Church finds its ‘embrace’ people group 20 miles away comment (0)
December 5, 2013
Renan, a 10-year-old boy in southern Mexico, isn’t an orphan. But in many ways, he might as well be.
It’s been more than three years since Renan’s parents, bound for the United States, left him in the care of his uncle in Mexico. It likely will be months or even years before he sees them again.
Renan and his family are from the Tijaltepec Mixteco people group in the isolated community of San Pablo Tijaltepec, nestled among the jagged mountains of southern Mexico. Most residents are subsistence farmers, growing the food that their families eat. Because jobs are scarce, many of these Mixtecos leave home to seek work in the U.S.
Until recently, the Tijaltepec Mixteco were a people group yet to be exposed to the gospel. But not anymore.
In 2011, Valley Baptist Church, Bakersfield, Calif., selected the Tijaltepec Mixteco people to “embrace,” accepting the long-term responsibility of reaching them with the gospel.
Valley Baptist faced the initial challenge of choosing from among more than 3,000 unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs) in the world. UUPGs are people groups that have no continual access to the gospel through any evangelical church planting efforts (unengaged) and those in which less than 2 percent of its population is evangelical Christian (unreached).
Members researched people groups via
gettingthere.imbresources.org, an International Mission Board (IMB) website that charts
UUPGs and their locations using dots on a map.
“And the first thing that struck me was how many (UUPGs) were clustered in southern Mexico,” recalled Phil Neighbors, co-pastor at Valley Baptist.
To find out more about the people groups, Neighbors contacted Chris Ammons, an IMB missionary in Mexico that Neighbors had known since they attended seminary at the same time. When Ammons started coordinating a missionary team to serve in the Amazon jungle, Valley began sending short-term teams to work with him — to date, a 15-year partnership that has included more than 70 missions trips.
When the church was ready to “embrace” a people group, Ammons offered to help the church find the best fit.
Not long after that, Ammons visited a rural area called Tijaltepec in the mountains outside Oaxaca, Mexico. After speaking with the residents, he made a stunning discovery. A woman there mentioned she had family in California.
“When she said Bakersfield, I knew God was telling us something,” Ammons said. “I asked other people if they knew anyone [near] Bakersfield, and almost everyone had family there.”
“In the beginning of my missionary career this would have surprised me, but I have seen so many times now that this is just the way God works,” Ammons said.
Astonished at Ammons’ news, Valley Baptist began researching the demographics of the Bakersfield area.
“And to our amazement, we found out that 20–25 miles from us, in a town very close to us, are approximately 700 of our people group,” Neighbors said. “They have the same language, the same culture, and they’ve migrated from Mexico to work in the Central Valley.”
Ammons and his wife, Pam, have trained members of Valley Baptist in church planting in Mexico and continue to offer training to the church in California when the couple is stateside.
As a result of their longstanding partnership, the Ammonses consider Valley Baptist to be their home church.
For the past two years, members of Valley Baptist have held medical clinics, children’s events, worship services and a showing of the JESUS film during several short-term trips to southern Mexico.
Valley’s goal is to not only share the gospel with the Tijaltepec Mixteco but to help them spread God’s Word to “all the other people of the same dialect that are scattered throughout the mountains,” Neighbors said.
Soon after finding Mixtecos in its own “backyard” of California’s Central Valley, the church invited local Mixtecos to attend a joint fellowship event. Four hundred Mixtecos came to the event.
“All of a sudden, 400 of our congregation who were in attendance were on a missions trip in our own building,” Neighbors said of speaking with the Mixtecos one-to-one.
Valley Baptist has begun leading outreach events for the Mixtecos in California, hoping to eventually start a Mixteco church in the area. So far, the church has begun 12 Bible studies among Mixteco immigrants living near Bakersfield.
Juanita Montoya and her husband, John, have helped to start outreach among Mixteco immigrants in California and participated in a missions project among the Tijaltepec Mixteco in southern Mexico. Both of Mexican descent, the Montoyas are part of the Hispanic campus of Valley Baptist.
Most Mixteco in California speak Spanish, so Juanita Montoya’s ability to communicate with them as a native Spanish speaker plays a major part in the church’s evangelism efforts.
But when communicating with Mixteco women in Mexico, she faces the same language barriers shared by any of the Valley Baptist volunteers who don’t speak Spanish. That’s because most Tijaltepec Mixteco women in southern Mexico speak only their indigenous Mixteco language.
“I could say, ‘I can’t teach because of my language,’ or ‘I have an accent’ or all these things,” she said. “But once we start telling the stories, it’s completely different. Now I know that it’s not me, but it’s God in His greatness that says, ‘I can use you.’”
Missions team members have recorded and relayed video messages for family members in both Mexico and California, allowing Mixtecos like Renan’s parents to see their loved ones for the first time in years. The church hopes the gesture will build goodwill in the communities and open doors for sharing the gospel.
“When we ‘embraced’ this people group, that means they’re ours,” Neighbors said. “We’ve never shouldered that kind of responsibility before in a missions work. ... And that’s a heavy burden, but a good burden. We’ve got to do this.”
To learn more about the IMB’s Embrace initiative, visit call2embrace.org.
The Ammonses are serving in Mexico through gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and Cooperative Program. To give to the offering, visit imb.org/offering.