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Americans ready to risk lives to save souls in Monterrey, Mexico

MONTERREY, Mexico — Pastor Andres Garza had told the American evangelicals to stay away from his troubled city. The drug war made it too difficult to guarantee their safety.

But now they were back, in their golf shirts and sensible shoes and halting Spanish, happily milling around Monterrey’s new headquarters for evangelical Presbyterians.

Garza smiled at his old friends. Al Couch, 81, a retired pharmaceutical salesman from Nashville, had come here so many times in the past that he’d earned the nickname “Monterrey Jack.” But this was his first time back since Garza had warned the Americans early last year that the violence had grown too intense.

Retired pastor Rod Whited had made the trip from Jacksonville, Fla. When his church learned it was unsafe to send church groups across the border, it hosted a “reverse mission,” welcoming Mexican teenagers to the U.S.

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A pastor from Guadalajara led a prayer over the coffee and chilaquiles. The visitors, about 15 of them, dug into breakfast in the small courtyard, chatting with a few missionaries and Mexican preachers, before touring the city.

The way Garza saw it, the Americans’ return on this September weekend was part of an epic spiritual battle for a city, like Babylon, that had fallen into decadence and was in need of salvation. There was also a little of Jesus’ story in their visit.

“They came from a very secure place, the way Jesus came from heaven, to a place that isn’t very secure,” he said — and they had come to save souls.

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Monterrey, the wealthy business hub of northern Mexico, was once one of this country’s safer big cities, and residents still go to the movies, attend gallery openings and pack the taquerias on weekend afternoons. But murders, kidnappings, shootouts and shakedowns are also a fact of life.

Sometimes the violence falls close to home: About three years ago, Garza said, four men were shot outside his house in the middle-class neighborhood of Cumbres.

But Garza, 47, a big, fair-haired man with a broad smile and an easy demeanor, was feeling confident about protecting his guests. He had been studying the violence closely, and he believed he had a good idea where it was happening and how to avoid it.

Just as important, he and his American colleagues didn’t want the locals to think that American missionaries came only when times were good.

The visitors, many of them older men who head up their churches’ mission operations, had decided they needed to check on the progress of the churches they had been supporting financially. In the last 12 years, American donations have helped establish about a dozen new evangelical Presbyterian churches in northern Mexico. Garza’s organization, the Center for Church Planting, was hoping to organize more.

Some of the Americans were also eager to see Monterrey to decide whether it was safe to start sending back mission groups that had been fixtures in Garza’s churches.

The groups had been the indefatigable foot soldiers for the movement, popping down for a week or so at a time to pray and paint and hang drywall in the little storefront churches, with the hope of recruiting fresh troops in a majority-Catholic country that is not always so open to the Protestant message.

This new contingent of Americans had come even though the killing had not stopped. Here in the border state of Nuevo Leon, officials recorded 1,111 “intentional” homicides for the first eight months of 2012 — more than four times the total in 2009.

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Most of the Americans figured they would be safe because they were short-timers with no connection to the drug world. Over breakfast, they spoke with a common strain of fatalism: Who’s to say I won’t get hit by a bus back in San Antonio? Or murdered in my sleep in Dallas?

“I pray they’ll keep us safe,” said Montana resident Jim Routson, 61. “But when your time’s up, your time’s up.”

There was talk of the renowned Protestant missionaries who had spread the Gospel in dangerous places in times past: Adoniram Judson, who survived a wretched imprisonment in 19th century Burma. Jim Elliot, slain, in 1956, by Waodani warriors in the jungles of Ecuador.

“Once you’re not afraid of death,” said Whited, 76, the retired pastor, “life gets a lot easier.”

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Garza led the Americans to their vans, and they were whisked across Monterrey, long the most Americanized of Mexican cities. They took in the familiar suburban blur: highways and feeder roads, parking lots and shopping malls, a McDonald’s and a Costco and a Chrysler dealership.

Occasionally, military pickup trucks trundled by with soldiers behind mounted machine guns.

That morning at the Americans’ downtown hotel, the newspapers were filled with the typically macabre stories: the former politician whose corpse had been discovered early in the week, the bureaucrat whose body had turned up a day later, the five people shot to death at a taxi stand the day before.

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The federal police bivouacked in the hotel, and in the morning, the lobby was choked with officers in storm-trooper body armor, toting semiautomatic rifles, waiting to deploy to their street-corner assignments.

Clutching his Spanish-English Bible, Bruce Swimley, 59, of Billings, Mont., watched them while waiting for the church vans. He seemed to be following the advice of Proverbs, which teaches that a merry heart doeth good like a medicine:

“Well,” he said optimistically, “you notice the police presence, and you feel very safe.”

Garza, who was called to the pulpit after working as an urban planner, said that changes in his hometown were harder to see — though no less real.

This used to be a place, he said, where displays of wealth were openly flaunted. Now anyone who flashed a diamond ring would be considered a fool.

Materialism is out. Spiritual yearning is in. “The violence generates fear,” the 47-year-old said, “and that generates the need for hope.”

American Christians — called to the mission fields of northern Mexico — believe the need for their services has never been greater. But they have to be realistic about the risks. The drug-related violence has convinced some American missionaries to pack up and return home, and forced others to abandon troubled border cities.

Some, who stayed, paid a price: In January 2011, missionary Nancy Davis was fatally shot in the back of the head after her husband failed to stop at an illegal roadblock south of Reynosa. This year, American missionaries John and Wanda Casias were strangled in their home near Monterrey.

Tim Holliday helps run a border ministry for Mission to the World, the international outreach arm of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America and a key partner with Garza’s Center for Church Planting. When he talks to churches, he tells them that daily life isn’t as bad as they’ve heard on the news.

“I also tell them that nothing’s bad,” he said, “until something bad happens.”

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The visitors toured church after church: Iglesia Encuentro con Dios, next to a 7-Eleven, and Iglesia Cumbres del Rey, next to a karaoke disco lounge. The Mexican preachers told them about their efforts to heal broken families and feed the hungry.

In a tough neighborhood called Jardines de Monterrey, a pastor boasted that he’d been preaching to the troops on patrol.

In the working-class suburb of Garcia, pastor Teodoro Contreras welcomed them into Vida Nueva Christian Center: a small, freshly painted room with folding tables, a television and a quilted cross.

“These people,” Contreras said in Spanish, as he watched the visitors file in. “What necessity do they have to be here? They could be in North Carolina, or some other safe place.”

Contreras, 38, walked to the front of the room. He did not mention that the members of his church regularly ask God to intervene in the cases of their disappeared or kidnapped family members.

Instead, he showed them a homemade video, set to a Christian-rock soundtrack, of the evangelists who had come before and helped his cause.

He told them that Garcia was a growing suburb with many new souls that needed saving. He asked them to pray for him as he tried to find a way to rent out the bottom floor.

Garza interjected. The city of Garcia, he told the visitors, “was one of the areas where the violence has hit in the past. Four blocks from here, they tried to kill the mayor.”

Actually, Contreras corrected, they had tried to kill the mayor twice.

There was a pause.

Then Garza spoke: “There’s a lot of need for hope and the Gospel here.”

richard.fausset@latimes.com


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