EL PASO “When we arrived, several vehicles surrounded us and lowered the windows, [the men inside] displaying their firearms,” Zulma Molina said, describing the greeting her group received this July at the village of Huajumar, nestled in the Sierra Tarahumara mountain range of Chihuahua, Mexico, a region plagued by drug violence.
Molina led 36 volunteers from Ministerios de Compasion El Paso, an organization associated with El Paso’s Immanuel Baptist Church, to the village of Huajumar July 23-31 to repair a church known locally as the “abandoned church.” They also brought Vacation Bible School to Huajumar and Yepáchic, a village an hour’s drive northwest.
Both villages have fewer than 1,000 residents, Molina said, adding that the area contains many illegal landing strips and is controlled by the drug cartel.
“The main businesses are the drug plantation and trafficking,” she said.
The mountains are “heavily patrolled by hit men,” Molina added. Police and army avoid the region, with its narrow, ill-maintained, single-lane roads.
The area has a history of both Christianity and violence.
“Years ago, when the [drug] violence was at its worst, the church in Huajumar was abandoned by pastors and missionaries,” Molina explained. “On the other hand, Yepáchic has an established little church, but people are terrified since the violence continues and killings happen on a daily basis.”
Even getting to the remote villages proved a harrowing experience involving flat tires, burned out brakes and vehicles stuck in mud. About 30 minutes from their destination, a trailer axle broke, stranding part of the group in the mountainous woods.
“It was about 7 p.m. and dark clouds were gathering in the sky. We realized the real danger we were in. We could hear the noises of wild animals; phones did not work; and we only had a couple of flashlights, light jackets and a blanket,” Molina recalled.
“Our only hope was in the Lord, so we prayed and sang praises. Right there in the middle of nowhere, we lifted up our voices to praise God. Suddenly, a flash of light filled the sky and … hit the ground right next to us. We felt the ground tremble.”
After three hours in the woods, help arrived and the group entered Huajumar late that evening, greeted by machine guns as they unloaded vehicles and entered the mold-ridden, leaky, foul-smelling church.
“We could feel a very dark presence,” Molina said. “Although no one said anything, we all knew we were stepping into the enemy’s territory and war was declared.” The night was spent in some measure of unease and doubt, Molina admitted.
“In the morning, the Lord renewed our spirits, and we got up ready to work. People looked at us with curiosity. … Little by little the church was filled with light,” as the group labored to scrub mold and repair the structure that Sunday, even holding a small celebratory service before preparing to start VBS the next day in Yepáchic, despite warnings of violence there.
“We were told that it was not a good idea to visit there because the previous day [the cartel] had killed 23 people. But we could not cancel VBS in Yepáchic,” Molina said. “The local church invited the community, and children were waiting for us. So a group of brave warriors went to Yepáchic early Monday to conduct VBS,” while others remained in Huajumar to continue work on the church and to do door-to-door evangelism. The group also held VBS in the afternoons and church services in the evenings at Huajumar.
The danger was ever present, but God was glorified.
“While all of this happened, we had what we called ‘personal security.’ Everywhere we went, armed men were watching us,” Molina said. By week’s end, “we were exhausted but our spirit was filled with joy to see the abandoned church in Huajumar being transformed. More children and adults came to hear the Word of God. The last day, the church was packed, and it was beautiful to hear loud voices singing praises to the creator of the universe.”
Members from a church in Juarez, Mexico, accompanied the group from Immanuel Baptist to Huajumar and Yepáchic, Immanuel associate pastor J.C. Rico said.
Mission trips to Mexico have become a mainstay of Immanuel Baptist. In July, some 33 members also trekked through the Sonoran desert on the church’s second annual family mission trip to Peñasco, Mexico, a coastal city of about 100,000, at the request of a local church to conduct Vacation Bible School.
Immanuel BC’s involvement with the Peñasco church began when Rico was on vacation, attending a family wedding in the city in 2014. Rico had spotted the church on his way into town and decided to attend that Sunday. The pastor spoke on service and mission, ideas that Rico had been considering for Immanuel as well.
Rico introduced himself to the pastor’s wife and inquired about mission opportunities in Peñasco.
“We need help with VBS!” she exclaimed. “We have 200 kids and not enough workers.”
The following July, more than 30 volunteers from seven Immanuel families spent summer vacation in Peñasco, helping with VBS in the mornings and enjoying time in the city or at the beach in the afternoons.
In 2016, families from Immanuel led the VBS in Peñasco using LifeWay curriculum, Rico said.
“After 1:30 p.m. each day, we were free to go back to the hotel, eat, have family time,” Rico added, calling the family aspect of the mission trip “just as important” as the VBS.
Evangelistic opportunities came during down times, too. Last year, Rico presented the gospel to a local youth as the boy braided a souvenir bracelet for the pastor. The young man, Rogelio, prayed to receive Christ. “I got sunburned standing there, but it was worth it,” Rico laughed.
This year, Rico’s wife led a local woman named Elena to Christ while the lady braided the hair of Rico’s daughter. Removing sunglasses to reveal two black eyes inflicted by an abusive husband, Elena shared her story with the Ricos, who ministered to her.
A third Immanuel BC family mission trip to Peñasco is scheduled for July 2017.