Situated in the Sonoran Desert and surrounded by majestic mountains, Rancho el Camino is not a typical church plant.
The 40-acre ranch in Mexico is home to horses, cattle, chicken, goats and other farm animals. Various groups enjoy the hiking trails, recreational activities, horseback riding, adventure programs and camping facilities there. But the real draw at the ranch is not the beautiful desert vistas or fish tacos. It’s the people living and working on the ranch who are building a community of faith together.
“The idea of a community of faith came from the description of the church in Acts 2, describing a fellowship of believers,” says Peter Gatto, TEAM missionary and ranch director. “We believe that the ranch is an expression of the local body, and our goal is to simply be the body of Christ at this moment, in this place, for him.”
The ranch was developed on an abandoned piece of property donated in the early 2000s for ministry use by a family from a TEAM church plant in nearby La Paz, the capital city of the state of Baja California Sur. In 2008, TEAM missionaries and their churches started using the land for youth camps and occasional family retreats. But they knew the land had potential to be so much more.
Gatto and his wife Cher, along with their children Meagan, Samuel, Madalen, Zachary and Noah, had previously participated in short-term trips to the area and caught the vision for developing the land into something bigger. They made the move from New Jersey to live at the ranch full-time in 2009.
“In the beginning, we were just trying to deal with the basics of life. A day out at the ranch back then was making sure there was water in the tank, making sure the horses were tied to the tree, and a list of things that had to be done each day in order for us to simply live out here,” Peter Gatto says. “And as time went on, God began to grow the vision, and more people became a part of what was going on at the ranch.”
Cher Gatto’s passion for horses led to starting a horse ministry, using horseback riding to help meet the felt needs of impoverished and hurting children. Adaptive riding instructors also help conduct specialized sessions for children with special needs.
“The horse ministry at Rancho el Camino is a place where every child who comes is accepted, every child who comes to the ranch has a place they feel like they belong, and every child is cherished,” Cher Gatto says. “The horses offer a bridge for the community to come to the ranch.”
And the community has come. The ranch has experienced exponential growth in the past five years, drawing people from both the local area and the United States, a fact that Peter Gatto attributes to the accepting and loving attitude that permeates el Camino.
“Our community of faith is a place where God’s grace is experienced, where broken people can encounter the presence of God and his grace and love in their lives … a place where Jesus is welcome and vibrantly, actively working in the hearts and the lives of the people that come here and that serve here,” he says.
This is a message the Gattos believe extends beyond Mexico. From the beginning, the ranch has hosted young people and church groups from the U.S. and Canada who come to serve and be mentored. Over the years, short-term workers have helped construct staff housing, a bunkhouse that holds 40 people, a bathhouse and an outdoor kitchen. Internships and short-term mission groups are now an integral part of everyday life at the ranch. Young people experience missions and ministry at el Camino while learning more about their own spiritual gifts and passions.
As the ranch grows, local people have the opportunity for paid, steady work and the chance to learn new skills. Several men have been hired to help with construction projects and the horses. A cook was hired to help when there are large groups on site. As the Gattos share the gospel message of love at the ranch and during regular morning devotion time, that message resonates with people who live in impoverished or difficult circumstances.
Three years ago, Gatto met a man named Beto Gonzalez Leon in town and invited him to come work at el Camino. Things at home were hard for Leon and his wife Lily, and the couple fought often. But when Leon started working at the ranch, they both noticed a difference.
“It was a surprise to me, the drastic changes Christ did in my life when I offered it to him. I opened my heart,” Leon says. “When He took away that sorrow, then [I saw] marvelous changes.”
“El Camino transformed my life, especially my marriage. I noticed the great change in my husband,” Lily Gonzalez Leon says. “Cher and Pedro [Peter] have supported us a lot because they have taught us the Bible and the path we should follow.”
Miguel Hernandez came to el Camino looking for work and started doing odd jobs such as carpentry and painting. When Gatto invited Hernandez to the morning devotionals, Hernandez’s life began to change.
“This is where I met Jesus Christ,” he says. Hernandez says that being part of the community faith at the ranch is important to him, not just because of the positive changes in his life, but also because he recognizes that his family and friends have been affected as well. “The things that happen here are amazing, and I am grateful,” he says.
Mayolo Carreño Soriano, another ranch worker, also found deliverance at el Camino. He admits that his life was in crisis two and half years ago. He was drinking, doing drugs, and had lost his job and home. When he started working on the ranch and heard about God’s saving grace, Soriano says his life began to turn around.
“Little by little, God started revealing himself in my life,” he says. “I’m very happy because my life changed thanks to him.”
People like Soriano, Hernandez and the Leons consider el Camino to be a second home, and they’re not the only ones. The Lord draws new people to this place every day, where folks live what they call “the ranch way of life.” TEAM missionary Pete Johnson describes it this way: “The ranch way of life is hospitality, and compassion, and service,” he says. “What makes us different, in a sense, is we really believe that it’s just following what the will of God is calling us to do and doing it in the moment. That in itself is simple, but also very radical.”
Johnson, who serves along with his wife Emily and children Aliana, Avalon and Kylah, extends that simple idea of hospitality, compassion and service to ranch visitors as the director of the camp and adventure program. El Camino is a perfect place for outdoor activities thanks to the Lord’s provision of the nearby ocean, mountains and space to build camp and recreational structures. When Johnson takes a group on a long hike, he can see the Lord working through the natural beauty that surrounds them.
“It’s an opportunity to take kids out of what’s going on in their lives,” he says. “There’s a lot less distraction when you’re out in the mountains. You can see a peace come over them.”
Johnson takes opportunities to share Bible stories or a Psalm with hiking groups, and encourages people to be silent and listen for the voice of God. Some people love to sit and chat while others meditate on their own. Johnson considers this to be “church” just as much as a traditional worship service.
“A big part of what we do is just having a lot of time just to enjoy the ranch,” he says. “And when we’re helping each other up the mountain or down the riverbed, it’s cool to see that sense of community fostered and developed through that experience.”
The idea of a community of faith is an important part of the ethos at el Camino. Living and working together provides ample opportunity to live like the fellowship of believers mentioned in Acts 2.
“It’s not just Sunday morning that we get together and we worship the Lord,” Cher Gatto says. “Life happens at the ranch every single day, and every single day we function as a community, as a group of believers, together. So we share meals together; we pray together; we worship together; we work hard together; we do ministry together.”
BEYOND THE RANCH
In recent years, this philosophy has extended beyond el Camino and into Marquez de Leon, a nearby impoverished town. TEAM missionaries are planting a church there through several initiatives, including community development projects. Emily Johnson, Pete Johnson’s wife, focuses on education. As in most poor Mexican towns where families are struggling to survive financially, children in Marquez de Leon often drop out of school. Johnson sees education as a major need that can be filled by the ranch’s community of faith. They’ve started a kid’s club ministry that offers crafts, fun activities, Bibles stories, and most importantly, a place for children to hang out and feel safe.
“Our number-one goal is that every kid is known by name and loved,” Johnson says. She’s also developing a leadership team with the older kids, who are only allowed on the team if they maintain good grades at school and have good attendance and behavior at the kid’s club.
“A lot of kids are really excited about having a place where they can contribute and they feel like they’re making a difference themselves,” Johnson says. “So I have a chance to talk to the parents and really encourage them in what their child is doing well, and also just have a chance to talk to them about encouraging education and how to create an environment in their home that can help continue to support their child as they grow.”
TEAM missionary Phil Eager, along with his wife Pattie and children Joshua, Abigail, Micah and Luke, is helping to plant the church in Marquez de Leon through programs such as vacation Bible schools, medical clinics and health seminars. Eager also started a sports program after a government official approached him to ask for help in establishing activities in an area that didn’t have any sports options for kids.
“We can get kids off the street, get them away from drugs, alcohol, other things that they’re doing because they’re so bored with nothing else to do,” Eager says of the basketball program. “I’m training them how to play a game of basketball, but more importantly, I’m able to feed into their lives the truth, the Bible, who God is, what God’s done for them.”
Eager hopes his ministry with the kids in Marquez de Leon leads to opportunities to minister to their parents as well. It’s already working as a bridge to invite people out to activities at the ranch and into their larger community of faith, which is where his wife Pattie Eager uses her gift of hospitality. In a culture where relationships are treasured and community is formed around the dinner table, Pattie Eager’s ministry often happens over a cup of coffee and dessert. She also makes a special effort during the holidays to include those who might not have anywhere else to go.
“My heart is full when my house is full,” Eager says. “So we love having people here, teams, just people here from the neighborhood and our community of faith. We’ve hosted movie nights here, cooking classes, you name it. Anyone who is interested in coming, I love to have them.”
This type of outreach to Marquez de Leon families and people in the region is exactly what the Gattos hoped would happen back when the ranch was just a big idea. The Gattos are thrilled that the Lord has blessed that big idea and turned it into a thriving reality as el Camino’s community of faith includes everyone, from carpenters and kids to U.S. youth groups and Mexican adaptive horse riding experts.
“This is life together every single day, and there’s a bond that develops,” Cher Gatto says. “There’s something special that God does in the midst of that, and when someone from the outside comes in and sees that, they say, ‘I want to be a part of that too.’ So our community of faith is growing … And it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photographs by Robert Johnson