Mexico: Ministry amid the drug wars

By Reed Hoppe

The presence of drug cartels has plagued Mexico for decades. March 2010 saw a dramatic rise in the number of violent deaths in Mexico as two of the largest drug cartels declared war on one another.

More than 22,700 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels after assuming office nearly four years ago. More than 2,000 were killed in the first quarter of 2010 alone. Ciudad Juarez, located across the border from El Paso, Texas, is one of the most violent cities in the world. More than 2,600 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez in 2009.

Mexico supplies 70 percent of the illegal drugs that enter the U.S. each year. The U.S. is the largest consumer of Mexican-produced marijuana, as well as a major consumer of methamphetamine, heroine, and cocaine.

The violent drug wars have hit close to home for the six Mission Society missionaries and their children who serve in Monterrey, Mexico. These missionaries are involved in teaching at John Wesley Methodist Seminary, children’s ministry, ESL classes, outreach to the “garbage people,” evangelism, and discipleship.

Many short-term teams have canceled trips due to the increase in violence and the travel warning issued by the U.S. Department of State. Without the short-term teams that usually flood Mexico each year, there will be a drastic change in the ministries in which Mexican churches have traditionally been involved.

“From Mexico to southern Chile, mission teams have left their mark on the Church,” explains Mission Society missionary Jon Herrin, “in the form of schools, church buildings, medical clinics, Bible schools, micro-businesses, Bibles, clothes, and friendships. These teams have come to do more than just build things. When teams are planned and managed well, relationships are formed. It is through those relationships that we can most surely and effectively share the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.”

Herrin encourages short-term teams from the U.S. to come to Mexico to minister. “We invite teams to come to Monterrey, to work side-by-side with the Mexican nationals in the development and repair of infrastructure, to share the love of God,” he says. “If we believed there was a serious risk to one’s life, we would never invite people to come.”

Ministries have been affected in other ways as well. It is dangerous to travel to remote areas because of the cartels’ prominence on major roadways, so assistance is not getting to rural areas. Most people do not venture out after dark, which has cut down on the evening activities churches offer, such as Bible studies, discipleship groups, and outreach. Several pastors ministering in the border towns have received death threats as well.

But not all of the news is bad. One of the annual conferences of the Methodist Church, which included Monterrey and most of the border towns, took place during the first week of June. Churches reported a 2.3 percent net growth since the violence began. “Because of the rise in violence, the uncertainty of each day, people are asking those eternal questions,” reports Herrin.

Bonnie Hipwell, a Mission Society missionary in Mexico, recounted an encouraging story from a pastor in the conference. One of the pastors with which Hipwell works, had her home riddled with bullets during a gun battle between the Mexican army and cartel members. One bullet came through the wall into one of the bedrooms where her daughter had been sleeping moments before. Elena told her husband that she wanted to leave and take the family to a less dangerous area. He responded, “Why would we want to leave this place? This is where God is protecting us!” Hipwell reports that Elena’s preaching has been electrified by the realization of God’s presence and the church is seeking after the Lord.

Herrin adds, “One of the things that has hampered the gospel in many places is the failure of believers to actually live what they say they believe. We say we believe that God is in control. We say we believe the Bible. However, when we live cowering in fear of the economic disaster that has befallen us, or if we hide in our houses on this side of the border because of an increase in unpredictable violence, our testimony falls flat.”

Bonnie Hipwell has prayed for years for revival to come to Mexico. She hopes that the current situation will encourage people to turn to the Lord. She said, “It’s a tough time to be in Mexico, but it’s an amazing time as we see God at work here. We as Christians are called to be the light of the world. If all the Christians leave Mexico, the light leaves Mexico, and the enemy has won. So we need to stay and stand our ground. This is a spiritual war.”

Reed Haigler Hoppe serves as an associate editor for The Mission Society and is an ordained deacon in the Alabama-West Florida annual conference of the United Methodist Church.