Why One Family Moved from Virginia to Venezuela

  • by Chris Lawrence
Photo by Tom Mills

Keith Onishi knew moving his family from Virginia to South America would be an adjustment. But not like this.

It was the fall of 2002, and a national strike had hit Venezuela. Fed up with President Hugo Chavez, many citizens closed down their businesses and protested. Keith and his family of five were caught in the chaos, wondering if food and electricity would soon be unavailable.

As American missionaries with Cru, Keith and his wife, Sheri, had committed to lead a college ministry in Maracaibo, a city of 2 million people known for its booming oil industry. Also along for the ride were their three children -- at the time all under age 10.

With the strike in effect, even the college campuses had shut down. Fearing for their safety, many Americans left the country. Naturally, many students asked Keith and Sheri, "Are you also going to leave?"

"No, this is our home now," Keith told them. And he meant it. The strike ended three months later, but the Onishis had proven they were in Venezuela to stay.

The Onishis have lived in the country for several years, regularly renewing one-year visas. And while the adjustment to a new culture hasn't always been easy, the Onishis are learning to live as Venezuelans.

It's a Sunday after church. Keith shakes hands with several men and kisses a few women on the cheek -- appropriate and expected Venezuelan greetings. Sipping tisana (a drink with papaya, melon, pineapple and strawberries), Keith and Sheri chat with people, rapidly speaking Spanish -- their second language.

Before moving to Venezuela, the Onishi family spent nine months in an intensive language school in Costa Rica. Since their youngest child learned two languages simultaneously, Tucker (now 5) speaks English with a Spanish accent, rolling his Rs.

Yet even after such intense study, speaking Spanish in Maracaibo has proved a challenge -- it's incredibly fast, with lots of slang. "When we first got there, I understood like 30 percent of what people were saying," says Keith. "Now I can usually understand about 90 percent."

Keith was still struggling with the language during a fall 2002 meeting with Jair Rios, who leads Cru in Venezuela. Keith brought along a student named Christian Vivas to help him communicate.

After Keith explained his vision and goal for the ministry in Venezuela to send missionaries to other parts of the world, Jair was very impressed.

"Congratulations," Christian said.

"Congratulations for what?" Keith asked.

"Jair just made you the national campus director."

Already overwhelmed by his responsibilities in Maracaibo, Keith learned that Jair appointed him to be in charge of the entire college ministry in Venezuela, which currently includes 750,000 students in seven cities.

Before Venezuela, Keith and Sheri spent eight years leading a large college ministry at Virginia Tech. Over the years they considered ministry abroad, but had not pursued anything until Venezuela.

Naturally, they had concerns before going. Were they willing to leave their family, their country? How would their children respond to going?

"At first I thought we were going because my parents wanted us to," says Rachel, now 12. "Then my parents explained that they believed that it was God's will for us to be in Venezuela -- and I was OK with it."

"One of the worst things that I could imagine," says Keith, "would be tucking one of my kids into bed one night and hearing them say, 'Daddy, I want to go home.'"

Fortunately, this has not happened, says Keith.

That doesn't mean the Onishis don't long for things from the United States. "We miss the seasons," says Keith. "Not that we want to dig out of snow, but it's summer here all the time."

Keith wipes the sweat from his brow as he and Sheri speak at an evangelistic outreach to a group of more than 120 students on a Thursday afternoon. They sit on a patio, shaded by a large oak tree, but the heat is sweltering -- temperatures can easily surpass 100 degrees with high humidity on summer days.  Such weather is not uncommon for a country just north of the equator.

Besides the heat, living in a complicated urban city has been a change of pace for the Onishis. "The joke here is that car alarms are the Venezuelan national anthem," Keith says.

During the first two years in Venezuela, the Onishis relied on taxis to navigate the dog-eat-dog Maracaibo driving scene. Last year, they bought a small SUV and took the driving into their own hands.

On the way to the supermarket on a Saturday, Sheri approaches a jammed intersection, the cars piled up like a jigsaw puzzle. "This happens a lot," she says. Seeing a gap between a worn sedan and rusted cruiser, she punches the gas, and makes it through with little room to spare. "People have always said I drive too aggressively," she says. "Coming to Venezuela, I have been liberated in my driving."

After buying a loaf of bread and a few cartons of milk, Sheri heads to the Onishi dwelling, an apartment on the eighth floor of a high-rise building. Reminiscent of an embassy, the apartment has tight security, with high walls, an electric fence and an armed guard on duty 24 hours a day -- a good thing, considering the rampant thievery in Maracaibo.

Twice the Onishis have been robbed on the street. Once a man snuck up behind Sheri and grabbed her cell phone out of her hand while she was talking to a friend. Another time, two men mugged Keith and Sheri outside the gate of a friend's apartment, in broad daylight, with witnesses nearby.

The incidents haven't soured the Onishis on Venezuela. "There have been times when I've been concerned, but I don't fear for my safety," says Sheri. "I have always sensed that I am super-protected by God."

It's a lesson they learned while attending language school in Costa Rica. During that time, the 9/11 attacks happened. "After September 11, we realized that the safest place to be is in the will of God," says Keith. "It doesn't matter whether you are in New York, Houston or Maracaibo."

That doesn't mean the Onishis don't take precautions.  

"Mom, can I go next door and pick up some chocolate chips and brown sugar?" Rachel asks her mom in the family's kitchen.

"By yourself?" asks Sheri.

She nods. "It's just next door, and it's the middle of the day," she says.

"Honey, you know you can't go by yourself," says Sheri. "Even if it is just next door."

Rachel sighs in exasperation.

Despite some frustrations, the Onishi kids have learned to live under a watchful eye, yet with sufficient freedom too. The children attend Venezuelan schools, and two of them participate in extracurricular activities -- Rachel plays soccer, and Mary, 8, is in a karate class.

Instead of learning about George Washington at school, they study Simon Bolîvar, the Latin liberator (though Sheri makes sure they know their U.S. history too).

The more the family adjusts, the easier it is for Keith and Sheri to focus on the college ministry, called Vida Estudiantil (which means "Student Life"). "There are so few people really living their lives free in Christ," says Sheri. "And we feel the responsibility to offer that freedom."

At least 60 students from five different universities attend the meetings each week. Ninety percent of them are new believers, and many more students are open to beginning a relationship with God, says Keith.

So far, Keith and Sheri have groomed multiple students into spiritual leaders -- including five Venezuelans who have become Cru staff members, and five others who are interns. While they are young-in college or just out of college -- they are capable and teachable. They are the future of Vida Estudiantil.

And Keith's goal, as it is with all U.S. Cru staff members serving internationally, is to work himself out of a job.

"It takes time to see the type of leaders emerge that you want to replace yourself with," says Keith. "But when there is another leader to take my place, the old guy can't stay."

Until that day, the Onishis will remain.

In the entryway of the Onishis' apartment hang two colorful flags: one Venezuelan and the other the Stars and Stripes. "When I get up in the morning I say, 'Lord, I'm here to serve you in Venezuela,'" says Keith. "Before going to bed at night, I look at the U.S. flag and say, 'God bless America.'"

The flags are a reminder of a country Keith and his family used to live in, and the country they now call home.