Small church groups from the United States and Canada frequently travel to Mexico for short-term missions trips. They build houses, lead vacation Bible school camps, or teach English. These groups are usually hosted by a local church, but tend to run independently from the local church leadership, sometimes leaving both groups feeling discontent and disconnected from the experience.
After years of hosting groups at the Emmanuel Evangelical Church in San José del Cabo, TEAM missionary Vicki Reyes recognized this weakness and set about to do things differently with the team she would be hosting in the summer of 2012. “I asked my good friend Marcela Garcia, the director of our church’s week-long VBS, how we could do things better,” Reyes said. Garcia studied political science and Mexican history at university, and she and Reyes often discuss history and culture. “One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that Mexicans do not want us to do things for them; they want us to work with them,” Reyes added. “They want to work mano a mano with North American Christians.”
With that in mind, Reyes had a few requests for the young adult team that was coming from Bible Fellowship Churches in New York and Pennsylvania. First, she asked that the team not bring lots of gifts, as it is embarrassing to middle class Mexicans. Second, Reyes asked that the group work under the VBS director and the Mexican church leadership as part of the overall team rather than working independently from the national church. Third and most importantly, Reyes wanted to make sure the team was educated about Mexican culture so that they would have a more effective ministry. Relationships are extremely important to Mexicans, and when groups had visited during previous years, the Mexican brothers and sisters felt sad that they had not had the opportunity to develop relationships with their North American visitors.
So, via a Facebook page, Reyes shared a series of cultural acquisition lessons over many months before the trip. The Bible Fellowship team was asked to visit a Mexican grocery store, try a new dish at a Mexican restaurant, visit a Mexican church and observe the similarities and differences, study a map of the area, read a book about how to understand other cultures, and learn common Mexican phrases. Reyes posted a video about TEAM’s ministry in Mexico, songs by popular Mexican Christian groups, and the songs that would be used at the VBS so the team could learn the words and actions ahead of time. Other cultural lessons included details about customary greetings in Mexico, the importance of personal and familial relationships, and how time is treated differently in Hispanic cultures.
When the team arrived in San José del Cabo, it was immediately apparent that the lessons and pre-trip communication via Facebook paid off. The group fit right in alongside Mexican church leaders and followed the leadership of the Mexican VBS director. Team members even helped with a church building project, apprenticing under Mexican construction workers to build fence pillars. But most of all, they took time to get to know the people they were working with. “They came ready to build relationships, not just coming to fulfill their own goals,” Reyes said. ”Everyone was delighted that the American team did not huddle together as a group as many foreigners do, afraid to communicate. They socialized with the Mexicans after VBS each day.”
As American believers worked side-by-side with Mexican believers, church leaders saw the Body of Christ come together in unity, love, and respect for each other.
“We value the work they did because we got to know them,” Garcia said. “If we hadn’t formed relationships as well, we would not value their labor as much as we do.” The relationships formed that summer have lasted, with many team members still communicating with their Mexican friends via Facebook.
“I’m often asked, ‘They are coming back next year, aren’t they?’” Reyes said. “This team was greatly loved by our church.”
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photos courtesy of Mark Bickel, Grace Bible Fellowship Church