By Mariette Oosterhoff, Marketing & Communications director for Latin America & The Caribbean
Somewhere in the Uruguayan countryside during the 1940s, American missionary Lemuel Jaime preached the gospel in a large tent. At first, local boys threw stones at the tent, but as Jaime calmly invited them to attend youth nights, they eventually came. One accepted Christ and several years later honored that missionary by naming one of his sons Lemuel Jaime Larrosa.
Today, that namesake son is wrapping up his tenure as TWR’s international director of Latin American and Caribbean ministry. On the last day of the 2018 conference for TWR Latin American national partners, Lemuel Jaime Larrosa reflected on his five decades of service in Christian broadcasting, for which he was recognized by the U.S. National Religious Broadcasters with the 2013 International Individual Achievement Award.
“At the beginning of our annual conferences, we sat at one table!” Larrosa said, looking around at the many conference participants. “It is very encouraging for me to see how the ministry has grown. I see many young faces. By God’s grace, we have been able to pass on our vision to the young generation.”
TWR Ministry Spreads in South America
Larrosa has been a Christian most of his life. “At the age of 9, you can say, I personally understood who Jesus was for me and that I needed his forgiveness for my sins,” he recounted. When he went to a summer camp as a 16-year-old, he decided he wanted to become a pastor. He enrolled in seminary in Buenos Aires, where he met his wife-to-be, Sonia. They got married and together pastored a small church in Montevideo, Uruguay. As a young pastor with children to feed, Larrosa had to have a second job to earn a salary. He started working at a commercial station presenting news, music and weather reports.
A TWR missionary from Bonaire, Donald Strong, heard about this young pastor with the great voice. He was looking for local people in South America who could help TWR produce Spanish programs for the listeners in the region. Larrosa started working for TWR as a volunteer. “I didn’t know anything about TWR at that time,” he said, but that changed rapidly. TWR founder Paul Freed saw the need for a broadcasting outlet in the southern part of South America, and one hour of broadcasting a day to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay began in 1981. The same year, Larrosa founded RTM Uruguay (RTM are the Spanish letters for TWR), and was its national director for 20 years.
“They sent me cassettes with the programs on it by mail,” he said. “I started receiving phone calls and mail at home. Combining my broadcasting work with my faith made me very happy. I have always liked relating to listeners. And at that time, we were the only one doing Christian radio, so there was a lot of response.”
In 1987, RTM Uruguay gained nonprofit status and established a national board. ERF Germany, a longtime national partner of TWR, helped to open an office in Uruguay, and gradually the ministry grew. Later, ERF decided to fund Larrosa’s salary, turning the volunteer into a professional ministry worker.
In 1999, Larrosa became the Latin American voice of Thru the Bible, the world-famous Bible-study program. Now Latin American listeners had their own pastor on the radio who could relate to them.
New Regional Responsibilities
At about the same time, TWR asked Larrosa to become international director for Hispanic ministries. He started to travel throughout the region looking for new media partners to help TWR bring the gospel to even more places.
“Being the voice on the radio opened many doors for me,” he recalled. “As soon as I started talking, people recognized my voice, and they started treating me like family! It’s just like what Billy Graham once said about TWR. Radio is like a blanket across the nations paving the way for missionaries to go to places where people already have heard about Jesus [over the airwaves].
Larrosa started TWR partnerships in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia and Peru.
First Visits to Cuba
Larrosa knew no one in Cuba the first time he traveled there as part of his effort to expand ministry in the region. Just getting into the politically isolated country was difficult.
“When I went through immigration in Cuba, the officer was very intimidating,” he said. “I had to go through a sort of narrow cave. There was an officer standing at an upper level looking down on me. He asked me all kinds of questions: ‘Why are you here? Who are you visiting?’”
Allowed to enter, he gave the taxi driver the address of Cuban pastor Alberto Gonzalez, a contact provided by another national partner. Gonzalez introduced him to Cuban listeners of the TWR broadcasts from the Caribbean island of Bonaire – meetings that were often emotional.
“All those years broadcasting from Bonaire, we didn’t know at all if people were listening in Cuba.
The second time I went to Cuba, we had announced on radio from Bonaire that I would visit Pinar del Rio. I will never forget this. People came very early in the afternoon. They walked four hours and then had to return. The church was made of four poles with a roof of palm leaves. People were crowded into that space because the government did not allow them to leave. The ‘church’ was packed!”
Blind Cuban Girl sang Hymns from Memory
One of the encounters was especially memorable for Larrosa. A mother introduced her 8-year-old daughter, who was blind because medicine wasn’t available during a childhood illness. They were faithful listeners of the Bonaire broadcasts on 800 AM. “The mother told me her daughter had learned some songs. We asked her to come up front, and she sang – from memory! – six traditional hymns that we used to broadcast those days on 800 AM.”
But the strongest, longest-lasting relationship that Larrosa built during that trip was with Gonzalez himself, who today is TWR’s representative in Cuba. Gonzales said in an email, “When I travel in Cuba, many people talk about Lemuel Larrosa as if he is a close family member. However, no one has ever met him in person. Lemuel’s voice, with his elegant Uruguayan accent, has captured the hearts of many Cubans as if he is visiting their homes every night. For the Cuban listeners, RTM and Lemuel Larrosa are the same things. Also, my own ministry became enriched when Lemuel walked into my life and invited me to become part of RTM.”
Emphasizing People, Not Institutions
To Larrosa, one his biggest contributions as a TWR leader – growing the ministry in Latin America and the Caribbean – was more about building friendships than building an institution. “I consider most of the people at this annual partner conference as my friends,” he said. “I consider personal relationships to be more important than institutionalized relationships. I start by encouraging the media organization [that is a prospective partner] to use our existing programming. Then I grow in friendship with them. I ask for more participation. When the relationship grows, I ask them to become an official RTM partner.”
Larrosa’s belief in the power of friendship was revealed in a simple but weighty remark by Walter Vacca, director of RTM Bolivia. Vacca recalled going through a major crisis with the ministry that deeply affected his wife and himself. Asked during the conference week how he had managed to cope, he answered, “Because of the Lord and because of Lemuel Larrosa.”
Told of Vacca’s response, Larrosa’s eyes filled with tears. “I didn’t know this,” he said. “I called Walter every day during these difficult days. Walter was the key person for the solution in Bolivia. Many times, he was willing to give up. But I asked him to stay and supported him as much as I could.”
Although there are lots of good memories from his tenure as international director, there were also the inevitable unhappy times, too, Larrosa said, and he needed a very special partner to walk with him throughout. “One of the hardest things about being an international director for Latin America was when I saw some colleagues fall into sin and almost destroy their ministries with their fall. The positive is that the work has grown so much. I give God thanks for that. I thank my wife, Sonja. It was not always easy for her. She kept the family together and supported the ministry cause from the very beginning.”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians has played a key role in Larrosa’s life. Under his signature, he frequently writes one of three verses, Philippians 4: 4, 13 or 19. The last one, along with Verse 20, offers a fitting benediction to Larrosa’s years of service.
“And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”