VALPARAÍSO, Chile – Maria had reached her limit. Seeing no other way to escape her troubled life, she was considering suicide. But because of the faithfulness of Chilean university student Ruth Aguirre and Southern Baptist missionary Karen Wright, she chose to live for Christ instead.
Maria had received a Gospel of John when Aguirre and Wright were prayerwalking on Polanco Hill, one of the 42 hills upon which Valparaíso, Chile, is built. By the time Aguirre visited her several weeks later, Maria had read the entire scripture portion. That day she accepted Christ and agreed to let Aguirre begin a Bible study in her home.
Aguirre was even more amazed when Maria’s husband said he, too, wanted to learn more about Christ.
IMB photo by Sophia Hayden
University student Ruth Aguirre pauses by a mural of a popular Chilean comic strip character, shown ascending one of the colorful 42 hills of the port city of Valparaíso. Through a church-planting effort called the 42 Hills Project, Aguirre is taking the gospel to a local hill called Polanco. Its steep cobblestone streets see extensive drug trafficking, gang violence and witchcraft.
Aguirre has “adopted” Polanco Hill as part of the “42 Hills Project,” an initiative begun by Wright linking U.S. churches with Chilean believers to reach the 42 hills of Valparaíso – Chile’s chief seaport – with the gospel.
For Aguirre, it was during a vision trip with Wright that she felt called to reach Polanco Hill, a dangerous place for any outsider but especially for a single 22-year-old female. Aguirre realized she would be trusting God with her life every time she set foot there.
“It was difficult at first to go,” Aguirre said. “I was afraid. But once I finally began going and praying, I became very aware of the needs of the people.”
Like much of Valparaíso, Polanco Hill is dotted with brightly colored houses. But beneath the cheery appearance is an area riddled with poverty, crime and violence. Alcohol is cheap and readily available. A house on one street is painted completely black, a sign of its use for drug deals. Unemployment rates are among the highest in the country.
Many of the youth in Valparaíso suffer from broken homes and a lack of role models. A majority of teens never finish high school. Faced with a bleak future, they often turn to theft and dealing drugs. Throughout the city, groups of young people loiter in the streets with nothing to do – a perfect breeding ground for peer pressure and poor life decisions.
IMB photo by Sophia Hayden
While visiting one of the 42 hills of Valparaíso, Chile, International Mission Board missionary Karen Wright, right, offers a word of encouragement to Maria, a new believer who accepted Christ after receiving a Scripture portion from Wright and Chilean university student Ruth Aguirre. Maria had been considering suicide before Aguirre and Wright reached out to her.
Aguirre sometimes prayerwalks the area alone despite the risk.
“It’s a little hill, but there’s a lot of need,” she said. “There’s a strong sense of abandonment, of desolation.”
But she also sees the hand of God at work in her adopted community. Many people are beginning to share with her about their lives and struggles – such transparency is uncommon here.
“I feel like God has put a sign on me that I can’t see, but that other people must see,” she said. “It must say, ‘Talk to me, tell me your problems!’”
One day after a Bible study, a man on the street corner noticed the Bible she was carrying. He came up to her and said he also wanted to study it.
“People are responding to God’s desire for them in this place,” Aguirre said. “It’s an unusual phenomenon here.”
Aguirre intends to begin more Bible studies in homes throughout Polanco Hill. She also wants to work with local youth, many of whom face a life of crime without Christ. Recently, she expanded her outreach to O’Higgins Hill after Maria and her husband relocated there. Every week Aguirre leads a Bible study in Maria’s new home.
“God is teaching me to do His will and to obey Him, and that in the Bible I can find what God wants for me,” Maria said. “He has me here for a purpose, and I will find that purpose … as I dig deeper in His Word.”
Aguirre rejoices at what Christ is doing in Maria’s life but grieves for other area residents who haven’t yet responded to the gospel, knowing that she needs Christian partners to help reach them.
“We are seeing the Lord at work, and it’s an exciting thing,” said Wright, who is from Kentucky. “My prayer now is for Chilean churches to step up and see that this is their mission field, too.”
Of the 42 hills in Valparaíso, only four have a Baptist church in the community. Some have no evangelical presence at all.
Wright added that U.S. churches also are needed to partner with Chileans like Aguirre to carry the gospel to the other hills of Valparaíso. Churches that “adopt” a hill will be asked to pray for their hill and send volunteer teams several times a year to evangelize and start Bible studies.
“There are 42 hills,” Aguirre said. “God is working there, and He’s going to use either me or someone else to get His Word out. Pray that God will shine through Polanco and [His Light will] spread to the other hills.”
To learn more about the 42 Hills Project, visit www.connectingchile.org/ministries/42-hills.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Emily Pearson is an International Mission Board (IMB) writer living in the Americas. Morgan Phillips, an IMB writing intern in the Americas, contributed to this story.)