Note: Because of security concerns and the searchability of the internet, complete names and locations are avoided in this report.
On November 8, eleven members of the To Every Tribe staff and CPCP student body left Los Fresnos, TX for a two-week trip to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (pronounced wuh–hah–kuh). We were accompanied by a dentist, a nurse, and one To Every Tribe missionary who was heading to Oaxaca to join his church planting team there. The purpose of our trip was to conduct four days of medical and dental clinics in the northwestern Oaxaca village of E.J. The trip to E.J. is just over 1,000 miles. Once in Oaxaca, we were joined by our church planting team, two Mexican doctors, and two Mixtecan interpreters who would help us bridge the language barrier between our team’s English and Spanish and E.J.’s Mixtecan dialect.
God’s hand of blessing upon us was evident from the first day that we left south Texas. The trip had been bathed in prayer and fasting. We were deeply aware of the dangers involved in traveling through Mexico, and had sought the Lord’s help in every facet of the trip. A caravan of three vehicles, a trailer, and 14 Americans traveling through Mexico attracts a good deal of attention. But God was gracious, and our trip both to and from Oaxaca was amazingly free of problems of any kind. Throughout the two weeks we could see a clear one-to-one correspondence between our specific prayer requests and the Lord’s intervention to answer those requests.
The main part of our journey to Oaxaca took three days, bringing us to our first major stop—the Oaxacan city where our church planting team is temporarily based. This city is located just 45 miles by road (18 miles as the crow flies) on the other side of the mountain from E.J. On the fourth day of our trip, we made the 5 hour journey over the mountain to E.J. This jaunt took us from 5,500 feet above sea level up and over the mountain’s 9,000 foot peak, and then back down to the 2,500 feet of E.J.
A Mixtec village of about 2,000 people, E.J. has been a ministry target of To Every Tribe for several years. As a ministry, we began to visit E.J. in 2003 and over the years have conducted 6 clinics there. The goal of each of these clinics has been to open doors for the future arrival of a To Every Tribe church planting team. This year’s clinic was especially important for us as we now have a church planting team preparing to move into the village within the next few months.
Ministry in this village is particularly challenging. Access to the village from modern cities over the rugged mountains of Oaxaca is probably one of the lesser challenges. The vowel-abundant Mixtecan dialect spoken there sounds more like a southeast Asian language than Spanish. (Here’s an example of what Mixtec looks like in its written form: Á xîni-un ndáa ndo’ó kití kúú-a.) The life and culture of the Mixtec people seems foreign—even to those of us who feel very comfortable and “at home” in Mexican culture. The people seem distant, their faces hard and their eyes hollow. Their cold, dead-pan gazes seemed totally unresponsive to our smiles and greetings. It only took a few minutes in the village for us to realize that these are people whose lives are hard, who know little joy and peace, and who have no trust of outsiders.
Although there are doubtless numerous historical and cultural causes for this gloomy ethos, the spiritual factor is clearly the most prominent. Mexican Mixtec religion is syncretistic, blending elements of Catholicism and ancient Mixtec animism. Evidence of folk Catholicism mixed with the worship of deities from the local pantheon is abundant—from roadside shrines to the decoration of local graveyards to floral arrangements placed on the front of homes. E.J. still celebrates an elaborate annual ritual honoring “El Señor de la Lluvia” (the Rain God) which includes the building of an altar and the sacrifice of animals whose blood is thrown on the altar.
Undoubtedly the most important and striking fact about the religious life of this and the surrounding Mixtec villages is the total lack of any gospel witness. These Mixtec villagers, classified as “rural peasants” by the Mexican government, form a tribal community that is as “unreached” with the gospel as any other tribal community on any lesser developed continent in the world. What an incredible privilege to be part of bringing them the message of God’s love and grace!
As mentioned earlier, life in the Mixtec villages is hard. Agriculture is important, but difficult in the rugged mountain terrain. Employment is scarce, forcing many men to leave their families and villages to look for jobs in other areas such as Mexico City, Baja California, and the U.S. (southern California). In the 4 days that we were in E.J., I met several people who had been to the U.S. to work. Although the government has made significant steps to improve the livelihood of these people (roads and electricity have been introduced within the last decade), village life is still very dangerous and backward by modern standards. For example, the people still do not use outhouses—facilities are “open air” (which contributes to an abundance of problems with intestinal worms).
Land wars with neighboring villages are a constant source of violence and conflict. Just last month a twelve-year-old boy from E.J. was killed by men from a neighboring village because his family’s corn patch was allegedly located on land controlled by that village. One evening halfway through our visit, two armed men came up to our camp to inform us that there would be some shooting that night down the mountain near the river that our hill overlooked. They said they just wanted to warn us so that we “wouldn’t be afraid” when we heard the gunshots. As predicted, we could hear multiple gunshots at night throughout the remainder of our stay—evidence of the ongoing land conflict that we’d stumbled upon.
Earning the trust and favor of people whose lives and histories are stained with violence and abuse is not easy. But on this trip, by God’s grace, we found the centuries-old barriers begin to tumble. After several years of conducting dental and medical clinics in the village it seems that we have finally “earned the right to be heard.” As the week progressed, we witnessed the people opening up and beginning to smile more and express confidence. Hundreds of personal interactions throughout the week between our team and the people we ministered to provided us with many opportunities to show God’s love in very tangible ways, even if we were generally unable to communicate to them in their own language. In the four days of the clinics, God gave us the grace to minister to over 500 people from E.J. and at least 6 other neighboring villages (one of which was located three hours away in the neighboring state of Guerrero).
God is good, and he is clearly at work in the region of E.J. to make his name and grace famous among people who for hundreds of years have lived with no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Please pray for To Every Tribe as we continue to work among the Mixtec people of northwestern Oaxaca. Pray for “fruit that remains” from our ministry these last two weeks in Oaxaca. And please pray for our church planting team as they seek to move into the village of E.J. within the next few months.
But God’s grace was not only at work in the lives of the villagers of E.J. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this trip was the work of grace that God was carrying out concurrently in the lives of our team. He worked powerfully in us, in some cases confirming our calling and commitment to pioneer church planting, in other cases awakening within us a specific burden for the unreached Mixtec tribes of Oaxaca. Only in eternity will we be able to see the long-term spiritual results of our humble efforts the last two weeks. Soli Deo Gloria.