Exciting things are happening in Chiapas, Mexico. Lela and I were blessed to go on a medical mission trip to the town of Ocozocoautla in Mexico’s southern-most state this month. Dr. Jeff Hardesty, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Loma Linda, and an official ministry of Loma Linda University organized the trip. Each year Dr. Hardesty leads a trip to Chiapas with a team of nurses, physicians and allied health professionals as well as anyone else to wants to go along to carry out whatever missionary opportunities God opens. This is the 9th year a team has gone. Lela and I went down separately from the rest of the team, as we needed to bring our three-month-old son, Josiah because he is still nursing. With Josiah so young, we prayed much before deciding to come, as the region does have some malaria risk, as well as a significant history of kidnapping. To minimize his exposure, we came down three days after everyone else and arrived the evening before the medical outreach was to begin.
Our travel itinerary included dropping off our three older children, Hadassah, Nathaniel and Moriah, with Lela’s parents who live in Phoenix, and who were kind enough to carry out a mission of their own by taking care of them while we were out of country. Then we traveled to Los Angeles where we caught our flight to Mexico City. Here a miracle occurred. We had to go through customs before catching our connecting flight to Tuxtla-Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas. If you have ever traveled with us, you known that we always plan ahead, and we bring anything we might need. On this trip, we especially wanted to be prepared to get our three-month-old jewel safely through a week in the mission field (stove, bottle/pump sterilizer, sani-wipes, Clorox wipes, mosquito netting, baby toys, stroller, car seat, bassinet, inflatable baby tub, medicine, thermometer, medications for any condition that might occur, blankets, changes of clothes, diapers, etc.) plus enough clean American food to feed us for a week, PLUS literature. We knew that we were going to be meeting with El Presidente de Ocozocoautla (the mayor of the town where the team carried out its medical mission), so, in addition to the magazines on health, the birth and life of Christ, and the Sabbath which were to be given out to all of the patients and family members and which were generously supplied by Ron Goss of Project Restore, we also brought two cases of full-text Spirit of Prophecy books, all in Spanish, of course, to be given El Presidente as well as the members of his cabinet and other administrators with whom the team interacted.
In Mexico City, we had to deplane, go through immigration, find our luggage, go through customs, re-check in and go back through security in time to board again. By the time we had all of our carry-on items plus our gate-checked items and made it down to customs, we found a line in front of us that snaked back and forth, filling a room about 25 by 25 meters. The time was 3:30 pm, and our connecting flight was set to depart at 4:45 pm, and on Aeromexico, airline personnel seem to like boarding early. This was only the first line where we would have to wait in in order to get through the process by 4:45, and from the looks of things, there was no way we were even going to make it through the first line by 4:45. We had been praying quite a lot before and during the trip, and we needed a miracle if we were going to make it to our destination to join the rest of the team and not get stuck in Mexico City. Lela went over to talk to an official standing off to the side. He looked at us and then the line in front of us, and told her that she was not going to make her flight. Then, looking at Josiah he said, “But for the baby, follow me.” Walking past the enormous line full of people, one-by-one he moved the line barrier pylons to the side just enough to allow us to pass by, stroller and all, and delivered us to the immigration official who examined our passports. In the next warehouse-sized room, we had to find our luggage and get it to the customs agent at the far end of the building. Out of nowhere, two men with carts appeared and told us to come with them. Quickly they led us to the right area where we found the luggage from our plane. The men had not even asked for the name of our city of departure. Passing by all of the large, scary dogs sniffing for South-American contraband, they picked up our bags. Then a woman appeared who began talking to Lela. Lela told her why we were going to Chiapas with a medical team that was already at our destination, and she took us right to the customs official. Because we were bringing our own food, when I filled out the customs form, I had checked the first box which indicated that I was attempting to carry either food, dangerous chemicals or insects into the county. Despite this potential problem, a short conversation between this mystery woman and the customs official, and the official had signed off on our baggage, four suitcases and three suspicious-looking boxes and all, and the men were whisking us through some double doors out of customs.
Now we needed to get checked in for our next flight. Again, out of nowhere, a man appeared and told us to follow him. He asked no questions, but took us down a hall which seemed to be going the opposite direction that someone had indicated we needed to go, up an elevator and down the corridor to the ticket counter, past another giant line, and to the front. Dropping us off at the ticket counter, he gave some quick instructions to us as well as the ticket agent and was gone. Including immigration and customs, this all took about seven minutes, and it was a good thing, because when we got to our gate, passengers were already boarding, and the plane taxied away from the gate several minutes early. After finding our seats, we bowed our heads and thanked God for His blatant miracle in getting us safely on our flight, but as we were about to learn, this miracle was small compared to the work God is doing in the region we were to visit.
Once in Tuxtla-Gutiérrez, we were picked up at the airport by a retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor named Pastor Pedro. Fortunately, he had driven his pickup-truck. During the hour-and-a-half drive to Ocozocoautla, we had time to learn about the work God has been doing in Chiapas. The people of Chiapas are very poor, hence our mission trip to provide medical and surgical care that they would otherwise be unable to obtain. Many of the people are indigenous, descendants of the Maya civilization. The population of the state of Chiapas is just under five million and, to the praise of God, in some areas, as many as an incredible 42% are Seventh-day Adventists! In Tuxtla-Gutiérrez alone, there are over 300 churches and we later learned that they need 40-50 more! There are nowhere near enough pastors to go around, so most pastors shepherd between 20-30 churches each! Nonetheless, by God’s blessing, the growth continues. Unbeknown to us, on Sabbath, one week before our arrival, Elder Ted Wilson had had the privilege of speaking at a special service celebrating and promoting religious freedom and liberty of conscience held in a soccer stadium attended by 25,000 people: 20,000 Seventh-day Adventist members plus “cinco mil” [5,000] more brothers and sisters who were baptized that day! Prior to coming to work in Chiapas just over 25 years ago, Pastor Pedro had worked as a pastor in California for 17 years. He said he came to Chiapas because the need for workers was so great. He also told us that 25 years ago, when he was working for the Chiapas Union, there were only 80,000 Seventh-day Adventists, and now, there are 218,000 members on the books with estimates as high as 300,000 in attendance on Sabbaths! Pastor Pedro said that the church is growing because of Bible studies, Daniel and Revelation seminars, and members sharing the three-angels’ messages with their neighbors. He explained the growth with the word, “laicos,” which refers to lay people working to spread God’s truth. Each church is participating to finish the work.
Every day we were in Ocozocoautla, our group was divided into a medical and a surgical team. Those on the medical team went to the clinic where hundreds of men, women and children came to be treated. Due to the poverty of the region, some suffer months or years with no relief from health conditions, so patients were very appreciative, and many traveled great distances to receive help. Many of the patients had brought their children with them, and these children were able to attend a special children’s program where they received coloring books about health which depicted the eight laws of health. They were artfully illustrated by Sarah Esslinger. Betty Gilbert, from Phoenix Arizona, who has dedicated her life to ministering to children through cradle roll, was unable to go on the trip, but beforehand she spent days making special, colorful take home items portraying the second coming and other Bible themes. These were gladly received and prized by the children in Chiapas. Meanwhile the surgical team went to the hospital in Ocozocoautla and performed hysterectomies, bladder suspensions, cholecystectomies, hernia repairs and other much needed surgical procedures. Pastor Eloy, chaplain for the trip, made sure that each patient received magazines containing precious truth. Eager to learn more, some patients asked for multiple different magazines or for extra copies for a friend. Some patients had unusual or advanced conditions that we do not often encounter in the United States such as a woman with a 6-pound fibroid uterus (usual weight is 2-3 ounces). She was very appreciative to have this taken out of her belly. Another patient had the unfortunate finding of cancer which had spread to different parts of her belly. In addition to optimal tumor debulking, she also received counseling and literature on what she can do with her diet and lifestyle to help her fight the cancer, as well as the wonderful news of a crucified and risen Savior.
The day before the team left, the mayor of Ocozocoautla gave a special thank you dinner for the team which he attended as well as his cabinet members. He gave his personal testimony on how God had given him victory over alcoholism, and he also declared that he believed that God had put him in office in order to help facilitate the care that his citizens were receiving from our team. Wonderful groundwork was laid for further cooperation between his office and our church in Chiapas, and the mayor expressed much gratitude for what the church is doing. With much appreciation, each official received a copy of El Ministerio de Curación [Ministry of Healing], and the local pastors were given a case of El Gran Conflicto for future distribution. Please pray that the important seeds of truth contained in these books will find fertile ground in the hearts of these men and women, and that God will bless and give the increase, and that the church will continue to grow in Chiapas (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Thinking back, now, about the trip, two things strike me most about the people of Chiapas, and one is how readily they received the literature that we brought. For instance, there were always quite a few people outside the hospital each day as we came and went, so we would pass out present truth magazines to them. Not once did anyone turn down a magazine, and when we came back out of the hospital, the people were always reading the magazines, and I never saw one magazine on the ground or in the trash. It occurs to me that we have the Bible and the other writings inspired by the Spirit of Prophecy, namely, the writings of Ellen White. Do we value these as much as the people of Chiapas treasured their magazines? Do we allow hours to pass watching television or doing frivolous surfing on the internet or social media when we could be spending that time reading and coming closer to God? Perhaps it is time to rethink how we spend our free time. The other lesson I took home was the importance of each of us working as God’s laicos—His lay workers—by actively seeking opportunities to share with our neighbors, friends and associates the Bible’s message of love and warning that God has given us as a people. And it may even be that these two lessons fit together, such that the more we treasure and spend time with God personally, the more we would have to share with those with whom God puts us in contact, so I’m making a commitment to God to spend more personal time with Him in the morning each day, so that I can be more useful to Him the rest of the day. Do you want to make that commitment too?