Unity and Work

by Juan Sarmiento

How can we serve our at-risk communities in Christ’s name while bringing people together, promoting better health and opening new economic opportunities? Can our churches be involved in those things in our communities without generating reliance on outside resources that create dependency? Many of us ask ourselves those questions. I believe that what a group from The Outreach Foundation has been experiencing in what is known as the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico may be a source of wisdom.

One night after a delicious meal, we realized that all the participants in the group are involved in various forms of creative urban ministry in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Louisville. Each one is faced with the hard realities of fragmented families and communities, unemployment, crime, teenage pregnancies, discrimination, substance abuse, poor health, and hopelessness. By being here we have had the opportunity of participating in and reflecting on an exciting movement that has brought, among other things, the gift of safe water to around five hundred families. It has both challenged some of our assumptions about mission and exposed us to approaches that may be helpful for us to consider.

Very fittingly we spent most waking hours at a village called “Unidad y Trabajo” (Spanish for Unity and Work). Around half of its population of 151 people have migrated from other states, 22% are indigenous Mexicans, 15% cannot read or write and the average education is fourth grade. In addition, the water that can be drawn here is not fit for human consumption or agriculture. Government efforts to bring water from other regions have failed. People from the village had encountered a Ch’ol Presbyterian farmer named Victor who plays a leading role in addressing the lack of water in the region. They requested that Victor come and help them build six cisterns in the village. The lack of cell phone and internet reception in the area does not prevent the spread of the reputation of these people of faith who are so committed to demonstrating Christ’s love.

A volcano eruption in their native Chiapas and better economic opportunities caused many Ch’ol people to move to this area more than three decades ago. They have faced the hardships of adapting to a different culture and being seen as strangers. Victor and our other gracious hosts are dedicated to serving these communities and showing them Christ’s love by inviting them to address one of their most pressing issues. The Outreach Foundation has come alongside by joining in the support of Todd and Maria Luke and by inviting people in the United States to contribute towards the costs of building the cisterns (calculated at $1,800 each). However, it is required that the families receiving a cistern join the team building it and the other cisterns in their community. The fact that families are expected to repay the building costs contributes towards a sense of ownership and dignity. The funds are used in the ongoing maintenance of the systems and other operational costs such as equipment and part-time compensation to the Mexican staff.

This is the first group trip sponsored by The Outreach Foundation to the region. Like many of the groups that have come over the years, most of what we have done has consisted of observing and listening as we fill buckets of gravel and sand. By working with the team of Ch’ol Presbyterians and the people that are getting the cisterns, we have also been part of the type of interactions that open doors for talking about the living waters that God offers. Although we will not stay long enough to see the completed cisterns, we are glad to know that nearly one-fifth of the people of Unidad y Trabajo will directly benefit from having access to safe water. More importantly, we know that our Presbyterian friends will continue cultivating relationships in that village and sharing the message of Christ in culturally appropriate ways. As Raul, a Ch’ol Presbyterian elder who is also part of the team has expressed, “each cistern is like a seed that God plants. We just need to remain faithful and apply God’s wisdom.”

We have truly enjoyed the amazing hospitality of Todd and our new Ch’ol friends. Because of it, we have been able to gain a better understanding of the growing Presbyterian church here, to worship together and to collaborate with its ministry. We have been part of the unity and work of God’s kingdom being manifested amid very challenging circumstances. Along with that, we have been touched by the transforming power of serving together, of recognizing how powerful it can be when we are willing to join efforts in the type of partnership that focuses on how the Holy Spirit is already at work through individuals and communities. This week has helped us learn things about unity and work that we did not anticipate. As we head back to the United States, we take with us new visions of what our participation in God’s work may look like in our own communities and the world.

Juan Sarmiento
Associate Director for Mission