by Ken Russell
Ken and his wife, Eunice, (Canada), serve full time in Uruguay.
Uruguay is one of the smallest countries in South America, just 187,000km2, with Brazil to the north and Argentina to the south and the west. The River Plate separates Uruguay from Argentina, giving the country 450km of sandy, freshwater beaches. On the east coast, the Atlantic Ocean adds another 220km of saltwater beaches with many tourist resorts. Inland, the country has low hills and numerous rivers with excellent pastureland. Foreign-owned paper mills have invested in large tree plantations and are among the main exporters.
Uruguay’s 3.3 million people are mainly white, of Spanish and Italian descent, with a few of African descent. The official language is Spanish. There is religious liberty and 60% of the population identify as Roman Catholic, but few are practising. Of the population, only 5% are evangelicals. It is estimated that 20% have spiritualist or occult involvement. Others are atheist, agnostic or secularist and, encouraged by the separation of church and state in the early 1900s, some seek to remove any mention of God. Many teachers openly ridicule Christian students who take a stand for their faith.
The past decade has seen considerable social change on issues such as abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, gender reassignment at public cost and marijuana consumption. Children are taught non- traditional views. Violence and crime are increasingly prevalent, although officials try to minimise this fact.
Assembly testimony in Uruguay began in 1882 with Henry Ewen (UK), who was also instrumental in initiating the work in Argentina that same year. The work was continued by several others from the UK and New Zealand. Assemblies were established in the capital city of Montevideo and in the interior. American and Canadian mission workers arrived later, focusing their efforts in cities where assemblies had not yet been established. These overseas ties have left physical reminders. Two of the original properties in Montevideo were funded by New Zealand assemblies and then donated to the sprouting Uruguayan work. Many original buildings and benches are still being used. The first gospel campaign tent came from Ireland and it survived until a big storm tore its roof apart, it has since been replaced twice. Other works in the interior, some funded by North Americans who similarly passed properties over to national assembly associations.
A Growing Church
Today, the overall work is vigorous and essentially indigenous with about 35 assemblies. A national association of elders, called CAMU, meets every month and organises joint events, as well as administrating the distribution of funds to national workers. Tied in are committees for ladies’, youth and camp activities, and a Bible institute. Children’s work continues to play an important part in expanding the work. Teachers in many assemblies receive Child Evangelism Fellowship training and some of the instructors, and board members, are from the assemblies. The last 15 to 20 years have seen youth activities highlighted with specific programmes. These are strengthened by three Bible camps, national youth rallies, joint evangelistic events and prayer meetings. Hundreds of children and young people benefit from the camps. An annual three-day national rally brings over 350 young people together. It is good to see that about half of those who attend Easter and mission conferences are young people.
The assemblies have a truck and a bus, both equipped for mobile evangelism. They haul a tent, made and financed locally, with seating capacity for 350 people. Early each year, five weeks are dedicated to evangelising five cities. The locations are rotated every three years. February 2020 saw 750 children go through the tent during the four weeks. Many made professions. Adults typically respond less, yet many attended and committed or recommitted their lives to God. Often these were saved as children but had later strayed from the Lord’s way. Throughout the year the vehicles are used for rural evangelism and weekend events for small churches, as well as medical clinics and relief support after a flood or cyclone. This provides excellent training for Christians who then go and share their faith with others.
The number of students increased from 20 to 70 and then 120. In 2017, the Berea Bible Institute (BBI) was digitalised, allowing students in the interior to participate in the classes at their convenience. Courses from Source of Light and Ediciones Crecimiento Cristiano and Emmaus, are used for discipleship and group studies. In 2019 the BBI opened a one-year intern programme, serving six students. This was a great success and the number for 2020 has increased.
The Lord is working in the hearts of others who have expressed a desire to serve.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the last couple of years have brought missions to the forefront. Currently, there is a couple working in Germany, a sister in Turkey, a couple in Panama and two couples trained in Brazil to work among the tribes: one of them is finishing their final specialisations and the other couple returned to lead the Intern Bible Institute in Uruguay. The Lord is working in the hearts of others who have expressed a desire to serve. God is at work in Uruguay.
Called to Uruguay
I arrived in Uruguay as a teenager in 1968 with my parents, Lionel and Irene Russell, and three siblings. My parents were both born in Argentina to British missionaries from Scotland and New Zealand. After 20 years in Canada, where they raised their family of six children, a call came from a missionary widow, Mrs Sands, who with her husband had initiated an assembly in the city of Mercedes in the interior of Uruguay. They responded to God’s call, leaving behind their two older children and travelling with the four younger ones. The assembly began to grow steadily, especially among children and young people. My father, Lionel, started daily radio programmes, which continue to be aired over several commercial stations.
He purchased a small farm for camp work. As children we learned to speak Spanish. Of the four of us, Robert and I sensed God’s call and attended a Bible school in Villa María, Argentina. Early in 1972, I returned to Canada and married Eunice. The Lord confirmed that Uruguay was our destination and, two years later, we returned to Uruguay, commended from our assembly in Toronto. After two years of working with my parents, in 1976 we moved to an area where there were no assemblies within a 130km radius. The Lord blessed our work and three assemblies were established in Rosario and two other cities, with leadership developing in each, and a fourth work is underway in another city. Children’s and youth work have always been a major part of the ministry with open-air gospel campaigns. Bible courses, home groups, visitation and a weekly evangelistic article in local newspapers run alongside regular church meetings.
My brother, Robert, married Cecilia from the Mercedes assembly. After Bible school in Argentina, they moved to Canada for several years and then returned to Mercedes in 1981 as mission workers. As that assembly grew, they commended local couples to mission service. While Robert and Cecilia lived on the camp grounds, they developed it into a park, adding various buildings and installing a swimming pool. Recently, they handed this work on to a younger couple, to allow themselves to dedicate more time to other ministries. In 1980, my parents went to live in Dolores, 40km from Mercedes, where a number of radio contacts responded well. With help from those in Mercedes, Bible studies and children’s activities soon led to the formation of a new church, and they purchased a disused chapel for meetings. The work in Dolores continues today under the leadership of people who were saved in the early stages.
The Lord Answers Prayer
We have children who are actively engaged in the Lord’s work. Our eldest son, Andrew, and his wife Leticia, are commended national workers. They started a new work in Maldonado and over ten years saw it grow to be an independent assembly. They then moved to Montevideo to help assemblies there and in Carmelo. Our youngest son, Mark, and his wife, Silvia, live in Rosario, where they
run an institute teaching English. The institute has grown from 15 students in the first year to 150. It is a wonderful introduction to the Lord, as students and parents see Christ in their teachers’ lives and enquire further.
Robert and Cecilia have four children. Their two daughters and their sons-in-law, with three children in each family, have served in the Mercedes assembly. Two years ago, they were called by the Lord to serve among unreached tribes. They are currently in training at the Ethnos (New Tribes) Institute in Brazil.
We praise God for His hand upon our family and the way in which we have been used in His service from generation to generation. Pray as new Uruguayan families continue to build His Church.