Missions

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Three thousand miles apart, two different dreams began to take shape. For Bruce Kunkle in Cambridge Springs, PA, it was a dream of providing a safe place for kids to have fun on church grounds, a kind of a first step for those who would later hear about, and ultimately accept the love of Jesus as experienced through the teachings and actions of a caring congregation. For the people of the church El Mesias in Chicxulub Pueblo and their pastor, Isidro Dzul, it was to let the the 200+ kids that they minister to during their Vacation Bible School have a place to blow off some steam between lessons. On May 8th, those two dreams converged and Parque El Mesías was born.

The work began months earlier as conceptual drawings were made and materials selected. All of this was definitely out of my comfort zone. There were trips to local parks, sessions with handymen to brainstorm, and visits to several local hardware and building supply stores. Finally, the decisions were made and the supplies purchased. The work began on that Mother’s Day Sunday, May 8th.

When we arrived, we were a bit overwhelmed by how much work there was to be done to prep the site. There were rocks to clear, there was ground to be leveled, and there were holes to be dug. Still, our spirits lifted when we saw the response of the church, a whole team of men and women arrived that morning and worked through the day with us to help make progress.

This same spirit of collaboration held strong throughout the week as the ladies of the church took turn to provide meals and men either took off work or came by afterwords to help with the hard labor. And hard labor it was, as the sun bore down and temperatures soared to 104 degrees! Still, the work went on: digging sawing, welding, moving, leveling until the park began to take shape. Bruce, even though he was hardly used to the sweltering temperatures, worked long days to make sure the work would be finished.

Of course, the thankfulness of the congregation made all of the difficulty more than worth it. On Friday night, the last evening that Bruce would be there, the children surprised us with a special farewell service. Some had made signs for the event, others gave gifts and cards, everyone had a word to say to those who had helped make their dream of a park come true. Never had I seen such an outpouring of gratitude in my ten years as a missionary in Mexico.

Are we going to be dedicating ourselves to building parks from now on? Hardly. Still, I wouldn’t say that this project was a distraction from our vision of the Yucatan Peninsula full of churches, diverse in class, status, education, and language but united in their love for the Lord and for one another. As I reflect upon our time in Chicxulub Pueblo, I would venture to say that, for that week, we became that vision as men and women, adults and children, Mexicans and Americans worked together with a common purpose, transforming a barren field into a welcoming park, bustling with activity. All of that and the opportunity to make dreams come true? I’ll say yes to that any day of the week.

Take a look for yourself and see if you’re not convinced as well.

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imageIt was a scene from a past generation. Huipiles (a traditional Mayan dress) and guayaberas (AKA Mexican wedding shirts) were on display everywhere you looked. Traditional music, played by guitars, drums, and a an accompanying conch filled the air. The language of choice? Maya. It was Mayan Night at the district missions convention and a time of celebration of the heritage of the residents of the Yucatan peninsula.

The church has come far to be able to put on such a display at a major event like this one. Although events like the 2012 prophecies have done much much to help revive an interest in all things Mayan, one does not have to move too far into the past to find negative attitudes toward the Mayan way of life, thinking of it as anachronistic, and those who felt that speaking the language as a sign of ignorance or a lack of education. This embrace of the Mayan culture, therefore, is a sign of just how much these old attitudes have changed.

Nevertheless, even though our dress and the principle language spoken called us to remember the past, the subject of the conversation: the unfinished task of the Great Commission, encouraged us to look toward the future and partner with God who is in mission, beyond the borders of the peninsula, even around the world. I was privileged to be a part of this latter effort as I gave a conference entitled, “Crossing Cultural Barriers.” In it, I encouraged the Yucatecan church to move past the divisions that separate us from making a worldwide impact through compassionate, incarnational ministry as we unashamedly point our listeners toward Christ. We do this I said, because of God’s universality, the mandate we have been given, the blessing that comes from obedience to that calling, and because of the fact that God is already there working among the various cultures, calling them to repentance and faith in Him.

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The conferences, therefore, as well as the cross-cultural missionaries present and the calls for involvement in mission on a local, national, and international level were an encouraging sign of this traditionally Mayan culture’s desire to be involved in God’s redemptive plan. The second evening showed just how strong it was. Two songs into the service, the power went out to the whole block. The service continued without missing a beat, and the people, without even fans to keep them cool, stayed to witness a missionary parade illuminated by cellphones and a sermon encouraging short term missions involvement amplified by a gas powered generator.

In all, it was a wonderful event. Upon reflection, I see it as a blend of gratitude for a culture that God has redeemed and an affirmation of the increasing role that this culture must play in God’s worldwide mission in the years to come.

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From March 5th through the 12th, students across the United States were celebrating their Spring Break. Many of them planned to catch up on some much needed rest. Others were on their way to more exotic destinations, but one group of students had different plans. Sure, they started out as many of their peers, making their way from Dulles International Airport to Cancun, but the rest of their itinerary was drastically different. They skipped the parties to take up paint brushes and cashed in their chance at sleeping in for the opportunity to spread some joy to the people of the Yucatan.

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Yes, just last week we had the pleasure of hosting a combined Spring Break team of Chi Alpha students from American and Virginia Commonwealth Universities. The team of 14 students and staff, including my twin brother Mike, worked together with Bible school students at Instituto Bíblico Bethel to advance our construction project and give the existing buildings a much needed fresh coat of paint. They ministered in area churches, blessing congregations with their songs, skits, testimonies, and messages. They also spent time in Sierra Papacal, preparing the church land for upcoming construction while hosting services for children and adults alike.

But these Chi Alpha teams are valuable for more than what they leave behind, be it roof raised, or a wall painted, or a service celebrated. They serve as catalysts for new and continuing ministry.

Through our eight years working with short term missions trips, we’ve seen how they’ve facilitated pivotal relationships with people that we count as partners to this day. We’ve watched as their foreign investment has encouraged nationals to move forward to complete the work they they had begun, and we’ve witnessed how their example has been emulated by others who have been touched by their ministry.

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This trip was no exception. Interested in investigating the situation of students in secular universities in Mexico, Mike had asked me if I could coordinate a time of prayer and fellowship with a group of students on a local college campus. We held a meeting at the School of Architecture that was to last for only two hours. Instead, it stretched to more than three as the blended group of students worshiped together, encouraged one another and prayed for each other.

Come to find out, it was a shot in the arm for the campus fellowship that we visited. Having gone through a time of transition, they were having difficulty meeting and were at the point of disbanding. Rosy, a university employee who had been serving as a sort of sponsor for the group, thanked God for the timeliness of their visit and expressed a renewed vision for rejuvenating the flagging ministry.

So 14 students returned home last Saturday, perhaps a bit worse for the wear–maybe walking more slowly across their campuses or dozing in some of their classes. It’s to be expected; they didn’t have a vacation, they were participating in catalyzation, and we along with many others here in the Yucatan are grateful that they did!

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As we begin the New Year, we normally do it with good intentions. We see the possibility of a fresh start and shoot for the moon when it comes to making our resolutions. Then, reality hits and we find that it takes much more than good intentions to accomplish our plans. If we’re to reach our goals in 2016, it’s going to take perseverance.

That’s exactly what I’d like to share with you today: the story of one teen’s perseverance that has enabled him to reach a milestone in his young life and be a blessing at the same time.

Meet Dominic Juarez. He emailed me in late September of 2015:

I’m a member of the Royal Rangers at BVCC in Chula Vista California. We are currently working to complete our GLOBAL MISSIONS merit. One of the merit requirements is to send a CARE PACKAGE to a foreign missionary supported by our church – Bonita Valley Community Church in Bonita California. I picked you. Therefore, I’m sending this email in the hope that there are some things from here in the United States that you would enjoy receiving (FedEx or DHL) there in Mexico?

Now, while we live in a modern city and have access to many products from the US because of free trade agreements, there are certain items that we have difficulty buying here in Mérida. And, while we could certainly live without them, it is a blessing when we have opportunity to get them. For our kids, these amount to candy corn and jelly beans, to Kelly and myself, Bengal Spice Tea by Celestial Seasonings.

These products made up the list of items that we had sent off to Dominic. Of course, understanding that shipping to Mexico is a complicated procedure, we sent him the list with the resignation that the items might, in fact, never reach us. So, it was without surprise that we received this email from him a month later:

I wanted to give you an update on the care package we promised. We have purchased the goodies, but it has been a challenge getting it out to you. We were not aware of the regulations of international shipping. Since we live near the border, we drove into Tijuana to ship from DHL there. That seemed like the easiest and least expensive route. Not quite, so we brought the goodies back to San Diego. Then we did ship from San Diego using UPS. Well they neglected to inform us of Mexico’s consumable goods restrictions. UPS emailed today that the package is being Returned to Sender. Apparently we need some kind of authorization notice from Mexican Customs to ship candy, WOW. Just to let you know that we have not given up. We’ll try again and keep you updated.

We’d appreciated his intention, but when 2015 came to a close, we had assumed that the obstacles were, in fact, too great, and that he’d had to give up on his desire to bless us, perhaps even on receiving his Global Missions Merit. Imagine our surprise then, when an unexpected delivery reached our door just yesterday. As I signed for the delivery, I asked myself, “Could it be Dominic’s package?” As Kelly, Rebekah, and I opened it and found the items that we had listed, we were sure that it was.

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We sent a thank you email right away including the photos that you’ve seen above. To that, Manny’s father wrote the following:

…thank you for being part of Dominic’s path to his Gold Medal Award with Royal Rangers.
He kept reminding me of this to keep his word to you and to the Lord. You have made a difference in this young man.

He included the following picture of Dominic receiving his Silver Medal Award, a milestone on his path toward the Gold.

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Dominic’s determination and perseverance in the face of difficulty enabled him to find solutions to the problems that arose and helped him to keep his promise, reach his goal, and be a blessing.

How are you determining to be a Dominic in 2016? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.

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I sat there in the audience as I heard the report. It was Missions Sunday and we were hearing from a recently returned missions intern. Like many other missions interns she had been sent to a remote, indigenous village. However, in this particular case, the work in that village had been going on there for 20+ years. She also reported that village was nearly 50% Christian. This information made me scratch my head. Why would she be sent there? She was sent there because the church had been without a pastor for two years. There was no one who had wanted to “go” to that poor, remote village.

I wondered if I was the only one hearing her talk. I wanted to ask, after twenty years, weren’t there those among the village qualified to take up leadership of the congregation, especially if half of the population professed Christ? Had the discipleship process been so slow that, even after all that time, there was no one who could serve as the pastor? By calling on a missionary to fulfill that role, were they dooming the work to remain a foreign one, one that would continue to need outside resources to even survive?

Still, as I reflect on some of the works that we’ve observed, even had a hand in planning, I have to admit, there are several that are dependent on foreign resources and personnel just to stay afloat. And while, in many of those cases, we can marvel at the testimony of change in individual lives, the organization fails to fulfill its potential, because it’s been held back by its “overprotective parents” or its unsustainable model.

“There’s got to be a better way,” we’ve told ourselves, and we believe we’ve found that way. In our summer 2015 newsletter, I spoke about a training seminar that Kelly had taken called “CHE.” Since that time, both of us have had the opportunity to receive training, and we’re now at the point of putting our training into practice.

CHE or Community Health Evangelism is a system that enables a community to take responsibility for their own holistic well-being (physical, emotional, and spiritual). Limiting outside resources, CHE empowers participants to discover biblical personal wellness and strive to make their community a better place to live. It’s decidedly low-tech with a view to invite grassroots participation from the very beginning and to train up leaders to take over the program soon after it begins.

Since our time in Tixpehual, seeing the slow progress that the A/G has made in that town, we’ve asked ourselves if that community of roughly 3400 people would be a good place to begin a CHE community. We’ve investigated and determined that the interest was there to move forward. This coming Friday, November 13, we begin a vision seminar designed to explain CHE’s potential.

Can we guarantee that CHE will be the answer to the slow, halting progress in Tixpehual? In a word, no, but we can begin well through CHE. Through it we can help its leaders and participants to understand that the gospel can and will grow. It will grow when we realize that it is an integrated message that brings wellness to the whole person and when we personally engage in applying that message to our situation.

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Often, the call of God leads us to distant shores and far off lands, but Rangel Vasquez’s story proves that sometimes it can lead us right back home.

His story begins in Tzucacab, a municipality in the south of Yucatan where he was born. He wasn’t there for long, though, as the need in his family and the economic opportunity that offered life in the capital city caused his parents to pull up roots and relocate to Merida. Nevertheless, it was there, hours away from his ancestral home, that God was preparing his heart for the return journey.

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The preparation began at “Instituto Bíblico Bethel” both academically and spiritually. It was there, in my evangelism class as a first year student, that he expressed a stirring in his heart for missions among the indigenous of Mexico. As we would begin the day in prayer, he would often ask us to intercede for him that he might receive direction as he explored what the Lord was doing in his heart and life.

Still, even with a desire to minister to indigenous people like the Maya among whom he was born, the path to his current place of ministry was not direct. In fact, it would take him some 1,700 miles in the other direction to serve with his wife Claudia in the Sierras of the state of Chihuahua as house parents for a children’s home and church planters among the Tarahumara Indians of that region.

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Life among them was difficult. They lived from day to day, praying for God’s provision so that they would have food enough to provide for the children and something left over for themselves. Water for drinking was scarce, for bathing even more so, and the weather was extreme, but God was faithful to keep them and give them success. In their time there, they had worked to forge a growing community of disciples, eager to know their Lord more fully, and serve those around them.

Their time in service gave way to three months of formal training in CEMAD, the Center for Missiological Studies of the Assemblies of God, where they learned the theological underpinnings for their calling as well as a practical methodology for cross cultural ministry. Still, as their training came to a close, they needed to make a decision to stay in the Sierras or return to the Yucatan.

We talked during this time, as we too needed to make a decision. The time was drawing near for us to depart for itineration, and we needed someone to serve as a liaison for our ministry in our absence, coordinating both information and resources. That, coupled with an endorsement to serve as district missionaries in the state of Yucatan cemented their decision to return. Even so, they were unprepared for what would happen next.

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As they returned in late 2013, God began to deal with Rangel about a place called Tigre Grande. It’s a small obscure village, a town you only pass through on purpose. It’s located in the south of Yucatan near the border with Campeche, and it just so happens to be the the municipality of Tzucacab.

Unable to shake his premonition to visit the town, he took an exploratory trip. As he arrived he greeted the villagers, going house to house and probing their interest in the gospel message that he hoped to share among them. What he found out was even beyond his wildest expectations.

The town had once had a budding congregation. A church in a neighboring village had built a small meeting place, and several villagers had begun to attend, but floodwaters that had come in 2002, washed away most of the town. The villagers scattered to find refuge after the devastation, and the small congregation had to be disbanded. Later, the town was relocated to higher ground, but the church remained just a memory, that is until Rangel’s arrival.

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The people greeted his investigation with interest. Not only were they eager to find out when he would begin, they were ready to participate. It was as though they had been waiting for him for eleven years, but it was much more than a homecoming for this wandering native of Tzucacab, it was the closing of the circle and the confirmation of the Lord’s direction in his life.

Rangel and Claudia continue the work in Tigre Grande, ministering holistically to the needs of the community as they communicate the Good News on a weekly basis with encouraging results, but they’re not content to limit themselves to that community. They’re convinced that the seeds that they are planting are meant to grow, and have set their sights on the entire region, taking steps now to plant churches in neighboring communities.

Were honored to partner with missionaries and church planters like Rangel Vazquez. They play a critical role in the fulfillment of the vision of the Yucatan peninsula full of churches, diverse class, status, education, and language but united in their love for the Lord and one another. As we tour the United States sharing about the Yucatan, we long to return to continue our labor with them.

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Mexico to Missouri

It’s been quite a ride for us since our last update. We’ve moved five times and only just this week have begun to settle into what will be our home for our year of itineration. Our first move came as we vacated our field housing in preparation for departure. Our second was our flight to Springfield where Kelly was greeted with her driver’s exam. (Her license had expired while we were away, so she needed to pass both the written and the road tests.) Then we were off to Erie, PA for a month of reconnecting with family and supporting churches. The fifth move was our trip back to Missouri just in time for the A/G Centennial celebration. Finally, we vacated our temporary housing and came to rest on the west side of Springfield, in the Willard school district.

As we prayed with the kids on the night before their first day in American public schools, I reflected on all of the movements and couldn’t help but be thankful both to God and to those He used to make our relocations possible. There were so many crucial moments, so many opportunities for things to go wrong, but with His help, and the help of those so moved to respond to our need, we passed from moment to moment without fail.

Of course, you could ask the question, “What would cause a middle-aged man to uproot his family and move away from his field of calling?” To which I would respond, “To go back.”

We’ve come to the US and traveled the miles so that we might connect with you and share with you the burden that we carry for Mexico, but also the joy that we experience as we walk in obedience to Christ and His calling. We do so to raise support: prayer and financial, so that we might minister more effectively. We do so also to call others into obedience to Christ as He stirs the hearts and lives of those who would follow, some to Latin America, others to other regions in the world, for we know that the task is great, but the workers few.

But such a return trip is not without risks. We risk the possibility of the doors of opportunity being closed to our stateside ministry. We risk the inability to raise our necessary support in order to return. We understand these risks and face them, with honesty but also with determination, knowing that the same God who enabled us to return, will be faithful in sending us back as He works his miracles on our behalf, many of those through the hands of those He has assembled in partnership around us.

Thanks, then, to those who have received us and to those who will soon extend this favor. Thanks for allowing us the opportunity to connect with you and to enter, if for just a moment, into relationship, to be an instrument through which God might move you to fulfill the unfinished task.

‘Til all know,

Dave and Kelly

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“Imagine” is a song written by John Lennon. In it, he encourages us to dream about a world without absolutes, divisions or possessions. The hope, it seems, is that this idea might somehow motivate us to make this world a better place. It’s a nice thought, and a pretty catchy song as well, evidenced by the fact its popularity has bridged at least three generations. Nevertheless, the reality that the three generations who have known the song have experienced proves that the song’s premise is flawed. To make the world a better place, we must move beyond our imagination and the self righteous criticism of that which we deem to be the problem. True, vision is required, but we must have a firm grip on reality while we work to put thought to action. Ironically, we find the the ones who are doing just that are the ones that “Imagine” criticizes the most.

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This past week, in the town of Sucua, Ecuador, I had a chance to meet with fellow missionaries, representatives of true religion, all of whom are committed to not simply making the world a better place, but to its very transformation. There, we took part in the first ever A/G Latin American/Caribbean Consultation on Unreached People Groups (UPGs)

The UPG Consultation was an opportunity to hear about what was taking place, assess what has yet to be done, and to pray and strategize to accomplish the Unfinished Task.  There was a sense of celebration as we saw what was being gained through missionaries Joil and Leah Marbut, who have spearheaded an effort to reach the Shuars of southern Ecuador. There was a sense of urgency as we heard of the over 400 different people groups comprised of over 16 million individuals without an adequate witness of hope, and there was a sense of determination as we committed ourselves in prayer and purpose to reaching those groups.

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There was no avoiding the historical significance of the event either. Taking place on the centennial anniversary of the General Council of the Assemblies of God that would establish that organization as the proponent of “the greatest evangelism that the world has ever seen,” it was fitting that we were reevaluating our mission to accomplish that goal. In the heart of the country where, almost 60 years prior, five missionaries gave their lives to reach the isolated and violent Huaoroni, known as the Auca (savage) people, it was appropriate that we would dedicate anew our lives to continuing that work.

Still, as we left that place, we knew that what was accomplished there would not be enough. As we said our goodbyes and made our way by car, bus, or plane to our adoptive homes, we turned ourselves to work– to reach, to plant, to touch, and to equip lives in order to fulfill our role in the extension of the Kingdom of God. We had met to gain perspective, but we go to wholeheartedly engage with the One who is able to do more than we could ask or imagine through our coordinated effort.

Interested in seeing more? Take a look at our gallery of photos from the event.

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Why Am I Here?

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The sky is a slate gray, and the rain is falling sideways. At one point the winds were blowing hard enough to knock us down. In the middle of all of this weather, I asked myself, “Why would anyone want to be in Cancun at a time like this?”

Although it might have all of the earmarks of a relief trip, my stay here was in fact about something far more powerful. I was in Cancun last week, braving the bad weather, to support the 3rd World Missions Congress. The purpose of this congress was to increase missions awareness throughout Latin America and to increase Latino involvement in missions from a comparative drizzle to a downpour.

Although the weather had been less than desirable, was beautiful to see the lessons that we are teaching in the Bible School and preaching in churches about missions reinforced in each service. Dick Brogden, A/G missionary and leader of the Live Dead movement in Cairo, Egypt, gave a call for volunteers, saying, “We need you.” Our Executive Director of Assemblies of God World Missions, Greg Mundis, spoke passionately of our obligation to evangelize the world.

What a joy it was to see, at the close of Greg’s message, the dozens of Latinos, many attendees from Mexico, respond to the call to fulfill that obligation. Even more fulfilling was seeing the excitement in the eyes of those with whom I was speaking, some of them my former students, as they talked about what God is doing throughout the world and about how they wanted to be a part.

This event was all about coming full circle in the missions world. As I have mentioned in previous posts, Jesus’ plan for world evangelism is for those who had been blessed by the gospel to be a blessing to others. Throughout this congress, Latinos, traditional receivers of the blessings of missions, have been hearing and responding to this challenge to fulfill their obligation to be a blessing as well.

Let’s pray for an increase in Latino involvement in missions!

  1. For an infilling of the Spirit throughout Latin America and especially in Mexico. The Holy Spirit is The Spirit of Missions. As we are increasingly filled with the Spirit we will be empowered to do the work of missions around the world.
  2. For an increased intercession. In Luke 10:2, Jesus tells his disciples to pray for workers, but directly afterwards, he sends out those very same disciples. Increased intercession yields increased sensitivity to the voice of God and the call to missions.
  3. For the defeat of the poverty mentality. Mexicans give only 7 dollars per church per month to missions. It’s that low not because we don’t have; it’s that low because we’ve believed the lie that says we don’t.

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Summit 2013

Not this group! (Proverbs 27:17)

If there was any doubt that we belonged to a vanguard mission organization, that was dispelled last week during our Association of Caribbean and Latin American Missionary Educators’ (ACLAME) Summit.  As part of the ACLAME Leadership team, I was called upon to help organize this biennial event which brought together 52 individuals from 7 different countries.

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During our time together, we received a word from our Executive Director, Greg Mundis, who cast vision for what he sees as a bright future for world evangelism, a task in which he sees educators playing a key role.  Still, that was only one of several sessions that have left an indelible mark on those who attended. Paul Kazim, Mexico Area Director (photo left) spoke from Leviticus 19, reminding us that holiness is essentially taking on the characteristics of God. Assemblies of God Theological Seminary Professor, DeLonn Rance, challenged us to “live at the edge,” responding to God’s call to reach all nations.

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These and several others blended their voices to encourage us and to strengthen the calling that each of us carries to pass on what we have received. (2 Timothy 2:2) What happened during those critical days is the essence of Proverbs 27:17–men and women, joining together so that each one might be improved or “perfected” into a more useful tool in the Master’s hands. This same blessing we desire to pass on to our Mexican colleagues. 

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In the month of August, we will be holding the first ever Mexican Education Summit (bottom graphic), an international effort that seeks to raise the bar in ministerial formation. Plans are coming into shape to host over 400 Bible School directors and professors from across the country. We’re praying that the event serves to motivate all who attend to dedicate themselves to the task of raising up leaders for this crucial time.

Also, this month, we are looking forward to graduation ceremonies at Instituto Biblico Bethel. In all, eleven students will be participating in the commencement activities, looking forward to launch out into the ministries for which they have been trained.

Can you pray with us for these events?

  1. For the Mexican Education Summit, that it would be well attended, and that those who attend would be challenged to dedicate themselves even more fully to the task of discipleship and ministerial formation.
  2. For our recent graduates, that they would launch out into service around the state, reaching the lost, discipling those who believe and encouraging others to do the same

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