by Joel Hernandez
Joel and his wife, Amy, served as missionaries in Mexico. Joel is currently a CMML Director.
On a crisp November day in 2016, some 400 people were gathered to hear about the Lord’s work in Mexico, their anticipation mingled with unease. The American elections had just taken place. The whole world seemed abuzz with talk of the border wall. We were on the edge of our seats as my colleague, Cabe Pillette, methodically unpacked the desperate plight of Mexican communities swallowed up by drug violence, the spiritual darkness that repels the gospel and the dangers faced by those who dare to preach it.
The Real Wall
“For centuries Mexico has resisted the gospel,” Cabe explained. Certainly the Light has come to larger cities, but thousands of small towns and villages lie in near-impenetrable darkness. The real wall is not one made of concrete and steel, but is spiritual and deeply rooted in history. During the pre-Hispanic era, indigenous empires reigned supreme. First the Olmec, then the Mixtec, Maya, Zapotec and Aztec empires. Their animistic rituals included idolatry, witchcraft and ritual sacrifice. The Spanish colonisers brought Christianity but not a pure gospel. Instead, a hybrid developed that was neither pure ancestral religion nor orthodox Roman Catholicism. This self- styled religion is zealously guarded by whole communities who have become impervious to the gospel and its implications. Generations of missionaries have come up against this formidable wall.
The Men Who Broke Through
Mexico became independent from Spain in 1810. For the next 100 years, turmoil reigned. The country underwent civil wars, a war with the USA and a revolution. By the turn of the 19th century, the Roman Catholic Church dominated all of Mexican life. Government attempts to separate church and state were met with resentment that eventually erupted in war. However, in the midst of this 100-year upheaval, God was at work. He sent waves of missionaries to break down the spiritual wall. James Thomson, a Scottish missionary, arrived in 1827 with a mission to persuade the government to authorise and facilitate Bible sales, promote Bible translation projects into indigenous languages and set up schools to raise literacy standards using the Bible as a textbook. James Pascoe, Charles H. Bright, J. Eglon Harris, Admiral Reginald Carey Brenton, Leonard Ingram and an unbroken succession of others followed. Through their efforts, God broke through the wall.
What traits did these remarkable men have in common? With resourceful ingenuity, they were self-taught printers who wrote thousands of essays and swayed public opinion. They were gifted evangelists, teachers, orators, poets, hymnists and journalists. They started Bible studies and founded print shops, businesses and churches. They displayed remarkable courage. Their faith emboldened them to face untold dangers. However, Mexico was hostile to the gospel. These men promoted Bible reading at a time when papal edict forbade it. They printed and distributed gospel literature to the masses who were incited to destroy it. They preached to angry mobs who hurled threats and insults at them. They planted churches that were opposed and harassed. They were ready to sacrifice all, to be regarded as fools for Christ’s sake. Many buried their young children, who had succumbed to disease. One final characteristic they shared was that they decided to serve the Lord at a young age. Thomson’s mission travels began when he was 30. Eglon Harris decided to serve in his teens and arrived in Mexico by the time he was 29. Pascoe first stepped on Mexican soil at 24. Leonard Ingram was only 21. God used committed young men to break down the spiritual wall, and He still does.
They were ready to sacrifice all, to be regarded as fools for Christ’s sake.
The results of these mission waves have been exponential. Today evangelicals form 8% of the population(1) and there are more than 240 assemblies. In 1992, the enactment of the Religious Association law invited churches to become legal entities by meeting a set of requirements, which resulted in the formation of several religious associations. Mexico is still experiencing a time of spiritual harvest.
Those assemblies that work hard at evangelism and discipleship generally experience growth. As observed in every part of the world, churches that have qualified and devoted leaders and shepherds tend to be the healthiest.
Mexico has a beautiful tapestry of cultures. It is home to more than 128 million people, with 331 people groups, 287 living languages(2) and an astonishing array of unique traditions, foods, folklore, music and dance.(3) Its people are incredibly resourceful and are held together by deep-seated values that prioritise people and family above all else. Family is everything. Acceptance by an individual means acceptance by his or her family.
“Not all that glitters is gold,” say the Mexicans. The country is a paradox of rich resources and near-insurmountable challenges. There are deep social and economic inequalities, abusive political leadership structures, callous and senseless violence, and powerful drug cartels that operate almost openly and with near-impunity. These have devastated social harmony and good will. Mexicans are resilient, but systemic corruption casts a dark shadow over their future. This has infected every level of society from top to bottom. The result is a deep distrust of authority that breeds a fatalistic hopelessness.
The irony is that the heavier the darkness, the brighter the light shines. It is against such a dark backdrop that the gospel shines through the simple allegiance of Christ’s followers. Greed and sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have led to widespread disillusionment among the younger generations. As people turn away from the church, its power upon the national conscience is slowly eroding, yet people are not ready to abandon the idea of a personal God. The Catholic stance against reading the Bible is driving a curiosity to know what it really says. Today, simply reading the Bible and explaining its message has become a powerful evangelistic strategy!
Certainly the gospel has penetrated larger cities, but rejection and persecution are most likely in small communities that have traditionally remained resistant. Years ago, I began an evangelistic Bible study in a small Mexican village. A young couple eagerly received me every week. But the pressure from their own family was formidable. The wife’s father shockingly told her husband, “I would rather you cheated on our daughter, or beat her up, than you continued to read the Bible!” The day came when the young man caved. “I can’t go further,” he said. “I just cannot resist my family any longer.” Such is the power of family, whose influence is greatest in smaller communities. What is one to do?
In the face of this impossible wall, God is opening a new door of opportunity: immigration. These immigrants come to the USA driven by the deep-seated sense of duty to care for their families. This explains why Mexican immigrants send billions of dollars home.(4) Immigrants experience hardship and loneliness abroad, yet they provide a unique opportunity to open doors to the gospel back home. It works like this: an American believer shows the immigrant kindness and friendship. The immigrant, true to Mexican culture, gratefully elevates his new friend to the status of near-family. The American contacts a mission worker in Mexico and goes with him to visit the extended family bearing letters and gifts from their relative living in the USA. The extended family receives the American as a family member, and out of gratitude and a sense of obligation listens to the message of the gospel. Hundreds of churches are being planted following this approach. With your love of the Lord Jesus Christ, love the immigrants in your community! Your act of kindness may change the history of a whole village.
Walls Fall Down
Years ago, while distributing gospel tracts in a small village, we came upon a group of men drinking. Eager not to satisfy their alcohol-induced, amused interest, we began planning our exit. Just then, another man joined the crowd and asked us what we were up to. When we told him that we were distributing gospel tracts his eyes lit up. He proceeded to quote John 3:16 verbatim. I asked, “Where did you learn that?” He smiled and said, “Let me show you something.” He pulled out his wallet and unfolded a tract. He told me that years ago he had crossed illegally into the USA and an American stranger gave him the tract with a heavily accented, “Mi amigo (my friend).” He then said, “I have never forgotten him. I carry this tract everywhere I go.” I nearly wept. If only people knew the power of those two little words, my friend! If only we prayed and looked for opportunities to show kindness to the immigrants in our neighbourhoods. God has given us an opportunity. We can engage in mission without leaving our jobs or country. Mexico has a formidable spiritual wall – but God opens doors. Shall we not lay aside our differences and instead seek first the kingdom of God? Shall we face a door that countless Christians have prayed for and just stand there, refusing to open it? Rather, let us seize the opportunities to share Christ with lost souls.
If only we prayed and looked for opportunities to show kindness to the immigrants in our neighbourhoods.