor Casa Buen Samaritano -- the “House of the Good Samaritan” -- a guest house for people traveling to the hospital. Many patients travel for many days to get to the hospital, and they and their families often have to wait several days more before seeing a physician. In the meantime, they may not have enough money for food and shelter. The Methodists stake out the block by the hospital, find families in such straits, and invite them to stay at Casa Buen Samaritano.

“We explain we do this because we’re Methodists, and that we have a refrigerator, food, clothes,” Juan said. “We have room for up to 25 people.”

Even with all this busyness, Methodists in El Salvador worship God more than they do anything else. And they worship a lot. “We have church every day,” Juan said. In addition to a major worship service on Sunday, they have but smaller daily gatherings of Methodist Men, Methodist Women and Methodist Youth the rest of the week.

The church places a special emphasis on the youth gatherings, Juan said. One of the most pressing challenges for all El Salvadorans, Methodist and otherwise, is how to keep young people out of gangs. The Methodists do it by offering a better and richer version of the same things that gangs claim to provide young people in El Salvador: support and entertainment.

“We have music, basketball, soccer, retreats,” Juan said. “We provide opportunities for scholarships. We help them see they can dream to be a lawyer, a computer expert, whatever they want.”

The gangs, of course, also promise to help kids become whatever they want, but the church helps shape that “want” differently. “We’re trying to model how the whole country might respond to this social problem,” Juan said.

As a result, the church sometimes collides with their competition. The gangs collect “rent” from all the businesses in San Salvador and elsewhere, including from the Methodist clinic. But the Methodists couldn’t pay on their shoestring budget. So Juan asked to see the gang leader.

“This is not normal,” Juan said. “But I had to.”

He went to the gang’s meeting place and, surrounded by dozens of members and lieutenants, spoke to the gang leader. He explained that the Methodists operated the clinic for Jesus, to help poor people. He hoped for leniency. He got it, with some unexpected support from one of the gang members.

“It’s true,” the gang member told the chief. “My mom was sick, and she went to the Methodist clinic.”

As a result, the gang chief agreed to let the Methodists off the hook, but only on one condition: “You have to pray for us.” So Juan did, “very diplomatically,” asking God to watch over and protect the gang. Now when the gang leaders see him in the street they greet him, “Hey pastor!”

Meeting Juan and hearing about the Evangelical Methodist Church in El Salvador makes me want more leaders like him, but I confess that I’m very conflicted about that want. In a church with very few material resources he’s building a small spiritual empire, known by poor people and gang leaders and politicians as a source of future leaders, “useful to the church and the country.” And yet, to wish for more Juans is to wish for a bigger church. Unfortunately, that, in turn, may make the production of such leaders unlikely.

Since meeting Juan, I’ve wondered a lot: Why does Christianity seem to do its best when it’s at the stage Methodism is at in El Salvador: young, scrappy and willing to take risks? Is it possible to be bigger -- as the quite evangelical church in El Salvador longs to be -- and still produce leaders like Juan? Where do such leaders come from when churches become bigger, older, creaky and middle-aged?