Bullets, banõs and baptisms: All in a day's work for a Mexican missionary
For over 40 years, Eleazar Garza Rodriguez, from the small Eastern Mexico town of Padilla, has been a pastor and missionary. He’s established over 40 missions across 3 Mexican states, in the farming communities of Tamaulipas, the Indian villages of San Luis Potosi and in the mountains of Veracruz. Most of the missions are in poor, rural pueblos, which most often serve as the only church for the local villagers, as well as a source of much needed food and clothing.
I’ve heard of the remarkable mission work of Eleazar’s ministry, Ecos del Calvario, for some time and couldn’t wait to take part. On my first day in Padilla, Eleazar and I had made plans to visit two of the nearby missions in the pueblos of Mariano Escobedo and La Campesina. Eleazar came by early in the morning. Both were having church services that day starting at 2 p.m.. However, first he had to go out early to the mission in Mariano Escobedo, not yet completed, to do some work on the bathroom. I have had a little experience doing some bathroom remodeling and volunteered to help.
When we arrived at the mission, I soon realized I wouldn’t get to show off my carpentry skills. The bathroom was a 5 foot hole in the ground filled a third of the way with rainwater. It needed to be dug down to 9 feet, but first the water had to be drained. Eleazar, dressed to preach in slacks, dress shoes and a golf shirt, didn’t hesitate to climb down, shoes still on and up to mid calf in mud, and start bailing water. Once drained, he started digging and handed up buckets full of mud. Not to be left unmentioned, this was Mexico in July and it was hot. I remember thinking how many American pastors would be in the ministry if climbing into muddy holes and digging during the summer heat was part of their regular job description.
One of the villagers came to help. I learned the man had been an alcoholic for some time. He had found God at the mission, and was now two months sober, and putting his back into the Lord’s work with Eleazar. The three of us took turns down in the hole, digging. I thought I was being the sensible one by taking off my shoes before I got down in the mud. I soon found out the dirt was full of jagged limestone, like broken glass on my bare feet. I toughed the morning out, not to be outworked, even if just for a short time, by Eleazar who is 62 years old compared to my 38 years. I held my own, and although we didn’t count the bucket loads, I’m embarrassed to say I probably came in third.
I looked at my watch and noticed it was 1:45 p.m.. I thought the service started at 2 p.m., but must have been mistaken, since we were filthy and still needed to get cleaned up first. Soon after, Eleazar announced the hole was deep enough. I took a moment to take a few pictures before we went back home to shower up, so I thought. By the time I took three shots, with a rag and bucket of rainwater, Eleazar had gone from being covered in mud, to looking as good as he did when he picked me up that morning.
“Time to go to church,” Eleazar said.
As we pulled up to the mission at La Campesina, people were walking up, and although very poor, were very nicely dressed. Then there was me. Although I had done my best to imitate Eleazar’s masterful transformation at the rain bucket, I was still sweaty and dirty. Worried more about being rude than looking and smelling badly, I greeted everyone. The people were so kind and gracious. They ignored my outward appearance as all the men took turns shaking my hand and the women kissing my cheek.
Church services in the missions typically are during the day, with travel by night being too dangerous. The mission is a simple one room cinder block building. It is big enough to hold about 50 people comfortably. This service was about half full. The only air conditioning is the many open windows along each side. It was warm, but surprisingly much cooler than outside. There are tile floors, white walls and ceiling, a stage and podium. It is modestly decorated and was sparkling clean. It is clear upon first look this is a house of worship and fellowship.
The service opened with praise and worship led by Eleazar on the accordion. A few of the parishioners took turns singing solos. There were no hymnals, just a spiral notebook with handwritten songs. It was a simple, back to basics service, and the presence of the Holy Spirit was strong. Eleazar’s sermon was about letting God be in control and not having a spirit of fear, but trusting in the Lord, which is exactly what I had been dealing with in my own heart. He went on to say some kind words about me. Eleazar reminded the congregation that because of the fear all around, no American missionaries had been coming to that area for some time. Eleazar told them that although there had been a recent sequence of violent events, I had still come and was an example of trusting God. I was moved by his compliment.
Eleazar asked me to say a few words and not to worry about my rough exterior. At that moment I could not remember what I had prepared to say, and could only speak what my heart was feeling. In my fledgling Spanish, I told them of how humbling the trip and the day had been. I admitted that although I was dirty and tired, I was grateful to learn from Eleazar what working for the Lord truly is. And even though the Lord gave me the courage to not let fear stop me from making this short trip, their courage was an everyday part of life. I told them as I stood there I felt small, but glad, because God was reminding me how great He is. They were examples of living faith that most the rest of us only read about. In the car ride back, Eleazar shared the good news that 2 people had accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts that day.
Eleazar had not exaggerated the truth about trusting God for protection on the trip. A recent string of violence had almost cut off our visit before we even arrived. It had been just two days before, as I was driving toward McAllen, TX, preparing to cross the border the next morning, Eleazar called to warn me. There had been some kidnappings in Padilla. An entire family and two school teachers were taken the night before. Also that same day, in the nearby city of Victoria, a car bomb killed two police officers. Now many of the soldiers stationed in Padilla were leaving. They had been stationed there since last year, when on Valentine’s Day, 2011, 18 people were massacred. 7 bodies were dropped at the town center as gunmen sprayed the government building and streets with bullets. 11 more were shot and killed, several innocent women and children bystanders were among the dead.
The truth is I was scared by the rampant violence, as anyone should be. Now there had been more tragic events. I had made up my mind not to go. Not only was my life on the line, but my wife and mother-in-law were traveling with me. It just so happens that in addition to being a pastor and missionary I admire, Eleazar is family as well. He is my uncle on my wife’s side. My mother-in-law was raised in Padilla. In addition to visiting the missions and bringing needed clothes and bibles, we wanted to visit our relatives in Mexico, whom my wife and mother hadn’t seen in many years and whom I had never met.
In light of the latest tragedies, our first impulse was that this is a warning signaling us not to go. We decided at the very least to deliver the supplies to Eleazar in McAllen, and take the rest of the evening to pray. By that night, something happened. My wife and I listened to a bible lesson while Mom read her bible. We talked before bed and realized we all had been studying the book of Daniel. The message: Although He easily could have, God didn’t keep Daniel from the lion’s den. Instead He allowed Daniel to be thrown in, yet protected him. God used that moment to demonstrate His power. We knew God was asking us,
“When you say you trust me, you think of your home, finances, jobs and daily decisions, but do you trust me all the way with your own life and the lives of your family?”
We knew God wanted us to demonstrate our complete faith. We were not going to let the enemy intimidate us with a spirit of fear and keep us from going where the Lord has sent us. He had blessings there waiting. We released all our worries to the Lord and He brought a spirit of peace over us. God kept his promise. For six days, we visited the missions and churches, hand delivered food, clothes and bibles, worshiped and prayed alongside the people, and we never saw or even heard of any violence while we were there. Wherever we went we were welcomed with open arms. Many families shared their homes, broke bread with us, and shared their stories. The people may not have had much, but their generosity was bountiful.
As wonderful as the experience was, we didn’t just see everything through rose colored glasses for the entire trip. There came a moment when we did see signs of some of the struggles God’s children in Mexico face. On the fourth day we went to visit the nearby, much larger city of Victoria, near the mountains. Our cousin was playing in a softball game, which the family never misses. Afterwards, we decided to do some shopping at the downtown market. As we drew closer, and the streets more crowded, we began to see signs that reminded us there is much work for a missionary to be done in Mexico.
First, we came across some transsexuals, apparently workers in Mexico's sex industry. Next, there was a woman who walked by in large sunglasses, an abuse victim with bruises too large to hide on her badly beaten face. Once inside the market, we came to a section of booths with shrines of a skeleton shrouded in robes and displayed on alters. The strong odor of the various herbs and incense for burning during rituals were sold alongside the idols and religious symbols. All was for prayer to the Santa Muerte, the deity of a cult who worships the dead. The cult is particularly popular with the members of the drug cartels, and has boomed in popularity over the last decade among all the violence and death in Mexico. This is the only point of the trip that we felt uncomfortable and immediately left and returned to Padilla.
We left with the realization that Mexico has become a nation which in large part has turned from God. It is terribly oppressed by the enemy. Too many have become trapped by violence, idol worship, greed and so many other sinful ways. A road the U.S. is unfortunately headed down as well and not so far behind. The good news is this only further demonstrates the daily trust and devotion of those who have remained faithful to the Lord. Among the Mexican people who have not forgotten Jesus, one senses a pure spirit of thankfulness for His salvation. That same appreciation for His sacrifice and mercy is found less these days in the comfortable pews of the churches from Mexico’s neighbor to the north.
Back at the church in Padilla, Rosa de Sharon, Eleazar’s home church that he pastors, the service that Saturday night lifted our Spirits. The entire family takes part in the church ceremonies at Padilla. They have services Wednesday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday mornings. Eleazar’s son-in-law, Fran Cuevas, is the Assistant Pastor, and delivers the sermon for the Saturday night services. Fran and his wife Abigail are also the youth pastors. They have a very vibrant youth ministry and working with the teenage boys and girls of Padilla is some of the church’s most important work. Teens are particularly vulnerable to the many evil influences that will take them if they are not prepared with the Armor of God. The youths take part at every church service. The church also has a volleyball court that is packed every night with young people that play, fellowship and keep out of trouble. On weekends they play soccer. The church of Padilla and it’s neighbors maintain a true sense of community as God intended, something we in the U.S. have lost with our busy, impersonal lives.
Our last day in Padilla, Sunday, was a special day. Eleazar planned a baptismal ceremony after church. It was a powerful service in which the entire youth group dressed in beautiful costumes and performed song and dance worship. Eleazar delivered a moving sermon from John 1:29-34 (NKJV),
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
After the service, the entire congregation met at the nearby river. The group gathered and sang on the banks of the lush Rio Purificacion. In clear, crystal blue waters Eleazar baptized nine that day, including myself. Once finished, with the sun shining on our faces, we stood together holding hands in the cool river and smiled as all the community watching over us cheered and gave a joyful praise to our King.
If you would like more information about Eleazar Garza Rodriguez, help the missions of the Ecos del Calvario ministry, or invite Eleazar as a guest speaker, email email@example.com or visit Ecos del Calvario online.
For more articles by Aaron Russell visit MenofMind.com.
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