Why did communist guerillas in El Salvador put Daniel Caceres so high on their murder "hit list" in 1980?
Was it because his brother was a top officer in El Salvador's army battling the guerillas? Was it because Daniel had been a successful businessman, or because he was an evangelical Christian leader in the civil war-torn nation?
Now, twenty-seven years later, Caceres (pronounced "Ka-sé-res") says he doesn't care or want to know why he was targeted.
"Back then, the communists were killing pastors and priests all the time," he recalls. "A lot of people died in El Salvador, close to one hundred thousand people, especially the clergy, lawyers, and businessmen."
Caceres, now 58, was born in El Salvador as was his wife, Marta, and their two sons. Educated as an accountant who also achieved national soccer star status, he fled the country when war erupted.
Raised by a mother who was a "great lady of faith," Caceres had already rejected two "calls" from God to become a full-time pastor by the time the civil war broke out.
"God called me three times," said Daniel. "The first time, I didn't hear His voice very clearly. The second time, I heard His voice but I didn't answer."
The third time — with civil war and certain death hanging over him — Daniel answered God's call. "I said, 'Lord, it's OK. Now I surrender my life full-time to you,' and I started preaching the Gospel."
So Caceres left his beloved but bloody El Salvador for the last time in 1980. He lost his heavy equipment business, his house, his cars, and the church he loved so much.
"I came to America with only my two kids, my wife, and my Jesus Christ," he says with a face that breaks into a warm smile when he mentions the name of "his" Jesus.
Working in His typical mysterious way, God used three communist guerillas — all stalking Daniel to kill him with their machine guns — to make him realize he needed to totally surrender his life to God.
"I now recommend to people who receive a call from God to be obedient the first time. Don't wait for those guerillas to come and get you," he jokes, now able to laugh about it twenty-seven years later.
For the last five years, Caceres has served as state Hispanic church planting strategist in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, jointly supported by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO). He's worked as a NAMB missionary since 1988.
When he first came to Oklahoma in 1981, the state had a relatively small Hispanic population and only a half-dozen Hispanic congregations. The 1990 census reported 179,000 Hispanics in the state. But today, 300,000 Hispanics call the Sooner State home, and there are more than one hundred Hispanic churches.
According to Caceres, 80 percent of Oklahoma's 300,000 Hispanics are from Mexico. The remainder comes from Spain, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and other Central and South American nations.
"The problem for us is that from Mexico, only the poor people are coming — from the mountains and the rural areas. The people who live in Mexico City, Monterey, and the other big cities are staying. But the poor people from the rural areas of Mexico are coming here to survive," he said.
Caceres said Oklahoma City and its six surrounding counties are the Hispanic hot spots in Oklahoma, with about 200,000 living and working there. Tulsa has another 45,000 Hispanics.
"They are people who are coming here to survive," says Caceres. "We have the privilege that God is sending these people to Oklahoma so we can share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them.
"My main role in Oklahoma is starting churches around the state. I'm coordinating the strategy and the plan to reach out to Hispanics for Jesus Christ," he said.
What's a typical week like for a church planting strategist in Oklahoma?
"First, we are always looking at the cities with the greatest Hispanic populations in the state. And then we are looking for sponsoring churches, partnering churches, and primary churches to provide us with their facilities to start new churches in their towns.
"We're also looking for the right person, the right church planters," Caceres said, "and to train them to lead the Hispanic people here in the Gospel. We don't have a lot of people who would like to be church planters here. We struggle with that."
One of Caceres' showcase Hispanic churches is Oklahoma City's Rios de Agua. Supported with funds from NAMB and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, the church was started in 1990 and runs about three hundred each Sunday.
With 35,000 Hispanics living within a six-mile radius around the church, Caceres said attracting only one percent of them would hike attendance by 350, while drawing 10 percent would mean 3,500 more in the church's pews each Sunday.
"Rios de Agua has a great attendance now, and has become the largest Hispanic church in Oklahoma. They baptized twenty-six people last year and this year, their goal is to baptize fifty."
A missional church, Rios de Agua supports the Cooperative Program and is trying to start churches in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries. The church also runs fifteen Bible studies throughout Oklahoma City's Hispanic neighborhoods.
"It's a great church with great projections," Caceres said. "The pastor, Isaiah Vargas, is a great man who is very dedicated to the Lord. And we at NAMB and BGCO are supporting him with resources."
Despite the hardships he has faced, Caceres has never lost his love for soccer, or "football" as he sometimes calls it. After all, he was good enough to be asked to join the national El Salvador soccer team. He could not play, however, because games were always on Sundays when he was teaching or preaching. Plus, he didn't approve of the sport's association with liquor, cigarettes, and other vices.
"I would tell them 'I really don't use that,'" he said, speaking of the alcohol and tobacco products advertised to sponsor soccer in El Salvador. "I was a Christian, and it was difficult for me because there were not many Christians playing soccer at the time. And I was proud to be a Christian.
"Now I'm still playing soccer and through that sport and the ability God gave me, I have reached some people, and some of them are pastors now. I have two here in Oklahoma that I reached through soccer.
"I still enjoy soccer and the relationship it gives me with people. I can talk to them. I can share my feelings and show them that Jesus Christ is living in me. I'm almost 59 and still have the energy to go out there and play with them and tell them that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer."
Ask Daniel what he's most proud of, and he'll say his family. His wife, Marta, serves as director of Golden Gate Extension Seminary for the Metropolitan Hispanic Association. His two sons, Daniel Jr. and Carlos, are both full-time ministers. In fact, younger son Carlos also is a church planter and his parents' pastor at bilingual Hispanic Emmanuel Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, about twenty miles south of Oklahoma City, and famous as the home of the University of Oklahoma.
"But the greatest joy I have is seeing somebody come to know Jesus Christ when I share the Gospel with him or her and pray with them."
Caceres asks Southern Baptists to pray that God will provide the additional church planters and workers he needs because in 2008, his goal is to start thirty new Hispanic churches.
"Through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, we receive a lot of resources and support," he says. "We now have more than one hundred Hispanic churches, ten Korean churches, a few Chinese churches, and some Russian and Japanese churches. We're doing our job in Oklahoma."
Mickey Noah is a staff writer with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board.
2008 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering Facts
Why Give to AAEO?
To support our missionary team in its efforts to reach for Christ an estimated 250 million North Americans who do not have a personal relationship with Him; that's three out of four people.
Amount of AAEO used to support missionaries and their work:
What are ways AAEO-supported missionaries use those funds?
• Start new churches
• Evangelize students on college campuses
• Serve the physical and spiritual needs of people through evangelism ministries
• Serve in Baptist associations as associational missionary or mission staff
• Provide training and ministry in interfaith witness evangelism
• Minister in resort settings such as lakes, campgrounds, and ski areas