Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Life, death, prayer and community... we're with you Ernie!

Ernie, his wife Joy and their daughter Adrienne together in a photo taken by our own Brother Joe... a longtime family friend.

It was October 1999 and we had just finished a week of ministry with a large group of people in Guadalajara. One of our staff people that week was Ernie Gonzalez, who back in the day, was also an early member of the Board of Directors of Adventures in Life.

Ernie, a Filipino, spoke Spanish and had studied in Oaxaca, so he was perfect for the next leg of our journey. We were heading, for the first time, to that southern state to meet with church leaders about supporting a few of their local ministries.

It wasn’t until we were on the plane that Ernie confessed that he was not as familiar with Oaxaca as I had been led to believe. He was in fact, so unfamiliar that he was not sure he would even be of much help once we landed.

To make a long story short, in a series of meetings, Ernie was a wonderful translator, helping me, and Adventures in Life, take the first steps to establishing a series of long standing relationship there.

While another person might have been able to do what Ernie did in a few short days in Oaxaca in 1999, the fact is, God put him there, at my side and all of our ministry there has grown out of those first very important meetings. If you have served with us in Oaxaca, you did so through the work and ministry of Ernie Gonzalez.

Last week, Ernie’s father died.

I know personally how hard it is to lose a parent close to the holidays. I would like to ask you, as part of the Adventures in Life community to pray this Thanksgiving for Ernie, his wife Joy, & their family in this time of loss.

The Pueblo de Dios, or Family of God, is built on relationships. Our relationship with Ernie runs deep, connected on many different levels and to many people within the Adventures in Life Ministry community. 

Ernie, to you and your family go our deepest sympathies and heartfelt best wishes this holiday season.

Dios le bendiga hermano!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Short Term Mission... Solving the Riddle of Your Return Home

Its been more than three months.

In that time youve prayed like never before. Clearly you understood that God was calling you to join the short-term mission team your church was sponsoring. As you thought about that, you became convinced that in order to present yourself holy and pleasing to God, you had to make some changes in your life, both public and private.

In addition to prayer, you attended every pre-trip training meeting and have even been doing a daily bible devotional so youll be ready once you get to the field.

Your fundraising went well and you were able to raise over and above your goal, helping others on the team get over the hump. Once you arrived on the field, everyday seemed so vital. If you were not sharing Christ directly with your words, you were serving others in his name, a visible witness to the loving and transforming character of Jesus.

Each day seemed to show a new level of the depth of Jesus as you poured yourself into his mission 24/7. You had never experienced anything like this in your faith walk before. You were alive in Christ, living each moment for him. It was challenging, stretching and frightening, all at once.

And then the dreaded day came the end of your mission. You found yourself at the airport with the rest of your team and thats when you started to notice it. Looking around, with the trip in your rearview mirror, the team started to change. Incredibly, before even getting on the plane, many had already returned home.

Instead of the simple cup of tea your hosts made for you each morning, everyone now needed a Caramel Frappucino from Starbucks. No one even noticed that most of the drinks at that coffee house cost more than a days wages of the people you were serving. No longer was the team looking for ways to build each other up. Making fun of the way people looked as they traversed the airport was way easier. And a lot more fun.

When you arrived home the first place you went was to the bathroom. Your bathroom. You had never dreamed that the simple task of flushing paper could bring such great joy, but it did. Next was the shower, and gallons upon gallons of hot steamy water. You werent aware of it at the time, but you were washing your mission experience right off of you and down the drain.

The next day you and the team shared at church. Each team member brought up a moment when they felt uniquely connected to God and the people you went to serve. The pastor asked about future plans and most of you said you were already making plans to return, praying daily for your new friends on the other side of the globe and sharing Christ more in your home circle of friends.

And then it was over.

You went back to school, work, or the challenges of daily life. The remote control seemed like it was calling your name the moment you walked in the house. Texts from your friends started filling your phone almost immediately and when you opened your email for the first time in over a week, you had almost 800 messages waiting.

"Coming home from your STM without a clear plan in place to consider and apply the lessons of that mission is a recipe for disaster, one countless people and groups serve up every year."

Soon not only were you not reading your bible, you werent even praying. Life had crowded out your mission, making it indeed a short-term experience. You felt like a failure, to yourself, your friends and perhaps most, to God.

Relax, youre not alone.

Youre not evil and you are definitely not a failure. You are like thousands of other people who have gone on short-term mission. You were incredibly impacted by God, but now back home no one seems to understand what you went through. You are struggling to keep your mission game face on as you navigate a world that seems designed not to encourage faith, but to push you everyday into a more self absorbed individuality apart from God.

So what should you do? The answer lies not so much in what you should do, but in what you should have done.

Ive found in over 25 years of receiving short-term mission teams that the single most important part of mission prep is not getting ready for the trip. Its getting prepared to come home. If leaders and participants are not preparing for the reality of reentry and the impending faith challenges back home, short-term mission participants will continue to struggle when they come home.

Coming home from your STM without a clear plan in place to consider and apply the lessons of that mission is a recipe for disaster, one countless people and groups serve up every year.

So, what should you do? Here are three simple steps to help you cement the faith and life lessons you learned on the field.

Set aside time for reflection. This seems so basic, but it is often overlooked. On mission, every day you were intimately connected to God, and you also should be when you get home. Pray and spend time doing nothing except listening to Him, seeking wisdom for your life in light of your mission experiences. As on the field, make Him a priority.

Dont go it alone. Proverbs 12:15 says The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice. In business we call this taking a partner. Get a trusted elder, pastor, leader or friend to walk with you on your return. Often they can help you better navigate the feelings, struggles and difficulties of coming home and understanding Gods will.

Get involved. Find a local ministry where you can serve others as you did on the field. God does something in us when we serve. We should do it at home with as much excitement as we do on the field.

Three simple steps. But they come with a caveat.

Youve got to plan them ahead of time. Completely. Set dates, times and appointments with people before you even leave on mission. Otherwise, youll be like so many others when they return wondering why just a few weeks ago God was so close to you, but now seems so incredibly distant.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

A Cross Cultural Covenant... Stopping short term mission team disaster before it strikes!

Rod Fry in Oaxaca with my Men's Ministry last February
One of the hardest things for people serving cross-culturally is giving up the comforts of home. That’s true if you go for a week, a month, or years. There is just something about having things your way that causes us to struggle when we are faced with something that changes that reality.

Recently I was in Mexico City with Rod Fry, a 20-year Missionary there with Mexico Matters. We work together on a program called missionXchange where people come to Mexico for 6 weeks alongside both our ministries. Rod’s in Mexico City and Adventures in Life in Oaxaca.

As part of our orientation, we touched on the subject of our “right” to have things as we want them. We included them in a Cross-Cultural Covenant that Rod developed. Everyone who serves with us reads and agrees to follow the covenant their time here in Mexico.

Today I’m going to share part of that Covenant. It has been my experience that if someone going "over there" can get, or understand this, their time serving will be much more effective and rewarding. It can even save your mission and ministry by heading off difficult issues before you ever get on a plane. And, it gives you a basis for resolving the inevitable conflicts that arise when you are in a foreign place.

Thanks Rod for all of your work on this!

Cross Cultural Covenant

We live in world full of rights. Our particular culture is one where we take pride in rights. As a matter of fact, the rights of the individual are constitutional, but as we see the demanding of those individual rights increase, we are seeing the moral fiber of our society decrease. Jesus laid down his rights to the heavens and all his glory to become man and serve, not be served. 

We are asking you to consider laying down your rights on this short-term mission. Not to lay them down for better or worse, but to entrust them to Jesus. While many of these rights may seem reasonable, indeed, who can argue about a comfortable bed, on short-term mission, they can become an unnecessary distraction.

Please take the time to search your heart and consider this… are you willing to surrender your rights to God?

I Give Up My Right To:

  • A comfortable bed
  • Three meals a day on a set schedule
  • Eating familiar food
  • Dressing cool and fashionable
  • Seeing the results and fruits of my labor
  • Control what I do
  • Control what others do
  • Control the circumstances around me
  • Have pleasant circumstances around me
  • Make decisions about all that I am doing
  • Be offended
  • Be successful
  • Be understood
  • Be heard
  • Be right, or correct
  • To worry

I Will Entrust To God

  • My strength and energy
  • My health and hygiene
  • My likes and dislikes of food
  • My security in him
  • His purposes, results and fruit in His time
  • My need for the Holy Spirit
  • His work in others
  • His purposes in making me more Christlike
  • The privilege of suffering for His sake
  • His sovereign hand on my life
  • My deepest needs
  • My security in His love
  • My reputation
  • My need for recognition
  • My need for His righteousness
  • Divine Control
If you like what you see and want more info, contact us.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Culture and Missions... Don't get caught with your pants down on your mountaintop moment!


noun cul·ture \ˈkəl-chər\ 
     1. The beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
     2. A particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.

Few things in long term cross cultural missionary work or service are, or should be as important as culture. The moment we cross a border we are entering into another culture, that essentially has, another culture.

culture, mexico, Oaxaca, missions, short-term missions

Sadly, in my experience in the field, and within personal relationships with hundreds of missionaries [both long and short term] and pastors, the understanding of local cultures and mores takes a back seat to all the other things that are believed to more important.

Recently a group of tourists in Malaysia was hiking on Mount Kinabalu. One of the members of the group decided to issue a challenge to the others. Who could strip and stay naked the longest on the cold mountain top. Despite pleas from their guide to not do so, the group was soon buck naked on the mountain top. You can read about it here.

What they didn't understand was that this particular mountain is considered to be sacred ground by many locals. That lead to arrests after an earthquake hit the region, killing 18 other climbers. The people who stripped, the Deputy Chief Minister said, had disrespected the mountain by posing naked, thus causing the earthquake.

Now, we can argue all day whether or not their nakidity had anything to do with the earthquake, but that misses the point. If the travelers had understood the culture, or had listened to and respected the advice of their guide, they would not have been arrested and facing a host of charges and fines.

One of the hallmarks of Adventures in Life has always been our desire to learn, and give others the opportunity to learn about the culture of the people they are serving.

Short term missions, mission trips, culture, Mexico, Guadalajara
The Cathedral of Guadalajara

Years ago, on our first mission in Guadalajara AIL Ministry Co-founder Grady Martine and I took our team to the Cathedral of Guadalajara. As we toured the cathedral and walked on what for many people from Guadalajara was sacred ground,  one of our team members came up to me.

"Dave" he asked, "why are we wasting time here when we could be outside witnessing and saving these people?"

That attitude, that any time spent learning about the culture, is time taken away from "real" Gospel work, in my opinion, tells locals that their culture has no value. It is a prideful attitude that hurts, and ultimately builds barriers to the types of relationships we need to share about Jesus.

Chances are you will not find yourself in a situation like that group of tourists in Malaysia. But a refusal to learn the culture of the people you are called to serve, can render you just as clueless as they were, and negatively impact your Gospel mission.

When you understand the culture of people you are trying to serve, whether they live across town, or on the other side of the globe, you will be a better witness and ambassador for Jesus.

Think about it.

Want more info? Check out the resources from Dr. David Livermore on Cultural Intelligence, or CG.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Mission and Ministry, Just Like a Great Rack of Ribs, is Best When it's Done Slow...

If you’re a barbecue lover, you know slow is good.

Few things make your mouth water like a rack of ribs that’s been slow roasted for hours over a low heat. Just the thought of it has me wondering if I can pull something like that off here in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I serve.

The idea that slow cooking was good seemed to really take hold with the masses in the 70’s with the crock pot. 

Rival, the number one maker back then was incredibly successful in teaching an entire generation that if you slow cooked your meat in their crock pot, using their recipes, you could have an incredible meal, full of flavor and as tender as can be.

Today you can find entire web sites and blogs dedicated to the art of slow cooking.

It’s too bad it is so difficult to convince people that when it comes to short-term mission [STM], just like barbecue and the crock pot, slow is usually better. Let me explain what I mean.

Years ago AIL Ministry partnered with First Baptist Church in Oaxaca [PIBO] to build a training center in Tlacolula. The plan was to have a dormitory, kitchen, restrooms and use the existing church building as a classroom to train Zapotec leaders from the churches where PIBO was planting missions.

We started construction in 2005 and in a couple of years we had it mostly finished. Except no one was ready to use it. So it sat, for a couple of years, mostly vacant, except on Sundays when there was a church service there.

Then one day the pastor and his wife asked me if they could live there while pastoring the church. That was one of the quickest answers I’ve ever given. “Of course” I said, “why not?” And soon, with the pastor living there, classes began to be offered to the very group that PIBO had dreamed about, almost 7 years earlier.

Now, more than 10 years after we started construction there, there’s been another change. While classes are still being offered from time to time, the church, under new leadership has started to grow. And grow. The church now has almost 100 people in their community and all the rooms we built for dorms and restrooms are being used on Sundays and during the week by this growing congregation.

Why is this important? Because there were some who wanted to see that facility used the minute we finished, but that doesn’t always happen in mission. One of the reasons for this can be found in culture. One of the things Americans do well is plan for the future. Other cultures, sometimes not so much. They won’t start planning the next step until everything is ready to go, because they’ve seen many unrealized dreams when funding, or resolve ran out.

It’s not wrong, it’s just different.

That difference can be very hard for Americans on short-term mission to understand, especially when their hard earned dollars are involved in the financing of projects like this. Understandably, if you’ve given money to a project, you want to see it being used as soon as possible.

But sometimes, the culture is not ready, even when, like in this case, the building was. Why? Because just like good barbecue, or a great crock pot dinner, the process cannot be rushed. Ministry and mission, especially when you are working in other cultures, takes time. Often, more time than us folks from the states want to admit.

To get a great rack of ribs, or an incredible stew from a crock pot, you need patience. Sure you can microwave your food, or add some liquid smoke to get that slow cooked barbecue taste, but it won’t be the same. The taste you want just won’t be there.

Simply put, there are no short cuts in mission and ministry, no way to speed up the process. No matter how much money we put into a project, or a mission, when we are crossing borders and working in other cultures, often times the best results come after a long, slow process.

Contrary to our thinking here in the US, over there, where ever there is, just like barbecue and a great crockpot dinner, slow is good! 

Think about it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Presence of God Defeats a Hopeless Mad Max World!

Like about 47 million other folks, I went to the movies Memorial Day weekend. Which means in addition to the movie I wanted to see, I also saw significant portions of movies I'll likely never see. You know what I'm talking about... the previews.

One of the previews was for Mad Max Fury Road. As the trailer played on suddenly the screen filled with the words, WITHOUT HOPE. A few seconds later another message flashed on the screen, WITHOUT MERCY.

The Mad Max movie series, being redone from the Mel Gibson 1979 original is all based on a world gone mad. It is a world where literally there is no hope and no one has, or shows any mercy towards anyone.

Years ago when I went to San Dionesio Ocotepec in Oaxaca for the first time, I sat down with a group of children, all under 12. I asked them about their plans for the future. The answers stunned me. Almost all of them, boys and girls alike had a variation on the theme of going to the Estados Unidos, the United States.

When I asked them why they would want to leave Oaxaca, they had all sorts of reasons. No work. Too hard to raise a family. Little, or no opportunity to advance in life. And then one of the kids said the words that I'll remember all of my life... "there's no hope here."

Think about that for awhile. No hope. Or as the movie Mad Max would put it... A WORLD WITHOUT HOPE! How could you live, thrive, or even survive?

That's a major part of the ministry of Adventures in Life in Oaxaca. Working to bring a holistic emphasis to ministry, we are striving to address not just spiritual hopelessness, but economic hopelessness as well. We are trying to bring hope, and live mercy for today, and eternity.

One way we are doing this is through our Vocation Camp Week. We are expecting about 40 teenagers this year. They will be studying Photography, Agriculture, Science and Culinary Arts. Each of these disciplines will begin the steps to help the students at camp learn a skill that will enable them to make a real salary in Oaxaca.

Every village needs a photographer. Part of the culture of Mexico revolves around photos of family events, just as it does here. So, if you can shoot, you can work. Our agriculture classes will help people understand better ag practices which will increase crop yields and allow them to better care for their animals, increasing food output. Our science track will hopefully instill in people a love for experimentation and exploration that is so central to entrepreneurship. It may also inspire a few of our kids to become scientists.

Finally, our culinary arts track will be totally hands on giving the kids a chance to develop some of the skills necessary to succeed in one of the high end restaurants prevalent in Oaxaca, the gastronomic capital of Mexico.

Perhaps most exciting about all of this is that it is a ministry of the local church! 

Every person attending our camps will know and understand that the church, and Jesus, stands with them, and wants to be a part of giving them hope, not just for eternity, but for today, tomorrow, next week and beyond!

The people of the Mad Max world are living in a hopeless, merciless world, a world gone mad. For me, and AIL Ministry, mission is most effective when it is holistic. Because that holistic style gives witness to the mercy and love of Jesus and his power to transform and bring order to our lives. Both for eternity, and for today.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Long Term Missionaries... is the clock winding down while the church stands by?

Quick, when was the last time you heard someone in church encourage a young person, or anyone for that matter to consider spending their life as a cross cultural missionary?

I’ll wait.

Okay, time’s up.

It’s been awhile hasn’t it?

Years ago, that was a call we heard regularly from the pulpits of churches across America, especially on Mission Sundays and in the almost extinct Sunday evening services. The world, we were told, needed people to step up and boldly answer Jesus call to share his love on mission in some far off land.

Africa, Asia, South America… it didn’t matter. Jesus needed us and our spiritual leaders made sure we knew it. But they did more than that, they encouraged us to answer that call, get trained and go. For the sake of the Gospel.

It all seems so quaint now.

One of the by products of the short-term mission [STM] movement is that it has, in a sense, demystified missions and missionaries. That’s both good, and bad.

Here’s why…

The good has been our ability to open eyes. Missions is no longer seen as the providence of a few. 

Regular, everyday folks are as likely to get on a plane and serve overseas as those who study for years to prepare for professional ministry. There can be no doubt that the cross cultural exposure literally millions of people have as a result of short-term mission is changing the way people view and interact with the world. 

However, our current emphasis on short-term mission, and with it the sugar like rush people get from serving, is giving us a false belief that we truly can share Christ effectively in one week micro ministry bursts.

We can’t, and in fact, effective short-term mission relies on dedicated long-term missionaries in the field. 

The bad is that the current emphasis on STM in our churches is pushing long-term missionary recruitment to the back burner. Add in the current rage of programming every minute of our weekend services tightly around a specific theme, and we literally have no opportunities to share the need for people to go overseas full time.

Gone are most Mission Sundays, gone are services where missionaries share their stories, gone are the messages calling people to forsake the comforts of home, take up the cross and share about Jesus around the globe.

In our efforts to identify everyone as a missionary, we have robbed that term of its power to call. No longer is the overseas missionary seen as having potential for an individual or a young couple.

A few years back I was asked to say a few words at a local denominational missions conference. I was excited when, after I spoke, they announced they were commissioning a new couple to go to field. The new couple was in their mid 60’s. 

Now I am not saying people in the 60’s, and beyond cannot be effective. I’ll be there myself soon, but I was saddened that the new couple was not younger. The reality is that the clock is ticking towards retirement for an entire generation of long term in country missionaries and the church does not seem to have a Plan B in place for when those folks return home.

Cross cultural missions work is hard, heroic work. The Kingdom needs new blood in the field. In all of our ministries, be they youth, women’s, men’s or pulpit based, the church needs to once again take up the mantle of recruiting and sending not just short-term teams around the globe, but long term in country missionaries as well.

What say you?

Friday, April 03, 2015

Holy Saturday... living in the tension between Jesus death on the cross and his resurrection on Sunday morning

In his book "The Orthodox Heretic: and other impossible tales"  Peter Rollins imagines a story of a group of early followers of Jesus. 

Living alongside Jesus, they followed him, learned from him and were trying to order their lives so as to give witness to what they saw in Jesus everyday.

And then something happened that changed everything.

Jesus was apprehended by the authorities and put on trial. Being found guilty, he was sentenced to death on a cross, where he died.

After Jesus was buried, this little group of followers left the area to try and live out the ideals of Jesus as they had learned from him when he was alive. His death did nothing to change their love for him, or their desire to follow him and his teachings.

Their little community lived in relative peace for over 100 years. Until one day a Christian missionary from Jerusalem found them. As this missionary and some of the leaders of this community were talking, the missionary quickly learned that this community had no idea that while Jesus had died on that cross, he had also risen from the grave.

That evening there was a huge party as the group celebrated that Jesus has won the epic battle against death, and because of that, they would experience life in eternity with him. As the party was going on, the missionary noticed one of the leaders was missing. He soon found him in his tent, on his knees praying, with tears streaming down his face.

He sat with him awhile and finally asked the leader why he was crying. Didn't he understand the importance of Jesus resurrection? What was the matter?

The leader looked at the missionary with his swollen eyes and then he spoke. "For 100 years, my people have followed Jesus unconditionally. We have tried to live as we believe Jesus called us to live, simply because we believed that was his will."

"Now" he said, "I fear my people will live instead for the resurrection."

What the leader was saying was that his people would no longer live for Jesus, but for themselves. What he was saying was that faith for his people would soon change. Gone would be the focus on Kingdom now, traded in for Kingdom later.

Rollins brings us to Holy Saturday, the day between Jesus death on Friday and resurrection on what we celebrate as Easter Sunday. How he asks, might our faith be different if all we knew was Jesus life and his death? What would life look like if we lived it on Saturday, instead of in the light of Sunday.

In essence, he is asking the most pressing of questions. If there was no resurrection, would we even follow Jesus? Would living a life totally devoted to Jesus and his teachings be null and void if the resurrection never happened?

We are forced to look deeply at the motivations for faith, and our decisions to follow Jesus. Do we follow Jesus because what he called us to do was right on Holy Saturday when he was dead in the tomb? Or, did it only become right with the resurrection, on Sunday?

I hate questions like this, because they call into question my motivations for following Jesus. If I am being honest, these are the type of questions I wrestle with everyday. Ask my wife! She will frequently ask me what I am thinking, and out of fear, I'll say "nothing really" because the questions, and the answers scare me.

This week as we enter Holy Week, many of us will attend one or more remembrances of the last few days of Jesus' life here on earth. Maybe it will be a Maundy Thursday service that looks back at the Last Supper. Perhaps some will take time Friday to remember the crucifixion. Almost all of us will be celebrate his resurrection on Sunday, and then perhaps we will break bread together, at either a potluck, or with friends at a local restaurant.

But what about Saturday? Do we follow Jesus because he called us? Because he was the son of God, not just in the resurrection, but in his death as well? Or, do we follow him because, as the leader in Rollins' story feared, we want want eternal life? Are we into God and Christianity because of what we can get? 

Tough questions during the holiest of weeks for believers. Tougher still when we stop and consider how and what we, as missionaries for Jesus, communicate to others about the central truths and reasons for our faith.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Photography as mission... focusing in on building bridges

Selfie.  (/ˈselfiː/) A self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. They are usually flattering and made to appear casual. Most selfies are taken with a camera held at arm's length or pointed at a mirror, rather than by using a self-timer.

They are everywhere. You text them to friends, attach them to emails, and make them your Facebook profile pic. You can post them to Tumblr, pin them on Pinterest, Instagram them to the world and, erase them in a few seconds with Snapchat.

Most of us have so many photos of ourselves and our families  we hardly think twice about them. With the advent of the digital age, many people have more photos then they can ever hope to display, let alone organize. 

The days of the Kodak Instamatic Camera with the square flash cube are long gone. And so are photo albums, drive thru film processing from Fotomat, and those classic frames with holes of every size and shape. 

Today, if you want a picture, you just pull out your phone, snap it, save it, and print it. 

But what if you lived in a place where that new fangled technology had not reached? What if you lived in a place like San Dionesio Ocotepec, Oaxaca?

Getting vitals checked at our clinic in San Dionesio Ocotepec, Oaxaca
I was there recently with my ministry, Adventures in Life, to hold a medical clinic for the people of that largely Zapotec community. Alongside the medical checkups and eye exams, we also offered personal photos to the people of the community.

Cyndy Smith of Mission Focused climbing to get the perfect shot

Using Mission Focused, a San Diego based non-profit dedicated to using the power of photography for God’s glory, we were able to give many of the people, like this man, of that small pueblo, and others around Oaxaca, the first photos of themselves.

Read those words again… the first photos of themselves!

You see, the selfie craze hasn’t quite reached many of the people of San Dionesio. Neither has the ability to quickly, and inexpensively print photos. 

As I think about mission, thoughts of connection are always closely intertwined. How do we, as believers, connect with people who are different from us? What are the ways we can develop bridges into communities to make a kingdom difference?

The ubiquitous Splash Mountain shot, complete with a selfie 

One of those ways is through photography. Even if you are that person who hates having your picture taken, I’ll bet you still go check out that candid photo Disneyland takes of you on Splash Mountain. We can’t help ourselves. There is just something about seeing our faces, smiling or not, on an artist’s canvas, or in this case, through the photographer’s lens.

Especially, if it is the first time. In. Your. Life!

Brother Joe printing out photos in San Dionesio Ocotepec

Now imagine if that gift comes from a group of people who love God and are freely giving you that gift. In a world where everything seems to come with strings attached, that idea seems like a relic of a bygone era.

Effective mission, the kind that connects to people for the long hard work of disciple making, takes relationship. It is not accomplished by giving one of Chick’s Tracts to someone you’ve just met. I place great value in the old Young Life saying that you need to “earn the right to be heard” before sharing about the Gospel. 

Those pictures Mission Focused took for us? Along with our medical mission, these were the first steps in relationship building for Adventures in Life in San Dionesio Ocotepec. My hope and prayer is that they will serve as a bridge for the local churches with whom we work in that area to challenge people to live for Jesus.


Here are a few of the portraits taken that week by Brother Joe and Cyndy Smith during our week of ministry in Oaxaca. We made sure everyone got a print of the photos we took of them. Check out more of their work on the Mission Focused Facebook page...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kaycee Kaba... Missionary to Mexico!

10 ten years ago, I did not see it coming.

Kaycee Kaba, Adventures in Life, Short Term Mission, Mexico
Kaycee, Chelsea, Becca and Jacqee in 2006 in Ensenada 

The year before, in 2003, I was contacted by a friend and asked if Adventures in Life would be able to host a group of students from the Asian American Christian Fellowship [AACF] at UCLA for a week of mission in Ensenada. Little did I know then how far what my friend Asher Sargent calls the ripple effect would extend.

That first year with AACF was amazing. They did nothing. Really... nothing. Nothing at all, except reach across cultural lines, and love on people as if they were Jesus himself, which of course for that week, they were. Never before, and never since, had I ever seen a group so able to put their wishes and needs aside, step outside themselves, and serve quite so selflessly.

It truly cemented the idea I had that mission, and short-term mission [STM] in particular, could be about something more than just building stuff. What I saw that week, and year after year with AACF, was STM being about people and relationship.

The next year they returned and a young woman named Kaycee was on the team. If I was to look back at that particular team, some of the people who became leaders were obvious. More than a few of that group have gone on to make a significant Kingdom impact around the world.

But Kaycee was not one who was on my radar. 

At least not at first. But then, she kept coming back. Year after year she served with me in Ensenada. Then one year she joined our intern program and found herself with us in Oaxaca, hundreds of miles from her little comfort zone of Ensenada. Soon she was leading a team each year to Guadalajara to serve alongside Pastor Raul and our ministry there.

Kaycee Kaba, AIL Ministry, Adventures in Life, Short term Mission
Donde esta Kaycee? Inside the AIL Ministry Scooby Van years ago with her AACF Team

That’s when I began to wonder if maybe Kaycee would join the ranks of some of those other AACF team members and step even deeper into the mission field. I decided then to began a deeper conversation with her about her future.

I kept coming back to her, always with my trademarked “hard” questions, finally ending, a couple of years ago, with a “why not?” Why not step out, follow your heart, and Jesus, and serve long-term in Mexico?

Today, Kaycee joins me on mission Mexico. While she will be working directly with mission partner Rod Fry in Mexico City, Kaycee will also be working alongside AIL Ministry as her schedule and ministry permits.

10 years ago, Kaycee arrived a little scared, for a week of ministry with folks she still serves to this day in Ensenada. Over the years, she has been stretched and grown into an incredible woman of God with a gigantic heart for the people of Mexico. Now, because of that heart for God and Mexico, and a willingness to listen to His leading, she is stepping out in faith, trusting in a way unimaginable that first year she came with AACF.

Dave Miller, Kaycee Kaba, Adventures in Life, Short Term Mission, Mexico
One day Kaycee told me she wanted to eat her way across Mexico... here she is with me, off to a great start!
From a week long short-term mission trip to Ensenada, to Oaxaca, to Guadalajara, and now to Mexico City, Kaycee’s ripple continues to move and have a Kingdom impact.

Please join me, and the Adventures in Life community, in welcoming Kaycee Kaba to the long-term mission field, and make it part of your mission to pray for her, not just today, but regularly, as she seeks to build the types of relationships in Mexico City that will become bridges to Jesus for a brand new ripple in her life. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eloxochitlán, Oaxaca, a tale of jealously, hate and revenge... all tragically lived out on December 14, 2014

“They came to kill us!” Those are the words of Elisa Zepeda trying to explain what happened in her village of Eloxochitlán on Sunday, December 14, 2014. 

It’s a story as old as David and Saul. A tale of jealousy, hate and revenge, all lived out in a village high above Oaxaca City in the Sierra Mazateca, known by locals as San Antonio Eloxochitlán.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
The town center of Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón
December 14, 2014 will stand as their 9/11, the day everything changed. It is the day that a new normal would be ushered in with a hail of gunfire, beatings, attacks with machetes, shovels, rocks and even pieces of rebar. At the end of the day 7 people were incarcerated for their role in a series of attacks that left 2 dead, many wounded, destroyed cars, businesses, homes and lives shattered across the town.

The story goes back years to a young farmer named Acasio Zepeda and his wife Gregoria who lived in San Antonio Eloxochitlán, or as locals simply called it, San Antonio. Located almost directly between Puebla and Oaxaca, San Antonio is a small village without much to recommend it.

Hours from any real population center, literally above the clouds, San Antonio is not that much different from hundreds of other small primarily indigenous towns that dot the Mexican landscape. In place of a formal state, or federal government, local law is based on a centuries old tradition known simply as Usos y Costumbres. Through this system, most legal matters are handled by town elders, their own elected officials and the people are largely self governing. This was the world, for better or worse, of Acasio Zepeda, father of six boys and one girl. 

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Dave Miller's Mexico, Elisa Zepeda
Elisa Zepeda, roasting locally farmed coffee at her home before it was destroyed
Acasio was a farmer, growing mostly coffee, and at times corn, beans and chayote in what essentially is a cloud forest. Farming in the best of conditions is hard work. It is also not a job that generally is not going to make you rich. In the mountainous indigenous areas of Mexico, under local customs, a farmer is usually only able to plant and care for just enough land to feed and care for his family. It requires hard work and long hours. It is often lonely, and many a farmer from San Antonio would end his day of work with a little too much aguardiente, the local “firewater” distilled from fermented sugar cane.

Knowing how hard the work was, Acasio was determined to give his children another option. As each one of them came of age, he gave them a choice. They could stay and work the land, as he and his ancestors had for years, or they could leave San Antonio, choose a career, and study. But there was a caveat. If they left to study, there was no coming home. They were to stay in school and figure out how to make it through.

That is the path almost all of his children took, including his oldest daughter Eusebia and Manuel, the fourth of his children. Both of them chose to become teachers, not so much because of a calling, but because it was the least expensive career to enter and the family never had much money.

After graduation, both Manuel and his sister Eusebia returned to San Antonio to find love, and begin their careers as teachers in the town of their youth. Manuel soon fell in love and married Malena Laguna Ceballos of Tenancingo, while Eusebia met and married a man by the name of Jaime Betanzos Fuentes from Eloxochitlán.

Over the years, life in this tiny mountaintop village carried on without much fanfare. Manuel and Eusebia taught in the local schools for many years. However in addition to teaching, like his father, and many of the other men in San Antonio, Manuel became a man enamored with aguardiente. Cheap and powerful, often running to 120 proof, it might have proved to be his undoing. 

Then a man named Gaspar Camaal Chablé entered his life. 

Fresh out of the George Lacy Baptist Seminary in Oaxaca City, Gaspar, or Pastor Chablé as he is known to many, became a spiritual mentor to Manuel. It dad not take long for Manuel to give up drinking and become a regular member of the small church Gaspar was starting.

It was a friendship that lasts to this day, stretching across almost 20 years.

Over the years, having cast aside his tendency to over imbibe, Manuel became a strong force in the church. His story of how God had saved him from himself and gave him the strength to improve his life became a powerful witness in a town that had known him mostly as a teacher who drank too much.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
Manuel Zepeda's trout farm in Eloxochitlán
Having taken his last drink, Manuel soon discovered an entrepreneurial spirit deep inside himself. He and Malena sold the home where they had raised their children Manuelito and Elisa, and bought a plot of land on the banks of the Petlapa River. As he built a new house for his family, he also started a small trout farm.

Over the years that trout farm has grown to include nine tanks that when fully utilized, are stocked with almost 500 trout. Trout that his wife prepares in her kitchen and are served to people on the patio restaurant of their house. Trout that go a long way to help feed the townspeople.

Meanwhile, as Manuel and Malena were were expanding their trout farm, Eusebia and her husband Jaime were busy building their own life. 

Both families, extremely ambitious, aspired to win the votes, and the love of the people of Eloxochitlán. Manuel eventually won election in 2009 and Jaime in 2013 was elected to the position of assessor. A sort of assistant to the President of the community. But by then, their relationship had been poisoned by a previous election.

Jamie, running for office against his own brother Raul Betanzos Fuentes came up short on the vote count. He went to Manuel, his brother-in-law, and asked him to stand with him against Raul. He believed that between the two of them, they could prevail in a move to contest the election.

Manuel however felt differently. Looking at the vote totals, and the facts, he simply believed that Raul won, fair and square, and that it would be better for Jaime to wait his turn. Feeling betrayed, Jaime was angry and the seeds of anger and jealousy were sown deep.

Over the ensuing years, Jaime was never satisfied with the political leadership of the city, convinced he could always do better. When his brother-in-law Manuel won election in 2009, the stage was set for a full scale confrontation.

Over the next few years, until Jaime finally won election, the two sides of this familial and political divide traded numerous accusations. As is often the case in Oaxacan village politics, both sides have been accused of treason, brutality, murder and corruption. 

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
The marketplace of Eloxochitlán, where people gathered to vote. 
On Sunday, December 14 the people of Eloxochitlán assembled in the town square to vote for the new mayor, a largely ceremonial position charged with settling property and land disputes. It is a job that requires lots of work, many complaints and little or no pay. 

It was a slightly sunny day, a rare surprise in a place normally dominated by clouds and rain. But the weather was not to be the only rarity on that day. As the people gathered for the noon meeting, a small group, led by Jaime Betanzos, had a much more ambitious agenda.

He and his small group of leaders wanted to settle a few old scores against his brother-in-law and former President of Eloxochitlán, Manuel Zepeda.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Dave Miller, Manuel Zepeda
Dave Miller, Manuel Zepeda and Abisia Camaal, son of Gaspar, in Manuel's house as electricians work to repair damage.
As the assembly began, word started filtering out to those still arriving that there was a group of hooded men armed with shotguns, machetes, shovels and rebar sticks. Soon there were explosions and shotgun blasts emanating from the city center.

It did not take long for people to scatter, fearing for their lives. The panic was evident on their faces as they ran. All the while, explosions could be heard rolling across the green hills of the city. Soon large clouds of black smoke could be seen rising from the area where the town meeting was to be.

Regardless of the cause, this is what is now known.

Elisa Zepeda, the daughter of Manuel and Malena, was the one the armed group was seeking. Long active in the human rights struggle for the people of Eloxochitlán, she had become a thorn in the side of those currently in power, led primarily by her uncle, Jaime Betanzos, the husband of her father’s sister, Eusebia.

When it became apparent Elisa was the target, she took refuge behind the house of her friends Gilberto and Noemi, shielded by her uncle Vicente. Hiding in a small closet, they both feared for their lives because the armed mob had, in addition to guns and machetes, molotov cocktails, loaded with gasoline.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Elisa Zepeda
This is the closet where Vicente and Elisa hid.
As the group approached, Vicente and Elisa, knowing there were the typical tanks of propane stored in every Mexican home stored nearby, made the decision to abandon their hiding place and make a run for her dad’s house.

Elisa did not make it.

As they ran, she was grabbed by the mob, now numbering in excess of 50 people, and was savagely beaten. The final words of the group, widely reported across Mexico, were “This is where your dreams end asshole. Don’t stick your nose in the town’s business again.” And with these words, they left her to die.

That’s when the mob turned to destruction.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Elisa Zepeda
This was part of the living room of Gilberto's home.
Gilberto’s home and restaurant where she sought refuge was quickly engulfed in flames, as was a local grocery store owned by Elisa’s uncle Vicente’s son-in-law, Gamaliel and his wife Dolli. As the home and businesses burned, they turned their attention to the families’ trucks, showering them with gallon sized molotov cocktails. Proceeding across the street, they completely gutted the local cyber cafe, owned and operated by Vicente and his wife Eudoxia and burned it too. This was the cloud of black smoke everyone was seeing. While all the windows of Vicente and Eudoxia’s house were broken by rocks thrown by the mob, mercifully, they chose not to destroy their house.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
The former storefront for Gamaliel and Dolli's grocery store.
By now, the once tranquil city resembled a war zone set upon by an armed mob. As the group moved out from the city center, people ran, screamed and sought cover where ever they could, fearing for their lives.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
Inside the former store of Gamaliel and Dolli.
Many of those running, relatives and associates of Manuel Zepada, father of Elisa, sought refuge in his home, a two story structure about 500 meters from the town center. They locked themselves in the kitchen, and as religious people, began to pray.

That’s when the bullets began to fly through the doors and the rocks began to fly though the windows. Miraculously, Elisa, not dead after all, had made her way back to her childhood home and what she hoped would be the safety of her parents arms. It was not to be.

The doors of the house were no match for a group determined to kill and humiliate as many members of Manuel’s family as possible. As the attackers entered, some looked for cover and others fled out a back door, only to be caught between two sides of the same mob.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Elisa Zepeda, Gaspar Chable
Gaspar Chablé with Gregoria, both victims of the violence in Eloxochitlán
Elisa was beaten again, even as her mother Malena sought to protect her. Covering her with her own body, Malena took several blows in this new beating. Even today, it is not known if she will ever see again from her right eye. Pastor Gaspar Chablé was also beaten at the house, receiving numerous cuts on his head from the machetes and rebar. Manuel’s 86 year old mother, Gregoria, pleading with the attackers to stop, was also beaten, receiving cuts to her scalp. Gaspar remembers the group talking about killing them all as he collapsed behind an old cistern that now is permanently marked by his blood.

But it was two men who paid the ultimate price. When the mob set upon Manuel’s house and the house of his daughter Elisa, they came across Manuelito, the town mechanic. Manuelito was known as a standup guy. Regularly fixing cars and charging very little, he saw his work as a way to give back to the community. His taller, or garage, was on his father’s land, next door to his sister’s home.

He was taken, tortured and beaten in an attack that rivals anything the Ku Klux Klan ever did in America. All to send a message. One other man, Gustavo Andrade, the sole member of the local police force to stand up to the mob, also died, giving his life to protect Elisa. 

Manuel leaves a wife and two children. Gustavo, a wife and four kids.

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
Gamaliel and Gaspar inside Vicente's burned out cyber café.
With bodies strewn everywhere across the city, and with numerous houses and businesses burning, the mob couldn’t resist the cars and trucks of Manuel, his family, Pastor Chablé and others. More molotov cocktails were tossed on every nearby vehicle they could find.

At the end of the day, Gilberto and Noemi lost their home, truck, and business. Elisa and her husband David lost their home and Elisa’s car. Gamaliel and Dolli lost their business and their truck. Vicente and Euodoxia lost their cyber cafe. Manuel and Malena had their house looted, their money stolen, much of their furniture destroyed and their restaurant ransacked.

Manuelito and Gustavo lost their lives and their families now have no way to support their suddenly smaller families. Pastor Chablé lost his truck, one of 19 vehicles burned that fateful day and was sent to the hospital with numerous gashes on his scalp requiring stitches.

Elisa and Malena, by far suffering the worst of the injuries, were beaten to within an inch of their lives. Both of them spent days in the hospital, in and out of comas. Both of them face months of both physical and emotional rehabilitation. Many of the scars may never heal.

All of the ringleaders of the attack are now sitting in prison in Oaxaca under order of the Attorney General of the State. In addition to former mayor Jaime Betanzos Fuentes, and the current mayor Alfredo Pacheco Bolaños, local police, Fernando Martinez Gavito, Wilfrido Salazar Herrera, Omar Morales Alvarez and Ruben Jimenez Cerqueda are also in custody. A seventh man, Monfil Avendaño, was also involved and is being held. All seven men are awaiting trial for their involvement in the events of December 14, 2014 in Eloxochitlán.

The rest of the attackers, and Jaime’s wife, Eusebia, the older sister of Manuel, remain in hiding across the region known as the Cañada de Oaxaca.

Recently I was in Eloxochitlán. For this story I talked personally to each and every victim. I saw their homes, walked among the destruction of their businesses and listened as each one told me their stories, many as the tears fell from their eyes.

I saw the closet where Vicente tried to shield his niece Elisa from her attackers. I also saw the holes that a shotgun made in that closet, moments before they fled. I saw the remnants of buildings that people will never be able to rebuild, because the fires burned so hot, the concrete encased rebar melted.
Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Elisa Zepeda
The front of Elisa Zepeda's burned out home.
Locals told me the stores, buildings, cars and trucks smoldered for days. They spoke of looking into the eyes of the aggressors and seeing a level of hate they had never experienced. They spoke of men, drunk on power and aguardiente coming at them with machetes, determined to kill. It was chilling to hear their stories and experience the violence from each of their different perspectives.

As I walked and talked with people, I kept trying to get at the spark that caused the uproar. Was it political? Yes. Was it religious? Yes. Was it personal? Yes. But finally, as I continued to peel back the layers of the onion, I started to understand.

This was about respect. 

Jaime Betanzos and his family were old school. They liked things the way they were. Thinking back to that first election he lost, he wanted to “fix” it, for years a Mexican tradition. When his brother-in-law Manuel, the college graduate and local business leader, would not go along, he felt disrespected. He took it personally. 

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence
A few of the 19 damaged and burned out vehicles from that fateful day.
Thousands of years ago, David, the boy who vanquished Goliath in the biblical epic, became the darling of the kingdom. Saul, the current king, saw that the people were giving much more of their love and respect to David, than to him, the current king. In him burned a jealous desire to set things straight. 

In an attempt to recapture the glory and respect among his people he once had, Saul set about to destroy, and ultimately kill David. He unleashed scores of his soldiers in an attempt to find and finally remove the one person he could never vanquish or conquer.  

Jaime, like Saul, quietly steamed for years. Finally, when he was elected, he decided to get the respect he had always felt he was due. If he could not earn it, he would take it, violently, if need be. Working with many of the other local authorities, Jaime used the town budget to recruit the mob that would ultimately wreak havoc across the town. 

Eloxochitlan, Oaxaca, December 14, Violence, Flores Magon, Ricardo Flores Magon
The monument to Ricardo Flores Magón, in the heart of Eloxochitlán.
Ironically the town recently changed its name from San Antonio Eloxochitlán to Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón after the activist and one of the most revered intellectual leaders of the Mexican Revolution, Ricardo Flores Magón, who was born in the small village.

It was that spirit of change, the same activist spirit that motivated Flores Magón, that inspired Elisa Zepeda and her family. 

Many of the people with whom I spoke shared that they were eager for their little town to get back to normal. They liked it quiet and without much fanfare, or drama. But all them were forced to accept a new reality. Their town could never go back to what was normal. December 14 will always be the day that changed normal for the victims and the residents of Eloxochitlán.

Where do they go from here? That depends on whether the people want to continue the long march into modernity that stands in front of many indigenous communities in Mexico, or if they will retreat, fearful of the kind of change that Jaime Betanzos and his group could never embrace.

Copyright © 2015, Dave Miller, All Rights, Photo and Written, Reserved