Schoolchildren Learn About Jesus in School

As Shenny Avarez tells the Bible story of David and Goliath, 40 fourth-grade girls at Guatemala City's Escuela Nacional #29 Republica Dominican sit in rapt attention. Shenny's director, Martita Arreaga, follows along on her own copy of the lesson, running her finger down the page and noting each point. "It doesn't matter about a person's size," says Shenny. "What matters is if God is with them."

Shenny could have been talking about Martita, who stands in at about four and a half feet tall, but there is nothing small about Martita's dreams or her heart for the schoolchildren of Guatemala. And God is certainly with her.

Martita, a 30-year staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ, leads 96 volunteers with the CrossRoads ministry of Campus Crusade in Guatemala, covering 48 schools and about 30,000 children, teaching them values and character. "My dream is for Guatemala to have a new generation of youth with character because Jesus is in them," says Martita. Even though Guatemala is smaller than Ohio, it is a big dream.

The all-girls Escuela Nacional #29 is one of the poorest schools in the city. It is the first one Martita came to in 1995 when she began her ministry to the schools.

Martita and her husband, Haroldo (Campus Crusade Guatemala's community director), drive to the school in their 1986 Nissan with 318,000 miles on the odometer. Lodged within a 15-foot wall topped with barbed wire, the gate to the school slowly opens, and an ancient, gray-bearded man eyes them from inside. He smiles with recognition and allows them in, while guard dogs stare like gargoyles through the coiled barbed wire on nearby rooftops.

Once inside, students and staff workers alike all welcome Martita. Children in worn, maroon, plaid uniforms busily sweep the courtyard or clean the school bathrooms, which smell of bleach, or wait in line for their Hepatitis B vaccinations.

After all the volunteers arrive, and the school superintendent rings a hand-held bell, they scatter to the classrooms, where the teachers gladly yield their time for the Niños del Mundo (Children of the World) Bible lessons.

One of those lessons is the JESUS film. In this school, 80 percent of the girls indicated decisions to receive Christ after watching it.

Martita uses the Niños del Mundo curriculum in the elementary grades to prepare the children for what they receive in high school. There, through the Jovenes en el Umbral de la Vida (the Guatemalan name for CrossRoads), students receive training in character and values.

The program's results -- a reduction in violence, pregnancies and gang activity -- have the attention of the Minister of Education. Teachers who complete the CrossRoads training even receive a national certification for their résumé, and the material is now part of the school curriculum. And the CrossRoads volunteers have free rein wherever they go.

Leaving Escuela Nacional #29, Martita heads to another school where her volunteers are teaching.

Traffic is slowed at the Inciencia Bridge. Under the bridge, where you could fit a 60-story building, a warren of squatters' shanties clings to the rugged hillside. Thousands of people live down there in homes cobbled together out of scavenged metal or plastic. On this day, traffic is slowed because of an ambulance and police vehicles. Someone has jumped from the Inciencia, which happens, on average, twice a week, even though Guatemala has one of the lowest overall suicide rates in the world.

Martita spies a green building about halfway down the hill -- a school where her volunteers teach the poorest in the city.

But outside Guatemala City, in San Juan Sacatepequez, in another school with a high wall and gate, more children wait for the CrossRoads volunteers.

In this school there is no old man at the door, but instead an armed guard to keep the banditos from raiding the school like they have done in the past. And yet the classrooms are built from a ramshackle collection of foraged materials: sheet metal, plastic, chain link and wood. Inside a high-school classroom, Anna de Salgado teaches the CrossRoads lesson. It is common for 20 percent of these young students to be mothers.

"Do you know what AIDS is?"

"Yes, a mortal disease."

"Do you know about condoms?"

"Yes."

"Do you know the word 'abstinence'?"

No response. But they know before the hour is over. And they learn that abstinence equals respect.

Martita, as usual, follows along with her copy of the lesson, nodding slightly as each point is made. Martita is a gentle shepherd who has turned the actual teaching over to her volunteers, but she makes absolutely certain that the course is on the right path.

On this day, Martita juggles the needs at hand in the school with calls on her omnipresent cell phone concerning plans for an upcoming staff meeting. She suddenly raises her dark eyes skyward with a look of exasperation. A high giggle gives her away; she has forgotten that it is her and Haroldo's 27th wedding anniversary. Not particularly surprising, considering she often forgets her own birthday.

The couple will celebrate, but only after the ministry is done for the day. Haroldo says they always have "the paw of the dog." This Guatemalan expression means they are always on the move, like street dogs constantly searching for the next scrap of food.

Even a serious bout with phlebitis over the last four years could not deter Martita. "I am learning to depend more on God," says Martita, as her eyes tear up. "If I was in good health, I would work in my own strength."

Twice in the past year, when the pressure of raising funds and volunteers for the ministry seemed overwhelming, Haroldo said, "No more." But God has always intervened, providing the needed resources and making sure that His plans take root.

Before leaving the school, Martita makes sure to greet two teachers whom she helped introduce to Jesus almost 30 years ago. Martita's own conversion occurred at 16 when a Campus Crusade team came through her town of Quetzaltenango, near the Mexican border.

Martita liked to party, but she went to church because her cousins kept inviting her. When the Campus Crusade team came to her church looking for volunteers to do evangelism and teach discipleship, Martita volunteered.

After going through the first lesson, Martita knew she was lost and prayed for salvation. The young team leader stayed on for two months to train the new troop of ministers, including Martita.

That young team leader's name: Haroldo Arreaga, now Martita's husband. Another piece of God's plan took root, as unstoppable as the flow from the volcanoes visible from Guatemala City.

Martita plans to saturate Guatemalan schools with volunteers teaching the Crossroads curriculum. You have to believe that, between Martita and God, it will happen. And a small woman will leave a big mark on the next generation of Guatemalans.