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ANDRES LÓPEZ - WHEN HOPE BLOOMS IN BROKENNESS

In Guatemala City, Guatemala, there is a community known as La Florida. Its name means “The flowery place,” which implies it is full of beauty. Sadly, this is not the case. Economic instability is common. Parents often resort to leaving their children in the care of third parties or unsupervised altogether to work long hours to provide for their families. This causes children to fall behind in school and become vulnerable to the lure of gangs and other illicit activities. If they finish school, they often do not have opportunities for quality jobs or higher education. Even so, there are many within La Florida who recognize what is possible for their community. They see the beauty that is already present and desire to cultivate and spread it. They believe that God is present among them, actively working toward transformation, and they joyfully participate in His redemptive work. Andres López’ family is part of the effort to help their community live up to its name.

Andres was an adolescent when his family became involved with the community of La Florida. His parents began leading a church there called Iglesia Hebron. “I remember I was a preteen when we moved into this new church, which my parents have now pastored for almost 20 years,” he recalled. Andres’ father had been the youth ministry leader at the family’s previous church, and they soon began a program for the young people of Iglesia Hebron. “We decided to invest a lot of energy into the youth group, or youth ministry, because it was pretty much nonexistent at that point,” Andres added.

They soon discovered that they would need to build their youth program from the ground up. “We started trying out lots of different things. Pretty soon, I started leading alongside my dad, which was a strange experience as I wasn’t much older than the other kids. That was my first exposure to working in youth ministry,” Andres said. The López family eventually partnered with the parachurch organization Word of Life, which supports local churches worldwide seeking to bolster their youth programs and reach young people for Christ. “We were trying to create something so that other kids would be attracted to the program. We did a bunch of different activities in the community, trying to reach out. Now, the number of kids stays pretty consistent. It feels more like a church instead of just a couple of families meeting together,” Andres said.

As their fledgling church and youth program became more established, the López family began to notice a toxic element within the churches of La Florida. “Churches there were very invested, but only within their own four walls,” Andres recalled. “We started to notice that we were participating in that as well. Sure, we were glad if people grew in their Christian life, but really, we were building our program.” They found that they had become so caught up in bolstering participation numbers that they had lost sight of their true goal: bringing the love of Christ to their neighbors.

Something desperately needed to change, so Andres’ parents began taking frequent walks throughout the community, getting to know it in a way they hadn’t before. They noticed that, though there were many churches, little real change was taking place. “This is a very broken community. It’s considered a Red Zone, which means that there’s a lot of violence, trafficking of people and drugs, homelessness, prostitution, addiction, alcoholism and similar things,” Andres noted.

As they talked with their neighbors, particularly the children, they saw the pain and brokenness that persisted among them. After some time, Iglesia Hebron and the López family woke up to the reality that they had become distant and disconnected from the people they sought to serve. Andres recalled his parents saying, “We have to do something. We can’t just be a Sunday services only church anymore. We have to start doing other things.”

After graduating from high school in 2009, Andres spent the next few years pursuing a career in dentistry before realizing that God was calling him to ministry. When youth ministry was recommended to him, Andres was intrigued. “I began to think about going the theology and youth ministry route instead of continuing dentistry school,” he recalled. Shortly thereafter he experienced what felt to him like divine providence. “Carla Landhuis, an American doing mission work in my parents’ church and who would later become my girlfriend and then my wife, told me about Kuyper.”

He enrolled at Kuyper, and after graduating with a Ministry Leadership degree, Andres brought what he calls “the knowledge and skills I was given there to really make a difference” back to Guatemala and La Florida. Both he and Carla soon became part of a group effort, along with other members of his parents’ church, to serve the most forgotten members of La Florida in a new way.

“As the church began to welcome children and youth more openly, we began to notice some specific needs,” Andres said. “School reinforcement and vocational training were the most pressing. Even before I went to Kuyper, we dreamt of creating a program to meet these needs. But back then, none of us had the experience or training in anything like that.” The members of Iglesia Hebron worked together, with Andres contributing the new skills and knowledge he gained at Kuyper, to create an organization they would eventually name Florecer, a word that means “to flourish.”

Andres and his partners saw that many of La Florida’s problems stemmed from a cynical mindset regarding education. Children in the community lacked a system of accountability for their learning, since their parents worked long hours. So, Florecer sought to create opportunities for positive, lasting life habits. Florecer’s goal from the start was to prevent kids from falling behind in school or dropping out when it became too difficult. “We created a safe place where they can escape their reality and be built up by receiving positive reinforcement in many areas, including their education,” said Andres.

Florecer works toward this goal through their established Vocational English Training Program and the School Reinforcement Program. The Vocational Program helps teens and young adults learn and grow in their English language skills. “We believe that, if they learn English, they’ll have more and better work opportunities, especially when higher education is not an option,” Andres said. “If you know English, it weighs in your favor and makes you more marketable.”

The School Reinforcement Program works with children in first through sixth grades. It provides them with tutoring and accountability in their schoolwork as well as a safe and encouraging environment in which to do it. “Students meet in groups of six for two hours at a time. In addition, each student has two 2-hour sessions each week with a tutor, focusing on their own targeted needs,” Andres said. “During these meetings and sessions, we are equipping the kids with skills to help them flourish, while always reminding them of their value as God’s children.”

Though Florecer is still a young ministry, they have already begun to see the fruits of their labor. Andres recalled a young boy named Manassas, who was struggling when he came into the School Reinforcement Program. “He had been held back a couple times in school. He’s in fourth, going into fifth grade, but he should be going into seventh grade,” he said. However, as he participated in the School Reinforcement Program, things started to change. “He began to finish all his assignments and homework early. He even started helping the tutors with the other kids and their homework,” Andres said. Manassas’ story shows that Florecer is already creating a safe space for children to be accepted, validated and seen as ndividuals.

One joyous step Andres and Carla took in June of 2021 was the adoption of three siblings, Estuardo 7, Cristian 5, and Genesis 4. “We entered into the adoption system in early 2020 and enlisted for a group of siblings of up to three children,” said Andres. “We’ve been blessed by God once more who entrusted us with three beautiful children of our own to bring up to know and love Him.”

Together with Carla and other partners, Andres has big dreams for the future of Florecer. Recently, they’ve expanded their ministry to meet other urgent needs in La Florida. “Another group of marginalized people we see is the elderly,” Andres observed. “Just to get vaccinated for COVID-19, they encounter many barriers because most don’t know how to use the technology needed to register.” To bridge this gap in technological ability, Florecer plans to create classes that teach basic skills, such as typing, using Microsoft Office, or sending and receiving emails. “Even if it’s just one or two people at a time, it would make a big difference. We just can’t sit still and do nothing,” Andres said.

It would be easy to approach this work with a patronizing attitude, but Florecer has consciously chosen to take a different path. “We want to teach how to do, rather than continuing to do things for others. We want to give people the tools to do it for themselves,” said Andres. “Our main goal is to focus on those who have been forgotten in our community. We want to create opportunities for those who don’t have much of a voice and to stand up for those who can’t do it for themselves.” By empowering the marginalized in their community, Florecer is striving to create something that will grow. The hope is that each person they invest in will, in turn, pay it forward to those around them, and change will spread like seeds on a windy day.

Andres knows that with God all things are possible. So, they continue to work toward the growth and safety his community’s name evokes, though it may be hard to envision right now. “We want to see the transformation of this place so that it actually lives up to that,” he said.

Ultimately, everything Florecer does is for the glory of God. “We believe that our community can be a place where God’s name is glorified,” said Andres. “Because of this, we invest in those who are the least among us: children, teens, adults and the elderly. We work together so God’s kingdom can become tangible in the lives of our neighbors. We want them to experience His transformation, His redemption, so then they can live it and help in the process of transforming our community.”

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