Amid violence south of the U.S. border, many churches rethink travel plans. But safety concerns fail to deter some.
— A year ago, Bethany Gibbs raised more than $2,000 to buy Spanish-language Bibles for 350 families in this remote mountain village and nearby communities.
Gibbs, then a high school senior, eagerly anticipated sharing God’s written word with Mexican friends she had made on two previous mission trips here.
But safety concerns south of the U.S. border prompted her home congregation — the Edmond Church of Christ in Oklahoma — to cancel its planned trip.
Mexican members and American visitors leave the Church of Christ in Aquiles after a Sunday morning worship assembly. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
“It was heartbreaking,” said Deborah Gibbs, Bethany’s mother. “She didn’t know if she’d ever get to come back.”
Turf wars between drug cartels have claimed more than 50,000 lives in Mexico since 2006, even as President Felipe Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to combat criminal organizations.
The violence, which includes kidnappings, carjackings and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, has caused many Churches of Christ in the U.S. to rethink Mexico missions.
“It has devastated mission work in Mexico,” said Rick Owens, a member of the Las Cruces Church of Christ in New Mexico.
Starting in 1988, Owens organized thousands of American volunteers and helped build more than 150 churches throughout Mexico. But after 22 years, the former Alaska oilfield worker — dubbed a “Mexican at heart” — deemed the safety risk too high in 2010.
For a decade, the King of Prussia Church of Christ in Pennsylvania sent a mission team to Mexico each summer.
But two years ago, the congregation began traveling to Honduras instead.
“I cried like a baby,” member Jason Pearl said of halting the Mexico trips. “I’m dying to see how the congregation we worked on is doing. We still support them monthly. (But) in some ways, I feel like we’ve abandoned them.”
Sandy Holcomb, a missionary with her husband, Doug, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, south of Mexico City, said the couple used to receive many requests from churches wanting to send mission groups.
“But now, because of the reports of violence, we’ve had very few requests,” she said.
Although she and her husband do not feel threatened, Holcomb said, many church members live in constant fear.
“But then fear could have driven some people to seek the Lord,” she added.
Spanish-language Bibles rest at the top of care packages. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
At a time of darkness, Mexicans seek light and peace, said Tim Rush, a missionary with his wife, Kim, in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“The effect of the drug war,” Rush said, “is that it places us in a context where people are looking for what we’re offering.”
Mexico’s drug-related violence has failed to deter every church group.
The Mayfair Church of Christ in Oklahoma City canceled a single trip — in 2008 — to an orphanage in Anahuac, Mexico.
But every spring since, the congregation has returned.
“I work diligently to make certain I have done everything within my power to make the trip as safe as possible,” said Gina Clay, the Mayfair church’s minister to children and families.
“My motto is ‘Let go and let God,’” she said. “There are no guarantees for any of us ... but I feel good about where we are going and what we are doing.”
Volunteers with the Vancouver Church of Christ in Washington travel each summer to El Zorrillo, Mexico, near Ensenada, to build houses.
“Each year, the State Department issues its usual warnings ... and I get lots of calls and e-mails from concerned parents,” church secretary Bonnie Miller said. “I reassure them that we are off the beaten path, away from the resort towns and drug wars, and have never had any reason to be concerned for our safety, although we certainly are vigilant and use precaution.”
But Owens, who still builds churches using hired laborers and local members, characterizes Mexico as unstable with “no rule of law as we know it.”
“Any American who would consider taking a youth group or a college group to Mexico is, in my opinion, ill informed,” he said.
“It was heartbreaking. She didn’t know if she’d ever get to come back.” Deborah Gibbs, Bethany's mother
‘I AM SCARED ABOUT IT’
Bethany Gibbs intended to distribute the Bibles in dusty villages where donkey brays break the silence of night. For a year, though, the sacred texts sat in her family’s Oklahoma home.
Gibbs raised money to buy the Bibles — along with school supplies — as part of a Girl Scout Gold Award service project.
Even as the 18-year-old left home to attend Harding University in Searcy, Ark., she prayed to return to Aquiles.
“It’s the relationships that you build,” Gibbs said of why she wanted to return. “You kind of leave a piece of yourself down here.”
Children from the Edmond Church of Christ in Oklahoma greet the men of Aquiles, Mexico, before distributing care packages filled with food, Bibles and other items, including T-shirts. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
This spring, God granted Gibbs’ request.
After a year away, the Edmond church decided to return to the remote mountains of northern Mexico. The green light came after a small group of church leaders made the 2,500-mile round trip and found the travel conditions suitable.
“The roads actually seemed a lot safer ... and no major incident happened on our path,” minister Kent Risley said.
Bethany’s parents, Steve and Deborah Gibbs, and sisters, Courtney, 15, and Audrey, 11, came with her on the trip.
“I am scared about it,” Steve Gibbs said before crossing the border. “But there’s a bigger reason for us to go.”
“It’s the relationships that you build. You kind of leave a piece of yourself down here.” Bethany Gibbs
‘THE LORD TAKES CARE OF US’
For 20-plus years, the Edmond church has traveled to the Sierra Madre mountains in the state of Tamaulipas.
Three decades ago, when Mexican minister Humberto Hernandez first visited Aquiles, he stopped his pickup at the edge of the woods and rode a burro two hours to get here.
Hernandez found a primitive society where people lived side by side with pigs, cows and chickens. Infections, head sores and disease prevailed.
He brought the Gospel — and an improved standard of living.
Before starting their daily work projects, the mission team from Edmond, Okla., sings and prays around a campfire in Aquiles, Mexico. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
“Somebody nicknamed him the apostle Paul of this area,” Risley said of Hernandez, “because of the way he helped plant the church, and he goes back and nurtures it.”
Deep in the mountains, the Christians riding in a caravan of white rental vans wave goodbye to paved roads — not to mention cell phone signals and flush toilets. But what Aquiles and nearby villages lack in modern convenience, they make up for in natural beauty and the sense that God must be here.
The church members from across the border can’t miss the canyon-size green valleys, the thick clouds that hover over peaks like melted marshmallows or the beaming brown faces of men, women and children thankful for the smallest blessing, be it a tin roof or a water line.
The short-term missionaries — many of them Oklahoma Christian University students — renew their spirits in a place where spiritual brothers and sisters speak a different language but worship the same God.
The visitors prepare giant batches of beef brisket and open supersize cans of beans and jalapenos as they feed entire villages. They invite children to make Bible crafts, paint Jesus-themed T-shirts and enjoy red Kool-Aid at Vacation Bible Schools. They pour concrete floors, kick soccer balls and trade a zillion smiles.
In past years, the number going on the trip has topped 200.
This year, about 90 signed up for the opportunity to sleep in tents, use outhouses and praise God around a campfire under brightly shining stars.
“Each of us probably had several people who were concerned and talked to us,” elder Mark Coleman said of the safety concerns. “My answer was, ‘I’m going, and I’m taking my wife and two of my grandchildren.’ I’m a strong believer that the Lord takes care of us.”
Mexican immigrant Felix Martinez, minister for the Spanish-speaking Southeast Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, came for the 14th time.
Martinez preached a gospel meeting, led singing at a VBS and studied the Bible with a bean and corn farmer named Juan Castillo, who accepted Christ in baptism.
“Brothers in my congregation give me advice and say, ‘No, don’t make the trip because the situation in Mexico is very dangerous,’” Martinez said. “I say, ‘No, I want to go.’ … I’m glad my God provides for everything, and everything goes well.”
Bethany Gibbs, right, carries a care package to a woman’s house in the village of La Union, Mexico. Gibbs raised money to include a Bible in each box distributed by a mission team from her home congregation in Oklahoma. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Matias Guzman, a local church leader, said residents were disappointed when the group could not come last year.
This year, his wife, Rosa Guzman, stayed up late before the group arrived and prayed for safe passage. Seeing Martinez and Edmond deacon James Lauderdale, she burst into tears.
“She started to cry because she felt very happy to see Felix, to see James,” Matias Guzman said through a translator.
Deborah Gibbs said her daughters benefited from seeing how people with so little can live so contentedly.
The Oklahomans made tortillas in a family’s small concrete home, which had a fire pit, a tiny sink and four mismatched chairs. A curtain separated the kitchen from a room where five people slept.
“We have more stuff in our tent right here than those people have in their whole house,” Audrey Gibbs told her mother.
The mission team assembled more than 300 care packages filled with rice, beans, flour, corn meal, pasta, salt, sugar and other groceries.
Placed tenderly at the top of each box was a Bible with a card from Bethany Gibbs and a reference to Psalm 119:105: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
“To give a spiritual word as well as physical bread, that’s pretty neat,” Risley said. “People are hungry for the Word. Not everybody here has multiple Bibles, but now they have at least one.”
Bethany Gibbs smiled as she carried a lady’s 30-pound care package — with a Bible inside — up a rocky road.
“That woman told me I was strong,” Gibbs said with a chuckle, walking back down the hill. “It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s definitely exciting to finally finish the whole project and to distribute everything.”