Global Witness to the Chinese in Central America

Central America! It conjures up images of the busy Panama Canal, or perhaps ancient Mayan pyramids buried in the lush jungle from which fly gorgeously colored toucans and parrots.

One does not think of Chinese in this region, but in fact there are over 230,000 of them living in the seven countries that make up this distinct region:

Belize 7,000
Costa Rica 63,000
El Salvador 1,300
Guatemala 20,000
Honduras 2,000
Nicaragua 7,000
Panama 130,000

However, evangelical Christian witness is weak among them. There are believed to be only about 1,300 believers, meeting in only 18 churches and fellowships across this region. (This means only about 0.6 percent of the overseas Chinese communities here are believers.)

Worse, there are no Chinese Christian fellowships operating at all in four of the countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua). And in two countries -- Honduras and Nicaragua -- there are no known Chinese Christians.

Throughout the region, Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith. In many cases it has become very nominal, and in others is a thin overlay covering native folk-religion and animism which dates back to the time of the Maya and the Aztecs.

In recent decades the Protestant churches in Central America have enjoyed explosive growth. In two countries (Guatemala and Belize) they number about 25 percent of the total population. In the remaining five countries Protestants account for between 11-21 percent of the population.

Is it too much to hope that these vigorous, growing Spanish-speaking churches will develop a burden and the skills to reach out to the Chinese communities in their midst?

In Panama, many of the large Chinese population can trace their ancestry to the laborers who migrated to the country in the early 20th century to build the Panama Canal. Many are small shop owners who work long hours. There are three relatively established Chinese churches and a handful of full-time or part-time workers. Various short-term teams visit to preach and evangelize but there is a desperate need for long-term pastors.

In Costa Rica, the Chinese community largely came from Guangdong. Today they run restaurants, shops, bars and hotels. More recently many have come from Taiwan and the Mainland. Catholicism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and traditional Chinese religions have made strong inroads into the Chinese community. In San Jose, the capital, there are four Chinese fellowships using Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese as well as Spanish for the younger generation growing up who have lost their Chinese roots. These churches rely on Chinese missionaries to preach and pastor.

In the other countries, there is either no witness or small fellowships struggling to survive. Will you pray for the spiritual upbuilding of these small Chinese fellowships and that more committed evangelists and pastors will be called to Central America to reach the rapidly growing Chinese population?

(We are grateful to the Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism for much of the above information.)