By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
LENOIR CITY — Listen to reports of world news and you will hear of the struggles faced by people in Venezuela, a country rocked by political turmoil and chaos.
Venezuelans are dying of hunger due to a severe food crisis in the country. Statistics reveal that 80 percent of the residents live in poverty and that many people only eat once or twice a day and do not have access to basic hygiene items such as soap, shampoo, tooth paste and brushes, toilet paper, to name a few.
Maria Luisa Chun has firsthand knowledge of the situation. Though she is now a pastor’s wife living in Loudon County, most of her family remains in Venezuela. She knows that many of her family and friends have gone mostly without food in recent months.
Last summer Maria and her husband, Valentin, pastor of La Cruz Baptist Church in Lenoir City, prayed about how they could help her family in Venezuela and approached Phil Holmes, director of missions for Loudon County Baptist Association.
Holmes, a member of New Providence Baptist in Lenoir City, shared the concern with his Sunday School class. In a month’s time the class collected three large boxes of food that the Chuns were able to have delivered to Maria’s family in the city of Cabimas.
When Maria’s sister accepted the shipment of boxes in Cabimas, she immediately dubbed them “boxes of blessings.”
And, the blessings have not stopped.
What began as an effort of one Sunday School class has now spread throughout the association. Holmes said about 20 of the association’s churches have joined in the ministry with gifts of food and money to ship eight boxes of food (approximately 800 to 1,100 pounds) to Cabimas each month. Most of the boxes also contain Bibles, he added. As the ministry has grown, the association has been able to send two shipments in June, July, and August, Holmes said.
Holmes said they have become more efficient in packing the boxes to get the most needed products to the country at a lower cost.
While they could have sent more boxes, Holmes said they keep it at eight in order to not attract too much attention by government officials who could seize the food and keep it from the desired destination.
So far, God has protected each shipment, Holmes said. “We would like to do more, but we have to be careful,” he said.
As more food has been sent to the country, it is reaching other families at First Baptist Church, Cabimas, where Maria’s family attends, and even into the community.
The church has used some of the food to start 1-5-1 harvest plants in the community as a means to share the gospel. 1-5-1 was the brainchild of Bobby Welch, former associate executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention who retired in 2015. 1-5-1 harvest plants are off-campus efforts (outside the four walls of the church) geared toward people who don’t know Christ as their Savior for the purpose of sharing the gospel, discipling people, and starting churches.
Members of First Baptist Church, Cabimas, are using the food to prepare soup for a program they call “Come and Eat.” Local residents come to a site once a week to get a meal and to hear the gospel. In the past year the church has seen a number of people (including 15 teenagers) accept Christ as Savior and are in the process of planting a new church in nearby Punta Gorda, all a direct result of the “boxes of blessings.”
Holmes and the Chuns estimate that the eight boxes sent each month by churches in Loudon County Association are feeding as many as 63 families and another 140-150 people who eat meals at the home churches or at FBC, Cabimas, which provides a meal twice a month at the church.
In addition, the ministry is expanding beyond Cabimas. New Providence Baptist Church recently entered into a partnership with Pastor Israel Leal in Valencia to provide food to people in need there.
“It is a joy to see how people are blessing other people,” added Pastor Valentin.
He also is proud of his wife who came to the United States about 10 years ago with the intent of staying only a few months because she wanted to return home to her family. But now she and her husband see how God arranged for her to remain in the United States in order to one day help her family.
When the need arose last year to help her family, she and her husband recalled the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. “I realized that God was talking to me and that I had to be obedient to His voice,” she recalled.
“I’m proud of how God is using my wife,” her husband added. Not only are they providing food to hungry Venezuelans, they are “showing the love of Christ” and people are being saved, Pastor Valentin said.
His wife agreed. “Not only has my family benefited from the food, but through this ministry many people have come to know Christ. … We didn’t want to send people with full bellies to hell.”
Holmes acknowledged that it took a while for the ministry to fully “take root.” There were some months when it came time to prepare the shipments that “we didn’t have the food or the money to send it” but it always arrived when needed, he said.
He is grateful for the Loudon County churches that have responded to a need thousands of miles away. “This is proof that churches can do more together than they can apart,” he said. “This has been a concerted effort that has brought our churches together.”
Holmes hopes that the association’s ministry can be a model for other churches and associations. There are a lot of churches in Cabimas and surrounding areas that could benefit from such a partnership, Holmes said. For more information about the Boxes of Blessings ministry, contact Holmes at 865-986-2292 or ministry assistant Teresa Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.