Under the Big Top
Convoy of Hope Opens Doors in North Africa
By Kirk Noonan
Melilla can be complicated. It’s a Spanish-owned enclave in
North Africa not more than six square miles in size. It sits on the
Mediterranean Sea and is surrounded by Morocco.
Nearly 70,000 residents are packed into Melilla. Most are
there legally; some, not. Mosques outnumber churches, a resilient Jewish
population has been there for centuries, and a Hindu community continues to
grow. Visitors can move from one culture to the next in this compact place as
fast as they can walk to the next block.
Some streets look to have been plucked out of Madrid or
Barcelona with their cobblestone pathways, flower baskets hanging from
streetlights, and outdoor cafés. A quick “hola” or “buenas tardes” will suffice
for a greeting. On other streets, shops spill over with ornate carpets and
Middle Eastern trinkets. Tarifit-Berber is spoken rather than Spanish. Women go
about their daily tasks cloaked in hijabs. Old men topped with kufis sit on
stoops eyeing anyone who happens into the neighborhood.
In Melilla’s economics, a tremendous gap between rich and
poor, the haves and have-nots, means some families spend their days on the
beach while others wonder where their next meal is coming from.
There is no arguing that complications and challenges are
part of life for many residents of Melilla. But where some see insurmountable
odds, a local Assemblies of God pastor, an assortment of AG ministries from
around the world, and Convoy of Hope Europe see only opportunities to bridge
cultural and ethnic gaps.
They recently demonstrated this by holding a Convoy of Hope
With the sun beginning its descent, volunteers drive into
the ground the final spikes that will anchor the white and yellow tent. Team
members quickly move metal barriers into place. Some set up chairs under the
big top as others form prayer teams and walk the grounds calling on God to
touch those who will come to the outreach the following day.
An air of expectancy energizes the organizers and volunteers
here. Most of the volunteers have never been part of a Convoy of Hope outreach,
but already they can sense the impact free medical screenings, haircuts,
entertainment and groceries can have on the community.
“This is going to be a great blessing,” says Cesar Gil,
pastor of Centro Nueva Vida [New Life Center], which is one of only three
Evangelical churches in Melilla and the only Assemblies of God church in the
enclave. “We’re praying God will open the hearts of the people who come here.
“Many of them cannot read or write. Because of their
traditions, it’s hard for them to understand the gospel. But they are just like
anyone else — they need someone to love them and tell them about Jesus.”
The next morning volunteers pull bags of groceries off a
flatbed truck and stack them on pallets outside the big top. Cooks load grills
with charcoal. Beauticians organize their workstations. A van pulls up and a
worker unloads and inflates two gigantic bouncers for the Kids Zone.
“This is a normal outreach adapted to the local culture,”
says Michael McNamee, who leads Convoy of Hope Europe (COHEU). “The health
screenings, haircuts, games and free food will attract people, and we’ll give
them a presentation of the gospel.”
Last year COHEU held 10 outreaches similar to this one, but
larger in scale. This year they’ll hold 18. Next year, says Chris Dudley,
coordinator for COHEU in southern Europe, at least 20 outreaches will serve
communities throughout Europe.
The Melilla outreach is scheduled to begin at 11. But five
minutes before the hour, not one person is in line at the entrance to the site.
This is unusual. Convoy of Hope outreaches in Europe and the United States
typically attract thousands of people. At most sites, crowds wait anxiously to
get in. But in Melilla, time in general is not of the essence.
“They’ll come,” says Gil with a disarming smile and
optimistic eyes. “And when they do, we’ll stay open until the food runs out.”
Less than two hours later hundreds of people are on site.
Families eagerly accept hamburgers hot off the grill. Children jump in the inflatable
bouncers, which are a luxury in Melilla only for the rich.
Women get their hair cut and styled in the makeshift beauty
salon. Nurses take people’s blood pressure in the clinic tent. Under the big
top Juan Carlos Exposito, the coordinator for Spain AG’s evangelism office,
focuses on the similarities that exist between his beliefs and the audience’s.
“Most of these people have not heard about or do not
recognize their need for Jesus,” he says between sermons. “So today we focus on
Mark Cannon, a missionary to Spain from the Potomac District
of the AG, agrees.
“The greatest thing happening here today,” he says, “is that
people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, or who have never had
meaningful contact with Christians, had an opportunity today to hear the gospel
explained and experience the love of Christ through His followers.”
According to James Neely, area director for the AG in Europe
who specializes in working with culturally diverse communities, the outreach
not only brought several ministries and organizations together but also
strengthened their ties.
“Our teamwork demonstrated the power of unity through Christ
in diversity and thus demonstrated the power of the love of Christ to the
diverse society represented in Melilla,” he says. “It is only Christ and unity
through Him that can and will bring healing and unity to Melilla’s diverse
Most Convoy of Hope outreaches in Europe are designed so
that churches can be planted or strengthened. This one, says McNamee, was
conducted to encourage and support New Life Center’s ministry efforts. That support
included the donation of the big top and a commitment by Convoy of Hope Europe
and Assemblies of God World Missions to pay the rent on a parcel of land where
the tent will be placed.
“The Convoy of Hope outreach helps so much in letting our
city know more about God and that He loves Melilla,” says Gil. “It also gives
us a great opportunity to expand our ministry. With the tent we now have a
bigger place to worship and we don’t need to send people away anymore.”
For years New Life Center’s main location in downtown
Melilla has been challenging. Three times each week, hundreds of people cram
into the tiny storefront church to worship. With the tent, Gil says, he and his
congregation will have another place to worship. It will also help Gil and his
congregation reach out to African immigrants who live in camps near the new
site where the tent will be placed.
Melilla is one of the main starting points for immigrants
attempting to find well-paying jobs and better lives in Europe. Many of the
immigrants in Melilla have paid thousands of dollars and traveled thousands of
miles just to reach the enclave. Once here they must wait, work and save until
they have enough money to get to Europe. For some that can take years.
“I have no family, no money,” says Xavier*, a 25-year-old
from Somalia, as he eats a hamburger at the outreach. “All of my family is
dead. I live in a refugee camp and am waiting to go to Europe.”
Xavier tells of his conversion to Christianity and how for
15 months he trekked toward Melilla. He’s been here for more than a year and
can’t find work or even food sometimes. The outreach, he says, provided a nice
respite from his life.
“Everything is free,” he says with a broad smile in between
bites of the burger. “It’s good, very good.”
In front of the inflatable bouncers a 12-year-old named Juan
says he is very happy to be at the outreach and that he heard about Jesus for
the first time.
“When I get bigger I want Him in my heart,” he says. “I want
my family to know Him too and for the people of Melilla to know Him.”
While Juan is talking an older boy snickers at him then
interrupts. “Jesus isn’t the Son of God; that’s a lie,” he insists.
The older boy’s words are a reminder that Melilla is a
mission field — a tough one at that. But going to such places and
ministering is absolutely necessary according to Albert Walsweer, European
director for COHEU.
“This outreach is a unique opportunity,” he says. “Events
like this don’t typically happen in Melilla. We are getting an opportunity to
share the gospel with people we otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach. That’s one
reason Convoy of Hope outreaches are an incredibly effective way to evangelize
in Europe and throughout the world.”
As men, women and children stream out of the outreach site
laden with bags of groceries, Gil can only smile. The outreach, he says, has
sparked many ideas. He wants to start a ministry for children and expand his
church’s evangelism efforts.
“There are very little jobs here and people are desperate,
but look at the smiles on these people’s faces,” he says. “There is so much joy
today in Melilla. This touches my heart to know that they know someone cares
That’s what a free lunch, a haircut, a couple of bags of
groceries and a presentation of the gospel can do for a person, a family, a
community … and even a tiny Spanish enclave in North Africa.
KIRK NOONAN served as managing editor of the Pentecostal
Evangel for 10 years.
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