Surrendering all to God, a Colombian family boldly shares the Gospel in a guerrilla-controlled red zone known for drug trafficking and violence.
David and Gloria Martinez moved deep into Colombia’s Chocó Department in 2005 to share the Gospel, distribute Bibles and plant churches. The couple studied the local language and learned to live off the land, building relationships among the region’s large Afro-Colombian population and with numerous indigenous people. They even grew accustomed to living in close proximity to right-wing paramilitary groups and armed rebel groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Slowly, over the next two years, they began to train church leaders and establish churches in the area. As a result, many came to faith in Christ.
“That is when it got difficult,” Gloria said. “The devil was mad. The spiritual attacks started. The witchcraft and the different armed groups started to come in.”
Suddenly, the couple, who had a nine-month-old daughter at the time, found themselves imploring God for protection.
David and Gloria met while attending a missionary school in the Department of Meta, in central Colombia. After learning about indigenous people groups who hadn’t yet heard of Jesus, David felt compelled to take the Gospel to the jungle. Gloria, his girlfriend at the time, had already visited Chocó on a short-term mission trip.
The two married on 18 July 2004 and decided to move to the west coast, one of the poorest regions in Colombia and a hub of violence and drug trafficking. With little to sustain themselves, they raised the necessary funds, and the missionary school provided 180 Bibles to get them started. “It was something difficult at the time, but God showed us the way in,” David said, smiling.
Chocó Department’s thick rainforest, large rivers and lack of developed roads make it largely inaccessible, even to Colombian security forces. As a result, it has become a popular refuelling spot for boats transporting cocaine to Central America and Mexico.
The relatively few Christians in the Department have experienced persecution in the past. In 2002’s Bojayá massacre, the FARC bombed a church, killing more than 70 people, injuring hundreds and displacing roughly 6,000. About a year after David and Gloria moved to Chocó, a prominent guerrilla commander elsewhere in Colombia declared all pastors in the country’s red zones objects of war.
At about that same time, David and Gloria caught the attention of locals who helped haul cocaine to boats along the coast. “People would say, ‘Hey, these foreigners are seeing what we’re doing’,” David recalled. “We had to decide if we were going to leave or stay. Our decision was to stay because we were preaching the Gospel.”
Then, one day a rebel leader accompanied by about 60 guerrilla soldiers came to the couple’s house and told David he had to support them. “They knew everything about me,” he said. “They mentioned all my wife’s family members, all of my family members. They knew the offering I was receiving every three months. They knew the exact amount we were receiving.”
One of the rebels told David that they would triple his salary and allow him to continue his pastoral work if he would join them, as other pastors already had. “If they are collaborating, they are no longer pastors,” David replied. “I won’t work with you. You kill people. The only person who should have power over life is God.”
The rebel leader didn’t appreciate David’s boldness. “You are lucky it’s me and not some other guerrillas, as they would have shot you in the head already,” he said. “We are going to talk tomorrow.”
Holding their daughter, Samantha, Gloria began to pray for the protection of her husband and daughter. “A lot of the guerrillas are famous for taking kids,” she said. “I feared for both of them.”
Loving the Enemy
The next day, the rebel leader and 60 guerrillas returned to David and Gloria’s house at 6pm, but this time the leader had a changed attitude. He told David that his mother was a Christian. Surprised and relieved, David relaxed as the two began to discuss the Bible.
“When we started to speak about God, I started to become his friend,” David said. “I became good friends with this man. I told him to listen to God. He said, ‘I will only come to Christ when I am injured in the war.’”
David urged the man to place his faith in Jesus as Saviour before he died in conflict, but the man resisted. Still, before the rebel leader left, he accepted 60 Bibles from David to share with the other fighters.
Fifteen days later, the rebel leader was killed in an attack by a paramilitary group. David hopes he read the Bible and came to faith in Christ before the attack. “He liked the Gospel,” David recalled. “When he received the Bible, he made an expression like he was remembering his childhood. He was very joyful. He said, ‘Thank you, pastor; thank you, pastor.’ I believe that it was good for him to have the Bible.”
After developing a relationship with the man’s replacement in the guerrilla group, David continued to supply them with Bibles. He and Gloria distributed 400 Bibles over the next several months as guerrilla fighters rotated in and out of the group.
When the new leader’s superior learned of the books, however, he had them burned. The commander told David that he had read a few pages of one of the Bibles, though. “Then those Bibles burned have not been a waste,” David told the man. “Because of one or two texts, God is speaking to you.”
The rebel groups controlled every aspect of David and Gloria’s lives. To buy food and other goods, they had to walk through both FARC and paramilitary territories. “Every time we passed the paramilitary, they thought we were collaborators with the guerrillas,” he said. “They threatened us. They told the indigenous people they were going to kill us.”
When community members relayed the threats to David and Gloria, they decided to transfer to a safer part of the province. But despite their difficulties, they left in awe of what God had done in that place. In five years, they had raised up four indigenous pastors and planted churches in two communities. And in those two communities, 70 people had come to faith in Christ. With the local pastors in place, David and Gloria were confident the believers would be well cared for after they left.
After moving to another part of Chocó in 2010, David, Gloria and their children continued to experience persecution from all sides as the government, paramilitaries, rebel groups and organised crime syndicates vied for control of territory. “There were moments we had to run out of the community,” Gloria said. “There were months when we were actually in another community because the drug situation was really bad. Of course … there was a lot of fighting, so we would leave the area while it was happening, too.”
During the first few years, however, most of the persecution came from a local religious group. “For four years, more or less, they wouldn’t rent us a good house,” David said. “We always had houses that were falling apart. I would fix them, and then they would kick us out once I fixed it.”
Then, a group of indigenous village leaders prohibited David and his family from entering their community. The village even sued them, claiming David’s family was damaging their cultural identity by introducing and spreading Christianity.
“We have been able to demonstrate with those who are believers today that we are not here to damage the cultural identity,” David said. “We always try to teach in their language. We talk to the kids in their languages.”
To keep the peace, David and his family moved out of the indigenous community and into an Afro-Colombian community. Descended from those brought to the Americas during the slave trade, the Afro-Colombians live much as their African ancestors did. Some of them even continue to practise African folk religions.
Among this community, David and Gloria lead a mixed congregation from indigenous and Afro-Colombian backgrounds. And they continue to minister to 20 indigenous believers in the community they left.
In 2019, David and his family visited 25 of the 28 indigenous communities in the area, often receiving threats as they passed through guerrilla and paramilitary territories. Although the Colombian government and the FARC signed a peace agreement that was ratified by the nation’s congress in November 2016, David and Gloria said the peace deal has not brought peace, especially in Chocó. In fact, they said, the guerrillas are only regrouping and rearming under the failed peace deal.
“Right now we are a military objective for the armed groups because we are not from the area,” Gloria said. “We are always praying to become invisible. The indigenous people who are Christians experience a lot more persecution from their community, and in many cases from the armed groups as well.”
If you would like to financially support the work of Voice of the Martyrs, please go to: vom.com.au/donate
Voice of the Martyrs Australia is an endorsed deductible gift recipient (DGR) by the Australian government. This means you can claim tax deductions for all donations over $2 to Voice of the Martyrs Australia on your tax return.