The Beginnings | A Personal Account

 In Agua Panela, Homeless Shelter

By Douglas Calvano | Founder & Pastor Ciudad Refugio 

Saturday evening.

The year was 1994 and it was a very violent period in Colombia.  The church where we worked was located in one of the darkest and scariest neighborhoods in Medellin.  The Saturday meeting with the church’s youth just ended.  Sunday was almost here, a day of a lot of work for us.  We call the weekends, the great marathon.  We had five meetings with five messages to prepare and street evangelism.  By the time it was done, we were dead.  And on Mondays . . . it began again. In addition, I was single and feeling alone, a very painful situation when one is 25 years old.   And on top of it all, I was unable to sleep.

Suddenly without forethought, I did something crazy. I made a decision and with a burden of depression on my shoulder, I left for the streets.  It was midnight, I had been walking for about a half an hour, when I met 20 indigenes homeless.  They were almost all sleeping with exception of one who was surprised by my presence.  None of the others paid much attention, especially because it was such an imprudent hour.  The young man and I spoke of many things and finally we spoke of the Lord.  With tears in our eyes, we cried and prayed.  What happened afterwards, I will never forget.  While we were praying, I heard noises all around me.  I knew that I was in a violent country; I was alone and surrounded by people who were not very reputable.  I was scared and I remembered that I thought my time had come.  I tried to hide my fear, but my eyes waited for the worst.  What I saw is difficult to express.  Those that were sleeping had gotten up, and those that were half awake were focusing their attention upon me.  One of the men close to me spoke for all of them,

 “We want you to pray for us as well¨. Before I fully understood what was happening, the street transformed into a mini-church service.  I shared with them the peace and the joy that God had given.  I spoke in the past tense because just then my depression had left.  We prayed all together and on the street corner in Medellín, they accepted the Lord.  There were tears flowing from one side to the other, God is real!

I returned to the church joyful and that night I couldn’t sleep.  I dedicated my life to prayer and to reading the Bible.

I opened the Bible exactly to Matthew 25:  The judging of the nations.  There Jesus tells us to be the voice for those that no one listens to, demonstrated with a love reflected in concrete actions.  To those that are hungry, give them food; to those that are naked, clothe them; to those that are sick, visit them . . .  God spoke and I listened.

This night birthed a ministry; this night birthed the City of Refuge (Ciudad Refugio).

The following is my story . . .

Timid vision.  Timid beginning.

I don’t know about you, but I am not the kind of person who throws themselves into the pool of countless ambitious projects that are brought to me.  I walk slow, very slow, step by step calculating the costs, especially regarding issues of faith.  Virtue or defect, I don’t know.  What I do know is that I never would have imagined that this Saturday night experience would have such a far reaching influence on my life and of others.

After waiting several weeks to assimilate what happened, I suggested we form a group that would go and briefly visit with the street people.  The tentative day . . . a Wednesday.  To my surprise, there were many people from the church that shared the vision.  My best friend and brother Iván Rios was one of the first that offered support.  With him and others, we began the divine experiment.  When we commenced this ministry, we began with more fear and inexperience than anything else.  We had experiences good and bad; we laughed and cried; there were moments when we wanted to throw in the towel, but we didn’t.

Today, our street ministry continues with three groups of precious people from different churches and denominations. And even though now we don’t have that same fear and are a bit more experienced, we do not want to forget our beginning.  God will not permit it.

Forced break.  Sojourn to the United States, 1997, Pennsylvania.

I have heard it said that suffering is part of the school of Christ. By the end of 1996, I came to the most difficult period that I had ever experienced as a Christian and in my ministry.

When I thought that the efforts of almost four years of hard work would finally manifest in fruits, I had to return to the US.  The reason, even today, is difficult to explain.  Looking back, I understand that the school of Christ at times is like that.  When you believe that you have all of the answers, God changes all of the questions.  Only then do we know that it was the beginning of something, even though we can’t see it with clarity.  A year of uncertainty followed.  God responded with silence to all of my questions.  The door of divine torture began in January of 1997 on a Mennonite farm in New Holland, 

PA.  Its owner Edward Eby and his wife, Erma and their marvelous family took me in, almost without knowing me.  They offered me their home, their confidence and their family and . . .work, a lot of work.   There I learned to live with a silence that all who serve God should examine if they really want to know Him.  It was there that I knew that in the silence God writes poetry on the hearts of men.  Eleven months later, I was ready to return to Colombia.  This final touch was a vision that I began timidly that from now to the future He has written with the seal of the Blessing of God.  The silence began to make sense.

Finishing what was started.  Come to this side of the Jordan.

There are special moments in life that one never will forget.  Even though the years pass and memory fails, still they are remembered with vividness as if they happened yesterday.  Life is made of moments such as these that impact us, change us and enrich us.  Those that consider themselves Christians know that these are experiences with God.

One of these moments happened on a Tuesday evening service at Times Square Church.  Recently arriving from the farm, I felt again that I was at home.  The sermon was about opposition that one suffers because of the calling of God on our lives and over the importance of persevering in the continual struggle at any price.

And God . . . He spoke like He hadn’t spoken in a long time.  A finish what you have begun, He told me.  It was simple and it was clear.

At my side was Iván Rios.  I told him that God had spoken to me and that I should return and finish what we had begun.  He looked at me and he didn’t say anything in particular.  I had hoped that he would say, “Great and I will go with you” but he only looked at me.  As a result, I knew that I was going alone and that it was God and I.  I accepted that, however, conditions and in less then one week I was in Medellín.  Now it would be another price . . .

Two years of uncertainty.  Was God wrong?

I arrived in Colombia sure that now and going forward everything that I ask, I will receive.  In the end and right afterward in all that had happened nothing was lost.  I was convinced that God owed me one.  Great was my surprise when were not given like I had expected and as time passed there was nothing from nothing.    The first year as a result of great effort, a group of Colombians were sent on a missionary trip to Russia in conjunction with Times Square Church. The second year we began to go to the streets on Wednesday nights.  God was in all of this, beautiful things resulted, but I had a sensation that something was missing.  I wanted to see MORE of God and each day I was filled with more frustration.  They were my efforts and not God’s.  I want to be clear that never was my objective to make a name for myself or to have a great ministry.  Today I am really convinced of this.  But when God speaks, one should believe and simply not doubt.  I wasn’t patient. God had promised more and the reality is that despite these things, I don’t know what was causing the hindrance.

Then began the recriminations, the confusion and the questionings:  Was I wrong?  Or was God again having His way with me?

The time had passed, two years, and nothing.

I know that the initial sending hadn’t been one that was mere emotion, but rather humility. On the other hand, I knew God had spoken.  So that is what happened. The conclusion:  My problem was one of faith.

In the end, all desperate Christians should know this principal.  Between fasting and praying, I did more fighting with God than to have communion with Him.  I was angry, disappointed and had a strange mix of stubborn will and pride.

Three days that marked the beginning.  The doors were open.  The government was beginning to spy.

It was as if God calmed my spirit, strengthened my faith and reminded me to remember me that He would always finish what is begun.  His promises are the anchor that encourages us in our Faith.

A few days later the Colombian government contacted us for the first time.  Poor, without even proper license or contacts, even today it still surprises me what they were doing.  Who knows what they thought of us.  Perhaps they imagined that we were some type an international organization in Colombia that had unlimited resources or something like that.  What it was is that a miracle was beginning to transform.  God was strengthening our faith and He told us that we could continue to move forward.  It was under His control.

The Foundation.  The refuge.  The feeding program.  The shelter of displaced families.  The first microenterprise.

The Secretary of Solidarity of the Municipal of Medellín granted a place where we could serve the street people.  On Friday and Saturday, we were able to congregate more than 100 hungry Indigenous at a time.  But for every one of those that we gave food, we didn’t have a single penny.  We prayed and fasted again, convinced that God wouldn’t open a door and then close it on our hope and our answer.

A large donation sent by World Aid arrived at the Foundation’s barren chest of funds.   This guaranteed a year of funds to feed this population and our faith was in the clouds. I hoped that someday they would know how precious it was to see this miracle.

Since God had shown us the necessity of opening the home of drug addicts, alcoholics and the native population, we worked faithfully this for almost two years.

Once again it was time to extend ourselves and to begin something that would exceed our resources and efforts.  It was time to make a decision.  We had the opportunity to buy property that would meet our needs.  We took it.  God knew what state we were in.  We began to make arrangements and in April 2001, we opened the home.  We didn’t have mattresses or a refrigerator.  We had only six adventurous boys that followed my invitation to change their lives.  The most difficult was to begin alone and without much experience.  I believe that things are given to be totally broken.  Even though I know that promises have sustained me and that we will continue to move ahead.  The resources little by little came in, the boys began to change and quickly and by eight months I could employ Ramón, my first helper, who even today continues to work with me.

Later in April 2002, we opened a night time shelter for the Indigenous.  The idea was to give them a secure and a dry place where they could sleep.  They began to arrive.

And now what, Lord?  (Projects, Edification, Missions)

Now, it is mid-October of 2004 and I am writing about the family shelter managed under the Foundation.  In front of my desk is Matthew, a baby of 20 months, whose mother was displaced by the violence.  With his tenderness he had bought the heart of all of us and he had taught us the value to continue despite in the hardships of this work.  Nehemiah cried and shouted when he organized the reconstruction of Jerusalem.  Jesus prayed but also He acted; He took up His cross and died for us.

Today we are facing a crossroads to efficiently do what God has entrusted us.  We are praying, but also we are acting.  It is faith that demands action.

This action translates into three immediate projects, opportunities that we cannot let slip away.  First the opening of a church by the Foundation, the attainment of resources for buying and constructing a headquarters that would cover our basic needs and finally the founding of our first microenterprise that generates dignified work for our people.

These are three challenges that we know God will help us to overcome the difficulties, just   as He has done in the past.

We have just received good news.  We have sufficient funds to buy the lot where we will build the main center.  Thank You, God!!!! ….

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