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The secret of the Galápagos Islands revealed

By Kirk Noonan

“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2, NIV).

Step onto the tarmac and survey Baltra’s surroundings. They’re so Spartan and seemingly lifeless you wonder if you’ve been dropped off on an arid, brown moon.

Sure, there’s a small terminal and a row of huts where postcards, stuffed animals and all other manner of souvenirs are sold. A couple of tourist buses even lumber up to the terminal like prehistoric mammals looking for something to eat. But for the most part the area seems to be nothing but lava rock, dust and a handful of lone, dried-out cacti that somehow eked out an existence here.

Minutes later you’re on a ferry chugging across the limpid waters of Canal del Norte, which separates the islands of Baltra and Santa Cruz. The pristine Pacific Ocean glints and beckons with its turquoise and dark blue waters. Soon you arrive on Santa Cruz, and instantly its beauty strikes you. A soothing mist envelops you, and your eyes are drawn to the lush greenery that crawls up the island’s volcanoes.

Added to the scenery are the eager and friendly locals. Immediately you’re glad you made the effort to travel to the Galápagos Islands, an archipelago 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast.

Unlike the scientists, conservationists and tourists you’re among, your job is not to study nature, protect wildlife or scuba dive. Instead, you’ve come to find out how the Assemblies of God has become the biggest and fastest-growing Christian fellowship in the birthplace of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

A hired truck motors along a paved road that runs between the island’s volcanoes. The guide notes five inhabited islands and numerous other islands and islets — the work of seabed volcanoes. As he talks you notice the canopy of gray clouds overhead that shield you from the equatorial sun. You’re thankful because your research warned you about the formidable heat and humidity.

The truck passes conservationists huddled on the side of the road, inspecting a flora specimen. Helping preserve the ecosystem here is a duty volunteers from around the world savor. Ecotourists come not only to protect the environment, but also to help preserve the theory of evolution by natural selection made famous by Darwin after his five-week visit here in 1835.

Your guide asks the driver to pull over at the summit of a volcano. After a short trot down a narrow trail through dense forest, you stand on the volcano’s ring. Looking down more than 300 feet into the earth is unnerving. Fearing a sudden case of vertigo, you step back from the edge and double-check your footing.

“You can hear the finches in the trees,” announces your Christian guide, making an obvious allusion to Darwin who believed the finches played a great role in the process of his theory of evolution. “Yes, this is the birthplace of evolution, but it’s incredible what national Assemblies of God leaders and laypeople are doing among the 25,000 residents of these islands. Many residents have an innate desire to know God and believe in Him.”

An hour later the driver navigates cobblestone streets in Puerto Ayora, a charming seaside port where much of the island’s commerce is conducted. It doesn’t take long to notice Darwin is a fixture here. A research center and even streets are named after him.

The driver turns off a main thoroughfare onto a narrow dirt road flanked by hardscrabble shacks and homes. Squeezed among them is Hosanna Christian Church, the first AG church in the Galápagos Islands and the mother church of all the AG congregations established throughout the archipelago.

“There is a great hunger for the Word of God on the Galápagos Islands,” says Domingo Merchan, associate pastor at HCC, who gives you a tour of the church grounds. “For that reason the church continues to grow.”

Merchan and others say many locals cling to the theory of evolution and forgo a belief in God because it has been engrained in them since birth. Others do so, he contends, because working as a trained guide promoting Darwin and his theory is prestigious and pays well.

“Evolution has had strength in the islands, especially with people who serve as guides,” Merchan says. “But the gospel is stronger than any theory. That’s why people come to church.”

Believers like Merchan quickly add that the Pentecostal message has thrived here because residents are looking for something that demonstrates the power of God.

“On these islands many people are looking for a way to heal their hearts,” Mercy Bernaza, a lay leader at HCC, says. “Because of the testimonies coming out of our church, people come with an expectation to find answers to their needs.”

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).

Fifteen years ago Carlos and Anita Liberio came to the Galápagos Islands as missionaries from the Ecuador AG. Back then, Carlos says, the islands had no phones, little technology and no news service. Even worse, he adds, there was no Pentecostal presence.

Upon their arrival Carlos found work as a welder. He and Anita shared the gospel, and eventually they started a fellowship group that became the impetus for HCC. In little more than a decade, HCC grew into a thriving congregation, fellowship groups were started in other communities and two churches were planted. Plans are to plant at least six more churches.

Unsión Television, a Spanish-language Christian network founded by missionary Bill McDonald, worked closely with HCC and recently secured construction permits to build three television stations on the Galápagos Islands. Carlos says television is yet another way to reach people with the gospel.

“We want to see every person here come to Christ,” he says.

Carlos is trim and athletic. But as he talks you notice his sad, tired eyes. He reveals that he and his two teenage children are grieving over Anita’s recent death. Her battle with cancer and untimely death, he admits, dealt a devastating blow to his family and their ministry. But in the past few months they have regrouped and now feel ready to pick up the work Anita so loved.

Spreading the gospel will involve breaking bondages long connected to the islands’ history. Pirates used to hide out here and pillage natural resources. Then Darwin helped make the place famous with his theory of evolution. The islands were used to confine prisoners who endured cruel and unusual punishments, and slavery had a stint here too. But of all the blemishes, believers will tell you, Darwin’s hold on this region has proven to be the most influential and long lasting.

Carlos is not deterred.

“Our goal is to change the culture here,” he says. “One day people will refer to the Galápagos Islands simply as the islands God created.”

“And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear’” (Genesis 1:9).

In Puerto Ayora sailors scrub barnacles off a ship’s hull. Dive guides give last-minute instructions to tourists on the docks. Welders repair fishing gear as water taxis — known as pangas — are loaded with boxes of fruit, juice, bread, meat, alcohol and passengers for transfer to anchored yachts and cruise ships.

You board Jehovah Jireh, a boat owned by HCC. Captain Peter Bernaza, husband of Mercy and also a church member and leader, says the boat provides church members with a means of income. But even more important, it is used to get Carlos and other church planters from one island to the next so they can share the gospel.

Although no AG missionaries from the United States live on the islands, says Peter, they have played a crucial role in helping the national church get established here. As evidence he points to the Yamaha four-stroke outboard motor that AG missionaries provided.

“Our greatest petition is that we will be able to evangelize these islands,” Peter says when you ask how believers can pray effectively for the Galápagos Islands. “We want to have an effective witness to people on all the islands.”

To do that well, Carlos says, leaders need to be trained, churches planted, finances raised and believers around the world motivated to pray that God will continue to move here.

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28).

After encounters with mammoth tortoises, playful sea lions and dragonlike marine iguanas, you can only marvel at God’s handiwork.

The same is true when you consider what God is doing on the Galápagos Islands through the faithfulness and determination of believers committed to sharing their faith.

“The church is clearly alive and well in the place where Darwinism came into being,” Peter had said.

And for this you are glad because it proves once again that no matter what the world says, all things are possible with God.

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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