Chuy Avila: planting churches in a dangerous place
by Mickey Noah
LAREDO, Texas—Among all 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 more than 20 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 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 North American Mission Board missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 6-13. 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,” says Avila. “I need prayers and support from my Christian brothers and sisters.”
Born into a Catholic family in Juarez, Mexico, Avila was only five 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 18 months ago, the Avilas were working and living in Tennessee, where he spent 11 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 30 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 53 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 14 Baptist churches, averaging 50 people each. We need to start an additional 50 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 says. “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 14 Baptist churches. With his goal of 10 new churches a year—for a total of 50 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.
“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, Tenn., for the North American Mission Board.
He and his wife of 30 years, Maria, have four children and six grandchildren.
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.