In this month’s bulletin, we remember our friend and colleague, Mark Smith. On June 7th he was unexpectedly called away to the Lord’s presence. While we mourn his loss, and our hearts go out to his wife Sandra and their four children Rachelle, Naomi, Caleb, and Ashley, we celebrate the impact that he made both personally and professionally as a fellow missionary educator.
Appointed in 2006 as a Missionary Associate, he collaborated for five years with Mike McGee, helping to coordinate teams and construction projects in Matamoros, Mexico. After obtaining full appointment in 2011, he returned to Mexico and dedicated himself to the advancement of training of indigenous groups, serving in that capacity in Oaxaca and, most recently, in Puebla.
He is remembered for his love for the Lord, his generosity, his sense of humor, and his pioneering spirit, perhaps no better expressed than in this, one of his last Facebook posts written on June 2nd, the Saturday before he passed away. We are including his words in this month’s bulletin as a tribute to his memory and as a reminder of the unfinished work to which we are all called:
I Haven’t Been Dreaming Big Enough for God’s Plans
It started kind of in an otherwise generic way. I was with 3 other pastors traveling into a remote place of the state of Puebla, Mexico. The first 2 hours had been passed by riding in the car on a major highway from Puebla City, Puebla into Tehuacan, Puebla. Now we had just spent 2 more hours traveling into the mountains of the Mazateco Indians. I swallowed down the nausea that I had been feeling for the past 30 minutes from one too many curves taken a bit too fast. At times, The Volkswagen Jetta had to stop and be turned diagonally to get over the tall speed bumps without scraping. We had come up into the backcountry of the mountains where dirt roads were the only means to move by car. Of course, there were no speed bumps on the dirt roads. The ruts, potholes and rockslides resolved the need for that. There was a fair bit of dust. There were tons of flies! All in all, it was a normal fact-finding expedition. Pastor Gonzalo, a Mazatecohimself, was very familiar with this region so my threat-level was minimal. For several years now, he has been sowing the Gospel in these mountains. He has established 35 different church plants and is discipling many ministers up here. In fact, I’m pretty sure that his people are from up here. So, it was one of his greatest delights to help us by showing us some of the wonderful people of the region. But, we had no idea what God, himself wanted to show us.
Four hours earlier, I had been apprised of the schedule of our day. I was informed that I would be meeting Pastor Gonzalo with several other church leaders of the district. After we met at his house, we would be going to a wedding. There we would meet some of the Mazatec pastors in order to discuss some business and talk about some Bible Schooling we wanted to propose to them. It did not go exactly according to schedule…
In the large town of Tehuacan, Puebla, I talked with Pastor Gonzalo about good times in the past. Pastor Gonzalo and I go back a few years. In 2012, I began teaching in a Bible School program that goes into the indigenous areas to train church planters and pastors. Gonzalo became known to me as one of our students. He was studious and very friendly. He was seeing God move in his life and bringing fruit. At the time of our first meeting, he was 35 and had planted 22 different church plants. But Gonzalo ran into some conflicts before he could finish. So, as I now sat talking with him, I could, once again, sense his excitement about our coming alongside him in reaching the indigenous people of Mexico. He explained that we weren’t going to a wedding. Instead, we were going to celebrate the anniversary of one of the Mazatec churches.
Well, I was used to not getting the full story. It happens all too often for this gringo. Miss a word or two in translation and the next thing you know, you’re committed to much, much more than what you had bargained for. For instance, instead of you being asked to simply honor the people with a word of greeting at a wedding, you find you have committed yourself to giving away the bride and all the hidden customs that entails. That may mean kissing her check, washing her feet, and brushing her hair. No, things regularly don’t go the direction that I initially expect. And, that’s ok, because the experienced missionaries rarely take things at face value. In fact, it’s expected that there will be major hiccups to every plan. You have to look at every change or inconvenience as a new opportunity to experience His greater plan through our flexibility. If you don’t accept the inconveniences and unexpected surprises with a heart of joy, they are gonna come anyways, but you’ll develop a really rotten attitude and struggle with the very reason that God has you where you are. Loosen up, God’s “drivin’ the bus” so sit back and enjoy the scenery.
When I left my house that morning, I had told my inquisitive wife, that there was no real way I could know what time I’d be getting home. That was a good thing, because the hour that I thought I would probably get home, came and went long before everything had finished playing out. The events of our adventure passed at the speed of village time. Life moves slow in the village, be it on the mountain or in the jungle. The pace of life there is measured in days, not hours. Events are set by the hours of the clock, but rarely are governed by it. Instead, they depend on many other things affected by unforeseen circumstances. “Que será, será”, What will be, will be.
While driving down the winding dirt road that clung to the hillside, we saw several villages out in the distance. The pastors pointed to the town we were destined for. Some 20 minutes later the car came to a stop on an incline that had been cut into the hillside. Looking over the shoulder of the road, I could see down into a town plaza. It was the normal town plaza of a normal mountain village. That means that you would expect a two-story town office building at one end of a sports court. In this case, the applicable sports field was a concrete basketball court. To the side of the plaza, hanging off the furthest edge, were the two classrooms that are used to teach the Elementary and Jr. High students. It was a basic setup, but freshly built. Of course, these details were somewhat obscured by two large canopies being raised on the basketball court. There were already chairs set out under the larger one and several villagers were seated, watching and talking as others moved about setting up.
I asked one of the accompanying pastors what was going on. He explained to me that the church anniversary was being celebrated not just by the congregation, but by the whole town. I found that surprising. While many of our churches have good relationship with the leadership in their towns, rarely does the town participate, due to the influence of the Catholic church. In Mexico, the Evangelical church and Catholic church are so different in practice they are viewed as 2 distinct belief systems. So, here was something new. I waved down at several of the villagers seated and got friendly waves back. Again, a bit out of the ordinary from the normally stoic Indians.
We carefully made our way down the steep footpath. We passed to the rear of the town offices and came around to be greeted by several of the town’s residents. There were 3 tables setup under the balcony of the town offices. After our initial greetings, we were asked to sit down at the tables. As quickly as we did, bowls of steaming chicken soup were placed before us along with the accompanying stack of corn tortillas, side of chopped chilesand 3-liter bottles of carbonated cola. It might be considered meager fair by some, but considering the resources, it is a huge sacrifice for most in this region. So, we enjoyed our zesty soup laced with Serrano peppers as we swished away the flies and shook hands with everyone who passed the tables. Every new person who ventured onto the plaza was greeted the same way. They were seated at the 3 tables and served a bowl of soup, tortillas, and soda. No one was overlooked, and none went without. Meanwhile, the kids were running around. The young men were raising the stage and overhead concert lights. Some women and men were serving the food, while others setup the massive speakers which would broadcast this celebration across the mountaintops to other villages within hearing distance.
And so it was, I was sitting watching the kids chase each other around. A particularly friendly dog had taken residence under the table at my feet looking for scraps, when Gonzalo walked up with a villager. The middle-aged townsman was unassuming and dressed in pants and a casual button-up shirt. The pastors and I stood and reached across the table to shake his hand cordially. He had a friendly look on his face and seemed to be fairly laid back. Gonzalo introduced him as the “police comandante” of the town. He had no signs of his position, though his casual confidence reflected an assurance of authority. What took us by surprise was his other title was “town pastor”. We were delighted that the pastor would also have the honor of holding public office, but it took us aback. This was the first time we had heard of such a thing. As we talked, the details of the town became clearer. As they did, my sense of amazement was stretched and strained.
I have been to many corners of the world. I have seen a great deal of things both overflowing in goodness and sometimes in tragedy. I’ve seen baptisms at the beach and met relatives of youths who were hanged for loving the wrong girl. I’ve known old men stabbed for a few dollars and young men miraculously delivered from the murderous intents of the drug cartels. I heard of storms taking the lives of a fleet of poor fishermen and hugged others delivered from that same fate by a quiet voice of warning in the night. However, what I was hearing now was beyond anything I have ever encountered.
The pastors began to tell me how this area of Mexico had never been touched by the Catholic church. The Mazatecoshere had only Evangelical churches in their towns. It seems that an Indian on the other side of the mountain had begun to evangelize the neighboring communities and had taken the Gospel into areas never before reached with the Good News. After accepting the Word as Truth, a church was raised, and a body of believers began coming together. That was some 20+ years ago. About 7 years ago the people here had decided to establish themselves as a new community that would live the Christian principles out in every way. The paperwork was filed with the government to start a new village and was approved. The town has approximately 100 MazatecoIndians and the whole village is Christian.
That’s right. The whole town has established itself on Biblical principles and agreed as a whole to be a Christian community. We sometimes forget that this was the beginning of many of our communities in the USA. So, I shouldn’t find it so unusual. But, it’s something that I have never seen in my day. I can’t help but think that this may be the most blessed community in the whole Mazatec language group. What a fantastic experience. My mind was just reeling at the prospects. The town just recently finished the town offices and school rooms. Tonight, they were celebrating, not only the church, but the whole town.
We met with some of the pastors of the larger area who had come for the celebration and asked if they would be interested in us beginning a site for our pastoral training program. All agreed that it would be wonderfully to have access to Bible training and someone who would pour into their lives. They expressed with sadness and frustration how in the past 4 years no other ministers had come to their churches or villages to greet them or check on them. It would be so nice to have someone who would invest in them.
However, they confided that the difficulty was getting transport to the town for those further away. The distances up here are measured by how long it takes to travel on foot. That is the normal mode of transportation for the vast majority here as taxis are expensive. It would be a 5 hour walk one way, or a two-hour taxi ride costing $190 pesos one way. That would convert to about $10 US dollars, $20 dollars round trip. That might not seem like much to you or me, until you consider that the normal daily wage for a village laborer working 10 hours is $2.50 US dollars. It would take them 8 days of work to pay for the ride plus another 2 days spent in the training each month. That would put too much of a financial strain on their families. So, unless someone would be able to sponsor them, the prospect wouldn’t work for some. Despite those concerns, we left the meeting with expectation that at least 7-8 pastors and workers would be able to attend the classes slated to begin in the next few months.
After the meeting, we went out to the town plaza where things were ready to get started. The celebration started with the customary greetings from leaders and honored guests. Next came the starting prayer and the praise bands started their musical presentations. All told there were about 200 people who attended. After a moving message, the special guest gave a call for altar time and the entire crowd came forward to ask for a greater move of God in their lives. I can say that I have seen these things occur on a church-wide scale, but never in a town square with the whole town. It was awesome! Shortly after that, 10:30pm rolled around and we left for our four-hour trip back to Puebla, Mexico. Gonzalo explained how the celebration would go until about 1 or 2am and begin anew the next day with a basketball competition and more festivities. During the time I was there, I didn’t see any alcohol or cigarettes being sold or consumed. We also had the comandante offer us the town offices as a place to hold our pastoral training.
I am still struggling to contemplate the full impact of these events and facts. I have truly seen something that I thought I would never see in this life. I mean the continent of North America is now Post-Christian, right? Think again. In many places today, the Gospel is still being received with the honor and respect that it merits. Now I am focusing on how I can be a part of the history of this village. I’ll be preparing its residents to have an even greater impact on the destiny of the neighboring towns and the Mazatec nation as a whole. Please keep the Mazatec people in your prayers as it seems God has something even greater in store for them and their communities. Martin Luther King Jr. is famous for his “I have a dream” speech, but I think God’s plans are even bigger than our dreams. So, pray that God’s plans will be done and THINK BIG, because right now I’m thinking that I haven’t been dreaming big enough for God’s plans.