Rio Indio and the Soup Kitchen

There’s a phrase in a Bebo Norman song about “the depth of human need.” He’s describing the power of God’s grace to find its way to the deepest part of every person, to fill every hole in a heart that is hungry for hope.

Many times when people describe “human need” they are referring mostly to physical needs – food, clothing, shelter, medical care. But there’s a deeper need that we all have, that need for grace, for salvation. We need to know that we are loved in spite of the constant failures with which we are all too familiar. We need to know that we are loved when it seems that the whole world is against us. We need to know that we are loved when we feel completely unloved in any and every way.

That is the depth of human need. But make no mistake – physical need can run pretty deep as well.

A typical home in Kilometer 55

In Mahahual there is an area of town known as “Kilometer 55.” Years ago many of the locals owned pieces of land in this area, and though they were the poorer people of the town, what they had was theirs and they did what they could to live off it. The Mexican government came in and convinced them to trade their land to the government in exchange for government built houses, and were promised working water, electricity, and septic. What actually happened was the people signed over the one thing that was actually their own, the government built concrete boxes barely big enough to fit a family of four or five, and after nearly a decade is only just now beginning to keep their promise of electricity. Water is collected in cisterns on roofs or makeshift platforms. If a family has a septic system of any kind they probably installed it themselves. The power comes from a massive bank of junction boxes at the edge of the area, which the people must connect to themselves and run their own electrical line to their home.

The “power grid” for Kilometer 55. This is the bank of junction boxes that people string their wires from to power their homes. The word on the sign – “murete” – means “death.”

What can a small Lutheran mission do for such a people? Well, we can make sandwiches. We can bring the kids and their parents over to the church, give them a good lunch, pray with them and give them God’s Word. We can invite the kids back the next day for a Bible lesson and some snacks, and we can give them a backpack stuffed with basic hygiene supplies and school supplies. Is it enough to make a major difference in their lives? Maybe not today. But is it enough to show them they are loved? Is it enough to open a door for the Gospel? Is it enough to show them the grace of God and to give them a chance at maybe knowing him, so that they have hope? Maybe. Si Dios quiere – If God wills it. But… El Señor es siempre bueno – The Lord is always good. So not “maybe.” God can and will work good from the work we do. We leave it to him what that good will be.

Bible Study group at Rio Indio

We went to a place called Rio Indio for Bible study. It is run by a man called Gallo (pronounced “YAH-yo”, a sort of nickname for Gerardo), a gracious and friendly man who loves the Word, loves to study it and learn from it, loves to talk about his Savior, and enjoys speaking English to gringos (that last part was what he told me). He went around and got his friends and neighbors – including his boss, an old man called Santos – to come over for the Bible study. He was also very encouraging when us gringos read the Bible passages en Español.

After Bible study we loaded up in the van, and the people from the Bible study helped prepare and serve the food at the soup kitchen. I say soup kitchen because that’s what it was called for a long time, though now they mostly serve sandwiches, chips, and granola bars. A member of the church drives around Kilometer 55 picking up children and some adults and bringing them over to get a meal. We had a prayer, we interacted and talked to them about Jesus, and we invited them to the Saturday kids’ program.

Being here for such a short time, and only providing such small help can make one wonder if there’s really any good that can be done. The need is so great, and what can I do with just a few hours, just a few days? But I was able to tell a little niña about Jesus. I was able to build a relationship with a woman whose kids live in AZ, who really wants to learn English. I was able to remind a pregnant mom of three that God is good and will take care of her, even if she’s nervous and already somewhat overwhelmed. It helped to see men like Gallo and Pedro sitting nearby and reassuring her – men who seem like they carry in their heads and hands a wealth of know how. If she has something she needs, there are people ready to help. El Señor es siempre bueno.

There are so many opportunities to help people here. Making the most of them, being truly helpful to them, sometimes it is hard to know what to do. But even the smallest effort is appreciated, and even if all anyone does is speak the Gospel to someone when they are ready to listen, perhaps they have planted or watered the seed that God is using to change not just that person’s life, but the lives of many others.

Advertisements

Pulticub

Our first day in Mexico we spent some time sorting out supplies donated by our brothers and sisters in Bloomington. They sent flip flops, toothbrushes, tooth paste, coloring books, crayons, soap, and so on. Many useful things. We sorted them into little packages that we could deliver to children and families. Once that was done, we spent a little time picking up people who would join us, and a few other supplies, and went out to Pulticub.

Some of the children we met in Pulticub

Pulticub is a seaside settlement north of Mahahual. The people there build their homes out of whatever they can scrounge together – tin roofing, fiberglass sheets, scrap boards, flattened soda boxes, etc. They survive mostly by eating what they can fish out of the sea or pull from a tree. But many of their young men will do random odd jobs for people with money, and then use the money to go into town, buy what they can from a general store, and then barter or sell it to the other villagers. A couple of people actually run little shops, which are almost indistinguishable from the other shacks in the village.

Some of those young men also manage to get drugs and booze, which impacts the quality of life for everyone else there.

We went into the village and gathered some people together for a Bible study and a meal. There were about ten kids, four women, and a couple of men. The missionary here presented them Law and Gospel from Genesis chapters 1-3, and watching the faces of these people, you could see a light coming on behind their eyes. They understood that there is a God – their lives are free from the intellectualism that plagues the civilized world and allows us to convince ourselves we’re too smart to believe he’s real. They understood that there is right and wrong – they have experienced human goodness and human wickedness in its various forms.

Everybody gathered for the Devotion on Genesis 1-3.

But they learned the weight of sin and its terrible consequences, and they learned the life giving truth that there is a Savior from sin. At least one young mother of two seemed to react with a small sense of awe at the understanding of Jesus’ love. A seven year old girl was delighted to the point of big smiles and an eagerness to hear more, and to sing about it. When we taught them the song, Alabare a mi Senor, she was eagerly repeating the words after the missionary.

We had brought two chickens, some rice and potatoes, and pineapple. After Bible study, the women went into the kitchen – nothing more than a sand floor with three walls and a firepit, with cast iron kitchenware – and cooked up a meal. We ate it off of styrofoam plates, of all things (the villagers had a supply of them), but we had to use our fingers and tortillas. No utensils.

After that we spent time playing with the kids, showed them how to put stickers (“stampia!”) up their arms and on their siblings’ faces. Put cross necklaces and bracelets on and colored together (“Crayola!”). Then we took some pictures together, had hugs and kisses all around, and we left.

A young man named Eliseo. He was running the little store, but he wanted us to see the iguana he caught.

To say these people are destitute would be inaccurate. They’re not just a few meals away from starvation. They aren’t disease ridden and filthy. They live by the ocean and can fish every day, and have access to fresh water from a nearby lagoon (and understand how to boil it for drinking). And it would be wrong to say they are primitive; they are familiar with things like radios and TVs and even computers and smartphones. But they aren’t inundated with these things. They don’t have a plethora of modern conveniences at their fingertips. Many are illiterate, and live by their own rules and customs.

In some ways, this makes them very ready for the Gospel. They are not too busy to take time to hear the Word. They are not too learned to believe ancient truths. They are not too jaded to believe there is such a thing as absolute truth. They are not too immersed in tolerance to accept that Jesus is the only way.

Giving out flip-flops. As one of our group members said, one thing seems to be familiar across all cultures – women and shoe shopping.

So how are we going to serve the people in Pulticub, and other settlements in the area? Well, Cruz de Cristo is working on long range strategic plans right now for what is our best approach. Obviously, there are human needs we can work to meet, but we have to be careful to do things that are sustainable – that is, we don’t want to change their way of life significantly without a plan to support that change. But we can explore things that will help them live safer and healthier lives. Education is another great step, because it is a lasting investment.

Most of all, of course, we will give them the Gospel. As we show them love we find open doors to bring them the precious truths of Scripture. Bringing them to Jesus is an eternal gift greater than anything money can buy, and the fruits that grow from faith will be a lasting blessing to their communities.

Why Mexico?

Why Mexico? And more specifically, why Cruz de Cristo, our mission in Costa Maya, Mexico? Why should we organize mission trips there, or offer our support in other ways? Don’t we have plenty of missions we can be supporting? Let me give you just a few reasons:

  1. The Costa Maya area is hungry for the Gospel. There is only one functioning Christian Church in an area populated by thousands – Cruz de Cristo.
  2. Costa Maya is just a small portion of the Yucatan Peninsula, an area larger and more populated than all of Wisconsin. Cruz de Cristo is the only Lutheran Church in the Yucatan Peninsula. Our church body, with its solid declaration of the Gospel in its truth and purity, has so much to offer a part of the world that is steeped in what I’ll call “superstitious Catholicism” – a belief system that is part Catholic doctrine, part Mayan tribal custom, and almost all works righteousness.
  3. Poverty, addiction, abuse, and illiteracy run rampant through this area, leaving significant human need in their wake. Along with the primary goal of making disciples, we also want to show the love of Christ to people in need by helping them with their human needs. We are blessed here in America with an abundance – let us reach out to those in need.
  4. Cruz de Cristo is not funded by a World Mission Board or supported by a Synod. It grew up organically, and can only continue through the support of individuals and their congregations.

 

It is for these reasons and more that I’m excited for what we can do working alongside our missionary and the members of Cruz de Cristo. Sure, there are missions all over the world – and even in our own backyard – that we can be helping. Yet, God has not prescribed, “Here you must do work!” or “This is the mission you must support!” He opens doors and invites us to serve him. But if you’re wondering how we got connected with Costa Maya ministries, and why I see this as a great opportunity for us, I’ll need to tell you the story. As I do so, I want to start with an interesting part of the book of Acts:

“Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” – Acts 16:6-10

Every time I have read this section I’ve been somewhat fascinated by the question of how exactly the Holy Spirit showed Paul and his companions that they were not to enter Bithynia. What obstacles did he throw in their way, and at what point did they finally conclude, “God doesn’t want us there right now”? I don’t have answers to these questions, and it’s probably good that God doesn’t give them, because then we’d be looking for signs far too specific. Instead we’re left with the simple understanding that sometimes God has a plan for our ministry and the spread of his Church, and whatever plans we might think make sense, he knows better and will guide us the way he wants.

While I don’t know what Paul and his companions experienced, I can say that I’ve seen the hand of God pushing my ministry around at times. I’ve seen it recently, and though I haven’t had any visions or heard any voices, I can see in the circumstances how God has directed my work.

If anyone ever asked me, “Are you interested in any kind of foreign mission work?” I would have said, “Absolutely! But…” I might have talked about the practicality of trying to care for my family in a foreign place. I might have talked about the many opportunities to reach out to people right here in our own country. I might have noted that the Call I currently hold involves serving people here in southern Minnesota. I might have expressed my interest in specific cultures; I’ve always been interested in the Far East, its languages, culture, and food. If anyone had said, “How about Mexico?” I would have said, “Not my first choice…”

A few years ago some of our leaders on our Board of Outreach were looking for a way to connect with a specific mission and pursue a mission partnership. We got in contact with one of our missionaries in Eastern Asia and were working on establishing communication and finding out what we could do to support them. I was pretty eager for the project, thinking that maybe down the road this would be a way to connect with mission work in a part of the world that really interests me and also coincides with the Call I hold.

But it didn’t work out. There were technical difficulties that disrupted communication. There were logistical problems that made it hard to connect with or support the missionary, or arrange meetings with him while he was on furlough. One of our board men, who was invested in the project, had health issues that got in the way of him being able to keep pursuing it. At the time I saw these as frustrations. Looking back, I suspect something larger at work.

About eight months ago I had a few conversations that inspired me to start working on a foreign mission trip opportunity for my teens. I had an inkling that we’d find our best opportunity in Latin America, but I wanted to go through the process . I started by contacting our Synod’s administrator for World Missions. He pointed me to our coordinator for Latin American Missions, who pointed me to a man named Jerry who, along with a handful of others, worked to organize our mission church in Costa Maya, Mexico.

Jerry and I started communicating, and his response when I talked about bringing a teen mission team down to help was enthusiastic and encouraging. He told me a little about what was new with their ministry, and it was clear that we had an open door.

This door is not open only to us. Without Synod or Mission Board support, Cruz de Cristo had been blessed by the Lord to have the people of Bloomington Lutheran supporting them financially. A few of them made a plan to go down for a few days, get to know the mission better, and help with the work. I was invited to join them.

The days we spent down there showed me how much the people there need our love, our kindness, our compassion, our help, and above all, the saving message of the Gospel. The entire Yucatan peninsula is starving for the Gospel in its truth and purity. There is an enormous amount of work to be done, and the door is open.