A Brief History of Verbo Ministries
Verbo Ministries began among a group of young Christians involved in the Jesus People movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a grand mission to reach and transform the world for Christ by expressing the Gospel of the Kingdom in practical and relevant ways. In 1976, these missionaries formed a church and a social services outreach in Guatemala that became the foundation for a godly movement that continues to expand and present the love of Jesus in the Americas and Europe.
They located their first congregation on the outskirts of Guatemala City and after developing new leaders and a solid infrastructure they began sending missionaries to various parts of Guatemala, to other Spanish-speaking countries and finally to non-Spanish speakers in the United States, Canada, Brazil and among South American indigenous communities.
The diverse ministries that are Verbo’s work in the world today sprang from one church with vigor and vision to look outwards with godly love toward the Lord Jesus’ great harvest field. The Verbo founders’ profound prayer is that every Verbo church not only replicates this model but do much, much more than the original team!
Many believe that Verbo began in Guatemala, but really the foundations of the ministry were placed in a group of Christian young people who accepted the sovereignty of God in a mighty move of the Spirit called “The Jesus Generation” that began in the final years of the 1960’s among youths and hippies on the West Coast of the United States. Those who later formed Verbo were all members of Gospel Outreach, a Christian communal movement that started in Humboldt Country, California, under the direction of Jim Durkin, an anointed preacher and teacher of the Word of God.
The team members firmly believed in Matthew 28:18-20: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” They felt called to fulfill this commitment in Latin America, but did not know in which nation to begin their ministry. Moreover, they realized there was a specific time in the spiritual realm in which to move out, that is, the calling is not the sending.
Thus, the future Verbo team members all spent some years in different Gospel Outreach communities learning how to be missionaries and focusing on GO’s main themes of discipleship and the practice the Word of God. Jim Durkin, a recognized apostle, and other ministers taught them spiritual–but non-religious–lifestyle based on biblical principles in an atmosphere of transparency and honesty.
God Reveals His Will
In the early hours of February 4, 1976, a massive earthquake killed more than thirty thousand Guatemalans and left millions of people without adequate shelter. Carlos Ramirez, a junior leader in the Gospel Outreach community in Eureka, California, felt that God was indicating through the earthquake that Guatemala was the place to start a mission in Latin America. Two experienced missionaries and he immediately traveled to Guatemala City to see how they could help the Guatemalan people in practical ways. Carlos was not clear about what to do until a person approached him on a Guatemala City street.
Amid the devastation, the man asked, “Do you want to help Guatemala?”
Carlos answered affirmatively. “Then, build houses,” the man replied.
Carlos took this as a revelation from God. He telephoned Jim Durkin to tell him that he had found the place and way to start missionary work in Latin America.
Jim asked, “Where are you going to get the money, Carlos?”
Carlos answered, “I don’t know, but God will provide.”
In less than two months a team of 15 adults and six children loaded into cars, trailers and trucks and were on their way from California through Mexico, bound for Guatemala. They eventually located on property called “Dos Alicias” on the outskirts of the capital city, where they lived in community and worked on both large and small reconstruction projects. They also opened their Sunday church meetings to their neighbors and to other relief workers. Attracted by their simple, straightforward way of living the Gospel, many Guatemalans began to frequent their gatherings and ask for spiritual counsel. What was a meeting for missionaries at the beginning of 1977 became a congregation of more than 100 adults by the end of the year. The leaders who came from the United States included Carlos and Linda Ramirez, Jim and Mary De Golyer and James and Lynn Jankowiak, Bob Trolese (who later married another team member, Myra Cromwell), Tom Becotte (who later married a Guatemalan convert, Guisela Castillo) and Dick Funnell (who married one of the first Guatemalan fulltime team members, Gladys Mendez).
One of the team’s hallmarks was that leadership was not centralized in one person, but several of the missionaries shared responsibilities in the reconstruction work, pastoring, Bible studies and preaching. They also trained Guatemalans to take on ministering responsibilities for those who were being added daily to the new congregation. Among the converts were businessmen and professionals who eventually joined the ministry fulltime.
What’s in a Name?
Rapid growth obliged the ministry to relocate to a central neighborhood in Guatemala City and to give itself a name that would express group’s ideals in a succinct way. There were several reasons for choosing a name beyond “the church that meets at Dios Alicias.” First, the leaders used the name “church,” to show that Verbo identified itself as an integral part of the Body of Christ, not just as a religious, “center”, “community” or “fellowship.” Second, they chose Christian” as part of the name to emphasize that Verbo was interested in identifying itself with Christ and the Word of God, not with the labels of traditional denominationalism or with current trends like “evangelicals” or “Pentecostals.” Third: “Verbo” is the traditional Spanish translation for the word, logos, which in English is translated, for example, in the first chapter of the Gospel of John as “word.” When John wrote, “In the beginning was the WORD…” he meant that Jesus was the logos or “Word of God” By using “Verbo” the founders indicated that their church was based on the person of Jesus Christ. The fact that “Verbo” grammatically means “verb” or action in Spanish and other romance languages was used as an evangelism tool. When non-Christian people asked why the congregation used such an unusual name, they opened the door for an explanation of the Gospel. Finally, “Verbo” means the same thing in other languages, such as Portuguese.
Nicaragua Hears about God’s Salvation
In July 1979, Sandinista revolutionaries overthrew the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. The main church leaders from Verbo Guatemala traveled to Nicaragua to see how they could help the country at a time when other missionaries were leaving for fear of communist repression.
Through a series of divine encounters, the Lord confirmed that the time had come to send missionaries out of Guatemala. In January 1980, Bob and Myra Trolese led a team of Americans and Guatemalans to start a church in Managua, the capital city. This outreach developed a very efficient combination of social action and church work. Today, Verbo congregations in the capital, the interior and the Atlantic coast provide spiritual and material care for thousands of people in both Latino and Indian cultures. Orphanages and schools have helped form the lives of thousands of children over the years. Social works, clinics and agricultural projects demonstrate the love of God in various communities in poor areas of the country.
Also in 1980, a young Hispanic minister in the New Orleans, Louisiana, area heard some of Jim Durkin’s spiritual teaching cassettes and identified with his concepts of restoring the fivefold ministry, discipleship, covenant, etc. Shortly afterwards, Carlos Velázquez and his congregation, Las Sagradas Escrituras joined the Verbo movement, becoming the first of many congregations among Hispanics in the United States and Canada.
Important innovations followed, including the establishment of churches in the home–a network for pastoral care, evangelism and discipleship based on small groups that meet weekly in private homes. Verbo also opened the doors of its first primary and secondary school with about 60 students. The government-normally zealous to require its national curriculum–allowed the school to incorporate as an experimental institution. This made possible the development of a curriculum called the Principle Approach to Christian Education that put Jesus and the Bible at the center of the educational system. This was a new vision for Latin America. In the space of three years the school grew to hundreds of students from pre-kinder through high school. Today, there are Verbo schools in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ecuador. The ministry’s first government authorized and accredited institution of higher learning, the Pan-American University, began operation in Guatemala City in 1998 and most recently had over 16,000 students working toward bachelors’, masters’ and doctorate degrees in six different faculties.
The Church Changes Its Paradigm
March 1982 marked another major change in Verbo’s role in society. Several young Guatemalan Army officers staged a coup d’état that brought retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt to the presidency of the nation. Gen. Rios, a Verbo elder at the time, was serving as academic director of the Verbo School. With the president of the nation as a member, the church grew even more rapidly in its new facilities in a upper class commercial neighborhood. The church housed its offices and the school in a rented mansion while the congregation met on the same property in a circus tent that accommodated nearly 1,000 people.
Two major social works also began in this time frame. One was the Foundation for Aid to Indigenous People (FUNDAPI); it operated principally among the Ixil Indians in the nation’s western highlands, bringing food, clothing and other material and spiritual aid to areas partially under control of guerrilla forces that have since been reintegrated into the general society. The other was Casa Bernabé, a model orphanage founded in 1982 that now serves over 150 children in family style houses near to Guatemala City.
Around the same time the leadership turned to expanding its network of churches. Original team member Tom Becotte, his wife, Guisela, and a few Guatemalans made up the first team to South America, specifically Quito, Ecuador. Shortly thereafter, Jim and Mary De Golyer joined the work, bringing in a dimension of the move of the Holy Spirit. Growth was phenomenal. Today there are over 30 Verbo churches in Ecuador caring for several thousand members, plus schools, a hospital and a affiliated congregations in Peru and Columbia.
Another original team member, Dick Funnell, along with his wife, Gladys, and a team of Guatemalans moved to Quetzaltenango (then Guatemala’s second largest city) to start a congregation in the interior of the country. That church was the hub for the formation for congregations and schools in the area toward the Mexican border.
Meanwhile, Alvaro Contreras and his family went to the United States to establish Verbo Miami, Florida. Alvaro, a restaurateur and communications expert was in the first group to be ordained as Verbo ministers in Latin America. Another businessman-turned-minister, José Garces, established a recording company called Verbo Music with the plan to use profits to further missions work in even more countries. Verbo Music subsequently recorded a series of congregational praise and worship albums called Restoration that revolutionized the Christian music scene in Latin America and started a Verbo tradition of producing timely music for congregational singing.
Prophesies Indicate New Direction
Through several prophecies at the beginning of 1985, the leadership understood that God was calling Verbo to “enlarge the place of his tent.” Soon after, the ministry purchased a skating rink on a main boulevard in the heart of one of Guatemala City’s most important uptown neighborhoods. Verbo Reforma (named for the boulevard), with a capacity for 1,500 people, became the movement’s local, national and international headquarters. The tent was sent to another sector of the city serve as the meeting place a second Verbo Church in the capital. The leadership decided that the concept of multiple congregations in a city gave more opportunity for people to exercise their spiritual gifts, to be witnesses for Christ in their own neighborhoods, to be a greater influence in the overall society and to develop new leadership.
The last step in the development of the fundamental outlook of Verbo Ministries took place in December 1985, when James and Lynn Jankowiak and their family moved to Brazil with three Guatemalan volunteers to open the first work aimed at a non-Hispanic population. They established the Igreja Cristã Verbo in an upscale Rio de Janeiro neighborhood with the intention of placing a beachhead for reach the Portuguese-speaking world. Today there are five churches in Rio and São Paulo.
In 1989, Luis Mariano and Mirna Castellanos, overseers of a family of northern Mexico churches centered in Monterrey, brought their ministry into the Verbo fellowship, greatly expanding the overall ministry’s reach in Latin America.
Since that time Word has grown in membership and social services. There are about 100 congregations in 14 countries from Canada to Peru and Spain. Now, each local congregation has its own history–a special story to tell in this wonderful work of bringing personal and social transformation to the world through life in Jesus Christ.