When a neighborhood is so dangerous that not even the police will go in, what can the people do?
That's the challenge Pastor Jorge Fernandez faced when he moved to Los Guido, a dangerous slum in Costa Rica.
The solution he came up with not only transformed the neighborhood, it changed the destiny of hundreds of people.
Slum of Slums
Los Guido was a slum similar to many others in Latin America -- but worse.
"Not even the police could get in or the Red Cross -- nor could they do any kind of work, not even medical work. It was dangerous to go into that community," Congressman Carlos Avendano told CBN News.
Los Guido appeared out of nowhere 25 years ago, when squatters began building shacks on public land. Before long, there were 50,000 people and plenty of headaches for municipal authorities.
"It didn't have any kind of infrastructure, no roads, no sewage system," added Maureen Fallas, the mayor of Desamparados. "In fact, its people are a population that requires special attention from a social perspective."
"It's a community with a great number of negative elements: poverty, delinquency, abandoned children, and all the ills that come from the social issue of disintegrated homes, of the violence," Avendano explained.
But in the 1990s Los Guido took an unexpected turn for the better.
The city and national government began paving streets and building better homes. Young people started returning to school instead of running with gangs.
Missionary Church was a key factor in the transformation of the Los Guido neighborhood, and the changes over the past 10 years have been substantial.
In 2000, Pastor Fernandez took over the struggling evangelical congregation and gave it a new focus.
"I have always been convinced that the person who comes to Christ not only should become a faithful and official member of a church, but he should also become a source of benefit for the community," Fernandez told CBN News.
Fernandez helped his people leave the safety of the church sanctuary and begin reaching out to the slum's troubled youth.
"We began a project to go and rescue young people in the homes, going to their hangouts to find the youth there who were taking drugs, going wherever we could go, where they let us, to go talk about the Gospel," he explained.
"That started producing a change, so much so that the growth, the explosion of conversion... ran us over," he added.
Most of the converts In Los Guido were youth.
"I grew up in this neighborhood," said Michael Duarte, a youth leader at Missionary Church.
"I was in gangs. I took drugs, alcohol," he recalled. "I was someone they often criticized and pointed out because of the way I was. Many times instead of making friends, I was making enemies."
"Then when I met the Lord," he said. "I can tell you that it was a complete transformation in my life."
As Duarte and others like him turned from gangs to church, the community began to change.
"One more youth in the congregation is one less youth who's delinquent, or on drugs, or prostitution," Avendano said.
Today, instead of gangs controlling Los Guido, Christian youth groups meet all around the community.
The church has grown to 1,000 members who are leaving old attitudes behind.
"They're people who were born and grew up 20, 30 years, believing the whole world owes them something. But they don't owe anyone anything," Fernandez said.
"To change that attitude takes time," he explained. "To tell a person, 'Look, don't think about what they can give you. Think of what you can contribute,' -- they're shocking concepts."
But Fernandez keeps working to change the old mindset, mobilizing his congregation for evangelism and community improvement projects.
It's a partnership highly valued by City Hall "because the same goals bring us together," Fallas told CBN News.
"We work with the same people, and when we combine our resources, we maximize the work we can do in that place," he added.
The Costa Rican government recently surprised Los Guido residents with a major investment in new facilities, including a police station, a clinic, and better schools.
"And all this government investment, I emphasize that it's part of the miracle that community is experiencing," Avendano said.
Reaching Other Communities
Fernandez and his congregation are now hoping to repeat their success in other needy communities.
"We've gone from this community to other communities, many of them similar to this one, to take this same work model and raise up new churches," Fernandez said. "We're already doing that. We're working on that."
The transformation of Los Guido is still underway. But for some church and national leaders the lesson is already clear.
"That we not wait, as we generally do, for people to come to the church, but that the church goes out to the people," Avendano concluded.
"When the church goes out to the community, impressive things happen," Fernandez agreed.
Fernandez has found significant international support for his church. Lend a Hand Mission Teams, a Virginia-based ministry, has contributed $20,000 to expand and improve the church property.
The ministry has also sent construction and teaching teams to support the Los Guidos church and its daughter congregations.
For more information, check their website LendAHandMissionTeams.org