"Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." – Matthew 5:10 KJV
Spreading hope and the love of God is a mission one family from Alabama has been on for many years. Through blood, sweat, tears and dedication to the Word, Mountain Gateway works fiercely to serve those in need and has been doing so since 2009. Now, they are facing religious persecution, with their assets seized and members imprisoned without any way to communicate with the outside world.
Mountain Gateway founder Jon Britton Hancock, who grew up in Pinson, told 1819 News that what was happening in Nicaragua was "egregious and disturbing."
The non-profit operates in Latin American countries and has been ministering in Nicaragua for over a decade.
After years of service, including disaster recovery, feeding, clothing and starting churches in Nicaragua, things took a drastic turn in 2023 when the government began to jail pastors and others connected to Mountain Gateway. Since Dec. 12, 2023, 11 pastors have been jailed without official documentation or proper notification.
For Hancock and his wife, Audrey, the mission began in January of 1996 when they entered the mission field. They moved full-time to Mexico in 1997 and raised their four children on the mission field. It was a calling from God that led them to go further.
"In 1999, the Lord put it on our hearts that we would expand to other countries," Hancock remembered.
During a church missions conference in California, Hancock met a pastor from Nicaragua who invited him to visit.
"So, we went there for a visit and the Lord touched my heart," Hancock said. "We went there in 2012 and again in 2013. I did two scouting trips and that's really when the Lord confirmed for us that we would go there and start working and started discipling a couple of Nicaraguan nationals."
In 2015, Mountain Gateway officially registered with the Nicaraguan government.
"There's a multi-step process in getting registered with the government," Hancock explained. "When it comes to cross-culture communications and working as foreigners, you have to figure out how to demonstrate honor and respect. You may not agree but you have to comply with laws in order to be obedient. If you can demonstrate compliance, it sends a message to the authorities that you are respecting their laws, and so that's what we did."
For years, Hancock and his team planted churches and helped develop local leaders.
"We want native people to grow up and become confident leaders," he added. "We want disciples to make disciples to make disciples."
The missionary effort was rewarding. It started with a small footprint in smaller villages. The group was able to witness to people from all walks of life and watch them transform into evangelical Christians who can rise up and take the lead on the most important mission of all.
"There's nothing like it," said Hancock. "We've done it many times, and through the years, we've worked with those in about 15 different language groups. A few of them are illiterate and can't read; some of them are barely literate with a second or third-grade education; some of them are very literate and college-educated with higher education degrees. But the common denominator is the transforming power of the Lord Jesus to really change the way they look even."
"The way they think changes; their critical thinking and decision-making abilities change," Hancock continued. "There's a really utterly robust process that the Lord puts them through. There's nothing like it, really. To see how He changes the inner man and how He puts His gifts on them. As they get the ability to teach and preach and we see a lot of miracles through the power of God and He does that through gifting them. So, for me, there's really nothing else like that."
Gateway Mountain continued to comply with the government and grow God's flock.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who is affiliated with the left-wing communist Sandinista National Liberation Front, began to target religious organizations and non-profits by shutting them down and kicking them out around 2018. Those efforts escalated in 2022 when Ortega started to crack down on the Catholic church. Multiple Catholic priests were arrested, and a Catholic radio station was shut down. Until this point, Ortega used religious organizations to communicate to the public, but things changed when he realized they could push back on his authoritarian ways.
"They've essentially shut down everybody that was there trying to help the country and kicked them out," Hancock explained. "You can see their history of religious persecution. Their history is very apparent and you know it. From being on the ground for 11 years now in Nicaragua, I can clearly say that the pervasive atmosphere and thoughts around everyone in Nicaragua is they have to be extremely careful about what they say and how they act in reference to how they are interacting with the government or people in law enforcement."
It wasn't long before Ortega and the government of Nicaragua set their sights on Christian organizations, namely, Mountain Gateway.
The reach of the non-profit had grown into a large footprint, with hundreds of thousands of believers gathering in a series of events in 2023. In December of that year, the Nicaraguan government took action, stripping Mountain Gateway, or Puerta de la Montaña, of its legal status and arrested 11 pastors.
Walner Omier Blandón Ochoa was one of the first pastors arrested. He was also one of the first pastors on board with Mountain Gateway. He joined after a career with the Nicaraguan government. With his knowledge of government regulations, Hancock said Blandón Ochoa was instrumental in helping the non-profit navigate the process of becoming a legal entity and complying with the government. The organization regularly sent financial statements and information to the government and always gained approval. That's why when Hancock learned those arrested were likely being accused of money laundering and organized crime, he was shocked. Every financial move has been highly scrutinized, Hancock added. To make matters worse, the Nicaraguan government shut down the Central Law Firm, which was the firm the non-profit had used for years. Two of the firm's attorneys were also arrested.
Now, Hancock says he has been notified that he and two of his family members, his son and daughter-in-law, will also be arrested if they enter Nicaragua or other Latin American countries that are on board with the Nicaraguan government.
The non-profit's assets were seized, including 47 vehicles and four pieces of property. The property included training buildings, a warehouse and a coffee farm. The 122-acre coffee farm produces coffee beans that are sold online. There is also a brick-and-mortar store in Dripping Springs, Texas, called Rootline Coffee Co. Hancock said even the farm caretakers have been barred from leaving the property, and they cannot pay them their wages.
"We were building this to bless the country and they took it all and arrested our core leadership," Hancock said.
But most disturbing is the treatment of the imprisoned pastors. They have been cut off from all communications and were not allowed to physically attend a hearing on their own cases that was held on January 27.
"They were present in the hearing by video screen only, without any ability to communicate by sound," Hancock confirmed. "I guess their mics were turned off and our attorney there hasn't been granted the ability to meet with them either. As far as we know, the families have not been allowed to meet with them."
Blandón Ochoa's wife was among those arrested, leaving the couple's two children, an infant and a toddler, with their grandmother.
"So, we are very concerned about her health," said Hancock. "We know of terror stories about the government and treatment of prisoners. We don't need specific intel to know that happens."
"They need to let her go," he continued. "She was the administrative brain behind everything we were doing. She was over our accounting team but really we want everybody released as soon as possible."
The U.S. Department of State has been in communication with Hancock, and congressmen and senators have been notified. Hancock wants them to put pressure on the Nicaraguan government to release the prisoners.
"It's very egregious, this whole situation," he said.
Hancock has a message for those being imprisoned for preaching the gospel.
"Our people are not the first people to be persecuted and it is happening all over the world right now, particularly among evangelical Christians. It is probably more active and a bigger problem now than it ever has been," Hancock said. "I would tell them to keep seeking Jesus with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Maintain faith to Jesus no matter what it costs you. He is our strong tower and our shield and there definitely is a cost but this is not over and the Lord is with us. We just believe the Lord is going to bring this to a resolution, according to his will."
Along with prayer, Hancock says Americans can share this story and reach out to their U.S. Representatives and Senators to ask for attention to the situation.
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