My friend Alberto and me walking in a maguey field in Oaxaca
The children all gathered around.
It was Christmas time and many of their parents, out of any real work for months, if not years, had few resources for food, let alone a few gifts of clothes. The shoes and the jackets would keep some of the kids warm when the temperature dropped as the season moved deeper into winter. Others might be lucky enough to find a new dress, shirt, or even a pair of pants to wear after school.
And thus it went for hours as Alberto and his team of friends and relatives tended to the needs of the people of his community.
Today teams of kids are getting the opportunity to learn and play basketball because again, Alberto and his team, have decided to reach out to their community and tend to the needs of the people.
Sponsoring an entire league, upwards of 50 children in the town where Alberto grew up are getting a chance to play organized basketball, complete with uniforms, coaches, rules, referees and for the winners, trophies. Young boys with names like Jorge, Epifanio and Jesus are passing the ball around this citywide league, imagining one day they too may play for the Heat, the Bulls, or even the Lakers.
She bent down, almost kneeling on the ground to talk with the old man outside the market. He was selling herbs and a few chiles. I was struck by the fact that she knew his name and was willing to get down to his level... saying in effect, she was no better than he was. She bought all six of his chiles.
As we entered the market the chicken vendor called out to her by name and Pilar waved, stopped to chat and explained to us how good the the chickens at this market were.
And so it went through the entire tour. Pilar knew the vendors, many by their names. As we passed one stall, she asked the young boy where his mom was... running errands he replied. “Tell her I said hello!”
This was Pilar’s community and like Alberto in his, she was determined to make a difference, to be part of the life of the community where God had planted her.
About now you are probably waiting for me to tell you how Alberto and Pilar are part of one of the ministries with whom I work, and I wish I could. Sadly however, that is not possible because of what these two do for a living. Alberto makes mezcal, the most popular type of alcohol in Oaxaca. Pilar is a chef in Oaxaca and her restaurant sells, among other spirits, mezcal. In the eyes of many evangelical pastors and leaders in Mexico, neither Alberto or Pilar can ever be Christian because of their work.
Many of the ministries I know in Mexico, and in the US for that matter, have no real interest in building bridges into their communities and meeting people where they are at, especially if they work in certain businesses deemed almost super sinful, as the church views what both Alberto and Pilar are doing.
It is this attitude that has many Christians and ministries today, in the name of purity, content to work on strengthening the body of Christ, almost exclusively for her own sake, refusing to engage the world. It is as if we are building up spiritual muscle mass not for the hard work of engaging our communities with the redemptive life changing message of Jesus, but so that we can have better bible studies, better worship experiences and better balance sheets.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good bible study and believe a strong understanding of the scriptures is vital to the health and well being of a church. But churches that pour a majority of their resources into Sunday services and bible study groups to such an extent that there is little or no organized church based community engagement will fail.
They may grow and have hundreds of people in the seats, but they will become, in the words of one of my closest friends, “a cult of biblical knowledge” unwilling or unable to be the healing hands and feet of Jesus in a hurting and broken world. What kind of mission is that?
After a few days recently with a pastor in Mexico, he stopped me in mid sentence and said to me, somewhat exasperated, “Dave, it’s as if you believe that a church that is not working in the community is not a church!” “No”, I told him, “that is not true. I just do not believe it is a very good church and is not fulfilling its’ call to be gathered to go out. [ecclesia]”
Why, I asked, are people like Alberto and Pilar, people with whom the evangelical church in Mexico would normally never associate, more interested in helping their people and extending a loving hand than many Christians and their churches?
Why is it that many churches mourn over a few missing people at our Sunday worship time, yet do not take steps to alleviate pain, poverty and suffering in peoples lives that we see daily around our church buildings and facilities?
And why is it that the evangelical church looks scornfully at people like Alberto and Pilar when they serve their communities while at the same time refusing to lock arms with them in order to gain the credibility to share about Jesus and his redemptive story in those very communities?
I am still waiting for the answers.