COJUTEPEQUE, EL SALVADOR - The Communist party is now in power in the South American country of El Salvador. Evangelism is prohibited in secondary schools and the children attending schools in the community of Cojutepeque must do so with barbed wire fencing and bars on both the doors and windows.
"It's a sign of their economy," explained Jeremiah Campbell, youth pastor at Sunnyside's Neighborhood Church Assembly of God, explaining El Salvador's economy fell 20 percent in one day and the people there are desperate for it to rise again.
He and four youth from the church spent the past two weeks ministering to the children of the community of Cojutepeque.
"The city is about the size of Yakima," said Campbell, adding there are smaller communities nearby that remind him much of the Lower Valley "...except they are much poorer."
T.J. Cruz, a member of the youth group, said she and her fellow teens performed skits the children in the city could relate to. Those skits modeled much of what the home life might be like for those children.
"They call it spectacle evangelism," said Arik North, another teen who served on the mission.
The teens explained that in addition to the skits, children were drawn in to the performances through song and dance.
"Two teams worked with the children," said Cruz, stating part of the group performed while another half of the group prayed and interceded on behalf of the youngsters they were ministering to.
The Sunnyside teens weren't the only teens from the U.S. on the mission, but they had the advantage of using a translator from among them.
Nohemi Meza is fluent in Spanish and was able to communicate with children on behalf of her team.
"It was difficult sometimes because I was given a first-hand account of what the children's lives are like," she said.
Greg North said smiles were important when interacting with the children. Smiles helped remove barriers and were met with appreciation.
"They would hug us and let us know we helped them gain hope," he stated, adding, "It was eye-opening."
His brother said much of the teens' work was done in the schools, and Cruz explained the group wasn't allowed to offer altar calls in many of the schools.
"But, we could see God was working in amazing ways in spite of that," she said.
Campbell explained the group was allowed into the schools because the area they were serving is rural and, therefore, not as strict about the law forbidding evangelism in schools.
Arik said the schools were intimidating because of the security in place. The group discovered the security, however, was in place to keep people out, not in.
"They looked like jails," he said.
Meza said she was amazed by one experience at a school in particular.
Because it was difficult to plan meals, they hadn't planned to eat at that one specific school, but the students were dismissed and the group took the opportunity to eat.
"There was a janitor there. She had a phone call and began crying," said Meza, explaining the woman found out her son had been arrested and taken to jail.
"Which is like a death sentence," interjected Campbell.
The group of teens, out of concern for the woman, talked with her and prayed with her. In addition, another part of the group they were traveling with finished the janitorial duties to further assist her in a time of need.
Experiences like that are what kept the local teens from wanting to return to their regular routines.
"I want to go back...the experience was so amazing," said Arik, adding the four teens expressed an interest in bringing their families to South America permanently.
"There's such a great need there," he said.
Meza feels her faith has been strengthened through the experience.
"I feel more confident about sharing my faith with others as a result," she said.