Manuel and Sandra

Ministry Under the Paramilitary’s Watchful Eye

Manuel preaches in a simple structure each week, aware that members of the paramilitary are always monitoring his sermons.

Before sharing their story, Manuel and Sandra had to get away from their Colombian village.

First, they had to get permission to leave from the paramilitary commander overseeing the village. Then, they had to cross a wide river and ride a motorbike for 40 minutes to reach an area where they felt safe enough to talk. And if they returned home a minute past the curfew imposed by the paramilitary commander, they knew there would be consequences. “We would be killed,” Manuel said. 

For Manual and Sandra, this is a recurring pattern. When they’re not sharing the gospel in their own village, they’re traveling to nearby villages for the same purpose. But their travels are far from routine. In order to share the hope of eternal life with their neighbors, they must occasionally face the reality of physical death along the way.  

“I have gone through a lot of difficulties,” Manuel said softly. “I have seen people die in front of me. When I see them, I feel something. I feel fear that they are going to hurt me, too. We have a God who strengthens us, though. What we have to do is preach to them as well. In spite of my fear, I feel happy that I am serving the Lord.” 

Manuel and Sandra face constant pressure as they minister among the militant groups. Pray for God’s continued strength and protection for them as they advance the kingdom.

Manuel, 41, and Sandra, 39, have worked in ministry for 12 years. Along with their six children and one grandchild, they have always lived under the paramilitary’s watchful eye. For decades, right- wing paramilitary forces have clashed with guerrilla groups like the Marxist Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). And Christians living in “red zones,” areas controlled by these groups, are commonly persecuted by both sides because the gospel is incompatible with the groups’ tactics, agendas and attempts to recruit soldiers. 

Just six months after Manuel and Sandra came to faith in Christ, three FARC guerrillas stormed into their home. “Where is Manuel?” one of them demanded. “We are going to kill him!” Manuel had left the house minutes earlier to get dinner for his family and some relatives who were at the house. 

As Sandra sat with her children, huddled in fear, one of the guerrillas told her that if she tried to call anyone he would kill her and her children. After thoroughly searching the house, including under the beds, the guerrillas abducted eight people, including Manuel’s brother, Sandra’s 18-year-old nephew and six other relatives. After they led everyone away, Sandra heard gunshots. 

“I feel a lot of pain even though it has been such a long time,” Sandra said tearfully. “As I am reviewing this right now, my heart hurts.” 

Following the killings, Manuel, Sandra and their children fled to another village, where they lived in hiding for two years. Manuel doesn’t know why the guerrillas targeted his family that day, but he is sure that he’d be dead if he had been at home. 

Sandra said their children are still recovering from all they experienced and witnessed that day. And Manuel is dealing not only with the loss of his brother and other relatives but also with an older trauma that has resurfaced. Guerrillas killed Manuel’s father when he was 12 years old. “There was a lot of violence,” he said hesitantly. “I don’t remember much.” 

A lot has changed for Manuel and Sandra since the guerrillas killed their relatives. They have moved to another village, and both have become pastors. While a paramilitary group watches their every move, they have so far managed to stay off the guerrillas’ radar.  

Manuel leads worship under a simple structure every Thursday and Saturday. Besides his own family, the church includes three other adults and about 30 children from the village. Paramilitary fighters regularly join the worship services to monitor the content of his messages. 

“They don’t want the church talking about the murders,” a VOM worker said, “so pastors have to be careful what they say in church. That is why they send people to go see what they are saying in church. If they preach ‘Don’t join any groups,’ that will get them killed. We know of pastors who have been killed because of an undercover member of the paramilitary.” 

Having to report to the paramilitary group and get permission every time they want to leave their village has caused a strain on their ministry. And being watched as they visit house to house adds to the stress. “They are constantly following us,” Manuel said. “They know what house we go into, what house we came out of and which house we are going to next. They know all of that.” 

When they’re feeling especially fearful or stressed, Manuel and Sandra encourage one another with Philippians 4:13

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” 

“We say it at night before we go to bed,” Manuel said. “So when we wake up, we feel like we have been strengthened by the Lord. That verse strengthens us daily.” 

“Since we know the Word,” Sandra added, “we are strengthened as a couple. We pray to God as a couple always. We pray for those who try to harm us; we pray for those who talk bad about us. When my husband says he is unmotivated, I motivate him. When I tell him I am unmotivated, he motivates me.” 

During their 12 years of ministry, they have never had a break from the stress of working in a place of conflict. Sandra said their only “vacation” was when the guerrillas forced them out of their village. But they continue to devote themselves to good works for God’s kingdom, knowing their ultimate rest is in Jesus Christ.