Among the hundreds of places North American Mission Board church planting missionaries work and minister across the United States and Canada, none is more dangerous than Laredo in south Texas, where Chuy and Maria Avila live and serve.
Laredo — with a population of 300,000 in the city proper — sits on the north bank of the Rio Grande, right across the river from Nuevo Laredo in Mexico. The Laredo-Nuevo Laredo metro area has a combined population of more than 700,000 American and Mexican citizens. It's a mecca of cold-blooded murder, drugs, and chaos.
Nuevo Laredo to Laredo is a thoroughfare for an estimated $20 billion drug market operated by drug cartels between Mexico and the U.S. With the drugs come unchecked violence and bloodshed. A recent local shootout between Mexican Federal Police officers and drug cartel members left a dozen dead and over twenty wounded. It's routine for Laredo citizens to hear gunfire echoing across the Rio Grande from the Nuevo Laredo side of the border.
Chuy, 48, and Maria – jointly sponsored by NAMB and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention -- are two of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. They are among the missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 6-13, 2011. With a theme of “Start Here,” the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like the Avilas.
"Laredo is a dangerous place to minister," said Avila. "I need prayers and support from my Christian brothers and sisters."
Born into a Catholic family in Juarez, Mexico, Avila was only 5 when a missionary came to town to hold a tent revival. "This is the way the Gospel came to our family. My mom got saved, my father was saved, and I got saved when I was 21-years-old. The next year, I was called into the ministry."
Only eighteen months ago, the Avilas were working and living in Tennessee, where he spent eleven years as a Hispanic church start strategist. "I knew nothing about Laredo at the time," says Avila. "I was praying for a new challenge and a new vision, and the Lord put Laredo in my mind and in my heart." After visiting, the Avilas fell in love with the south Texas border town.
In Laredo, Avila's "M.O." has been to go into neighborhoods — he calls them colonias — where there is no existing evangelistic work in place — where he feels a need to start something new, a brand-new Baptist church. He begins with block parties and Vacation Bible Schools, and every Laredo family that shows up at a block party receives a free Bible.
He has formed partnerships with local pastors and laypeople, and established a "missionary house" — a house fully equipped to hold a group of up to thirty people. Spending a week there, they are hosted, taught, and discipled by Avila. The missionary house doubles as a church on Sunday.
"There are only fifty-three evangelical churches in Laredo," said Avila. "To reach just 25 percent of the population of 300,000, Laredo needs 278 new churches. We now have only fourteen Baptist churches, averaging fifty people each. We need to start an additional fifty churches during the next five years — just to keep up with Laredo's population growth."
Avila said even putting the "danger" issue aside, Laredo is a challenging place to minister.
"The average age of the population is only 30-35 years old," Avila said. "And not only are the people young, 80-90 percent speak Spanish and 70 percent are bi-lingual. So Laredo is a city offering different kinds of situations, different than other U.S. cities."
Avila's vision is to impact Laredo with the Gospel one family at a time, so he focuses on reaching entire families for Christ.
According to Avila, Baptists have been in Laredo for 135 years. But that 135 years has only produced fourteen Baptist churches. With his goal of ten new churches a year — for a total of fifty new churches in five years — Avila will have started more churches in five years than past Baptists started in Laredo in the last 135.
"We want to start house churches, contemporary churches, traditional churches, cowboy churches, truck-driver churches, and more Spanish- and English-speaking churches," he said.
Avila sees his role as a catalyst, who maps out the city, tries to find the right place a new church is needed, and determine what kind of church to plant.
"Because of the average young age of the population, we may need a contemporary church. In an area of empty nesters, we might need a traditional church. For the Texas cowboys, we would need a cowboy church. My role is to discover the needs of the city and then try to find the right person to start a church."
While Avila would welcome church planters from the outside, his preference is to use indigenous church planters, train and equip them locally, and then deploy them throughout the Laredo metro area.
Does Chuy Avila's ministry in Laredo make a difference? It did to Angel Contreras.
Just 19, Contreras had already made some serious mistakes in his life by the time he and Avila met. He had gotten married at 16, was the father of a baby girl, but was seeking to divorce his teenage bride.
"Angel passed our church and saw some cars in the parking lot, so he thought there was someone that could pray for him because he was depressed," recalled Avila. Ironically, Avila was holding a conference on marriage and the family, and with Angel, he had an eager student.
Over coffee the following day, Avila led Angel Contreras to Christ. Contreras is now trying to rebuild his marriage, and Avila is discipling him to be a leader in one of the fifty churches Avila plans to plant in Laredo. Contreras also directs Avila's block party ministry.
"I thank God for Chuy," said Contreras. "If it wasn't for the Lord using Chuy, I really don't know where I would be. He's like my dad. He's always on top of what's going on in my life, calls me up, wants to know how I am. We're like a father-son team."
Avila says Contreras is but "one example of how the Lord can provide everything we need in order to accomplish our goals and the vision He gave us for Laredo." Avila visualizes Contreras — who speaks Spanish and English — as the future pastor of a bi-lingual church he plans to plant.
"The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering helps us a lot," Avila said. "Through that and prayer, we feel the support. Every morning when I wake up and then walk to the [mission] field in the streets, I do not feel alone. I know there are hundreds of people praying for me. I want to encourage Baptists to keep giving because through their giving, we can do our ministry here."
Avila graduated from Frontier Baptist Seminary in Juarez, Mexico, in 1991, and from Hardin-Simmons Baptist University, Abilene, Texas, in 1998. He has served as a pastor and missionary in Juarez, a pastor in El Paso, Hispanic church planter in Midland, Texas, and as a Hispanic church start strategist in Brentwood, Tennessee, for the North American Mission Board.
He and his wife of thirty years, Maria, have four children and six grandchildren.
Mickey Noah is a member of First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Georgia, and is a writer with the SBC North American Mission Board.