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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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In a series of articles starting with our winter newsletter, we’ve been communicating our vision and stepping through how we see it being realized. In this update, we are covering the essential element of inspiration.

On Easter Sunday, I heard Jeff Peterson, pastor of Central Assembly, speak on the resurrection. In his sermon, he quoted the fictional character, Anne Shirley: “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.” As he mentioned it, I couldn’t help but think of the situation in which Mexico finds itself.

In the year 2000, Mexico was striding boldly into the future. It was emerging from economic crisis and, for the first time in 72 years, had elected a president from an opposition party, a sign that the corruption of the past was giving way to a modern democracy. However, with the war on drugs claiming an estimated 120,000 lives, and recent allegations linking the government to cooperation with the cartels, Mexico is seeing its hopes and dreams buried again.

Still, though the picture may look bleak, it is not beyond redemption. On the first Easter morning, Jesus and the cause He stood for had been dead for three days, His disciples were scattered and in hiding, but, when He arose, everything changed!

In his message, Pastor Jeff brought this home with Job 19:25-26, encouraging us to remember that, even in the darkest of times, our Savior lives to redeem, resurrect, and restore us.

As we return to Mexico one of our key tasks will be to inspire the non-believer to trust this resurrected Christ for their salvation and the believer to follow Him into a life of purpose. This will be our aim on a daily basis, whether we’re meeting with ministry leaders or our our next-door neighbors.

Speaking of inspiring, if you haven’t seen it already, check out the story of Joseph’s first half marathon. I guarantee it’ll be an encouragement.

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The 2013 Mexican Educational Summit

I couldn’t help but smile as over 350 educators, missionaries and Mexicans alike, descended on Cancun for the “Cumbre Educativa 2013: Formación Ministerial Transgeneracional (Educational Summit 2013: Transgenerational Ministry Formation).” It took a coordinated international effort that spanned a sixteen month period of emails, meetings, and errands, but on that day, Monday, August 26, 2013, as the participants began to arrive, all of the hard work was coming to fruition.

There were plenty of reasons for me to be happy. There were teachers, from all different walks of life, gaining access, some for the first time, to sessions designed to help them pass on their faith to the upcoming generation. There was also an enthusiastic response to 18 workshops designed to help the participants better communicate biblical truth and assess the progress of their students. Still, the true motivation for my satisfaction came from what was going on behind the scenes.

As new missionaries, we felt strongly that our plans and projects should be shaped in conjunction with the people that we were going to serve. We dreamed of beginning a journey with our Mexican counterparts to discover God’s vision for this country and then work shoulder to shoulder with them to see it become a reality. It was this dynamic of collaborative ministry that we were seeing come to pass during the months leading up to and during the Cumbre.

It began with a desire on the part of Mexican leadership to increase the importance of ministerial formation in the eyes of the church. They reached out to the missionary community to help shape the desire into a vision, and we were invited from the very earliest stages to have a seat at the table to realize that vision.

As we worked side-by-side on the Saturday prior to the event to assemble the materials that each participant would receive, I looked across the room. There we were, missionaries, national Mexican leadership, and local pastors, teachers and students all collaborating together with the same common goal. It was a beautiful moment even if the heat and the strain had us all looking a bit ragged.

So while I was thrilled that education, something I truly believe in, was being emphasized, I was ecstatic that this emphasis was something that we had envisioned, planned, and executed together. That is certainly a cause for satisfaction.

As I close this post I want to express our gratitude to our Mexican leadership: General Superintendent Abel Flores, Director of the National Christian Education Department, José Saucedo, and his Secretary/Treasurer Fernando Figueroa for inviting us to take a seat at the table as this vision was formed and realized. In addition, I would like to thank Rod and Sherry Boyd, veteran missionaries and directors of the Resource and Advisory Center in Panama who spearheaded and guided this special collaborative effort. ¡Gracias a todos!

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Antonio Gamboa chiding me for not having learned Maya. At times, the plans that we make work out beautifully. On other occasions, things don’t come together in the way we expect. In the fall of 2008, I entered Itzamná, the Maya language school in the center of town, with the goal of getting a functional knowledge of the indigenous language still spoken by a large percentage of the inhabitants of the Yucatan. However, a household accident had one of the Godzwa parental team off of her feet for a few weeks that November, meaning carving out four hours from an already active schedule got increasingly more difficult. Needless to say, that attempt at learning Maya met with failure.

Still the resolve to try again stayed with me. The reasons for learning were solid; drawing near to the people and being able to share the good news of salvation with the Maya community in their own language are goals I consider necessary for long-term ministry success here on the peninsula. Also, returning to the Yucatan, we found that ministry opportunities, from small group sessions to church planting projects, for those who spoke Maya were abundant, so with a bit of chiding from Antonio Gamboa (above) I began my search again for a program to help me gain this essential tool.

This summer, I enrolled in a free class offered by a local university designed to give novices a chance to learn Maya, while giving professors a chance to polish their skills in the classroom. Last week I entered my first class. Each Friday, therefore, I’m being immersed for three hours in Yucatec Maya. From start to finish, we are being taught and asked to respond only in Maya. Needless to say it was a bit of a shock, but my hope is that, at the end of the 15 week course, I’ll be well on my way to realizing the goal that I set for myself in October of 2008: to learn the Maya language.

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A year ago last spring, I was making calls to visit pastors in the KC area. It was my fifth day on the Light-for-the-Lost Tour, and I wanted to see if I would be able to get some face time with missions-minded individuals while I was in town. My goal was to be able to build our support so that we would be able to leave for the field, but God had seen fit on that day to begin a relationship that would have lasting repercussions.

In my calls, I spoke with Brandon Watkiss, Director of Operations for Partnership International, an organization designed to facilitate short-term missions trips. He agreed to meet with me that day to see the ways in which we might partner together. During the hour that we had that day, he spoke to me about monthly support, but he also shared his desire to link missionaries with missions teams in a way that was mutually beneficial to both the ministry of the missionary and to the lives of the team members. We parted encouraged, having both seen the potential of this new relationship.

Pausing for a group photo in Oxcum, where we hosted 80 children on Saturday. Fast forward to late July 2011. Finally, the stage had been set to receive a team from Blue Springs Assembly, a team that had been sent through Partnership International. I had spoken to Brandon previously about the trip, about our need to see the additional building at the Bible Institute finished, and he responded sending a team with a “mind to work.”

The got on the ground on July 24th, and were undaunted by the rough accommodations at the Bible School. Armed with their own bedding, they set themselves up in what would be their home for the next week. They had little experience, but with instruction, they moved quickly on the first day, preparing the roof to receive the concrete that would be poured the next day and getting started on the kitchen walls on the lower floor.

Debbie is trying her hand at mixing concrete, Mexican style.The second day was a marathon of digging, pouring and carrying, as sand, gravel, water, and cement was mixed by the bucket load, time after time in order to pour what was to be the floor of the second level and the ceiling of the lower level. With their persistence and the help of local pastors, the work was done with time to spare before lunch.

The quick work on the first two days enabled us to prepare for the children’s services scheduled in the towns of Oxcum and Kilinché respectively. We spent time in prayer and canvassed the neighborhoods on Wednesday and Thursday in each of the communities, getting to know the both the believers in each congregation and get a concept of the specific challenges that each pastor faced in their ministry.

On Friday, the work stopped on the Bible school, but the ministry moved into full gear as services began. With a combination of songs, dramatized Bible stories, games, and lots of activities, the group effectively communicated their desire to be with each community and direct them toward Jesus, the one who had brought them to share His love in tangible ways with both the children and adults that gathered in each event.

The kids in Kilinché were taking it all in. Some of the highlights of the week came when, in Oxcum, some 80 children participated in Saturday’s event, where we had the chance to pray for many who indicated their desire to be a part of God’s family. Another came on Sunday night where, in Kilinché, two women came forward and committed their lives to Jesus for the very first time!

As we wrapped things up, we got chance to hear from the team members about their experience in the Yucatan. Pastor Jeremy Naranjo shared that the trip had been the realization of a dream that he had had to personally lead a mission’s team. He had faced several obstacles in the past, but he was glad to see how, through Partnership International and the ministry opportunities in the Yucatan, he was able to see this vision come to fruition. Others spoke of the life-changing nature of the trip, from the cohesion of the group itself to eye-opening experience that they had in their face-to-face encounter with the culture of the Yucatan. Each pastor as well expressed their gratitude for the work that had been done. Buildings had been advanced, communities had been opened, and lives had been restored because of their labor.

What Brandon Watkiss and I had seen as potential in the spring of 2010, the linking of missions teams and missionaries to for mutual benefit, has taken its first step toward becoming a reality. It is our prayer that, as we continue to observe the need and the way that God is working in the Yucatan, we’ll be able to utilize teams targeted specifically to advance the kingdom, both in the lives of the individual team members and in the ministries of the pastors and leaders with whom they work.

(Didn’t get enough photos with the post? Check out some more here!)

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The holiday season found us in Orlando, Florida, site of Disney World, for the Latin America/Caribbean Missionary Retreat aptly titled, “Dreams Come True.” It was a gathering of over 600 missionaries, representing countries from the Rio Grande in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south. It was a time of reconnection, worship, and inspiration.

As part of the theme, video clips were shown during the large group meetings, showing how several of our missionary colleagues had seen God help them realize dreams that He had given them. There were those who had planted now thriving churches and those who had birthed ministries that are now international in scope. There were reports of high-powered children’s ministries teams and thriving national missions departments sending missionaries from the mission field to all corners of the world. Truly, things are happening in our region!

Still, for all of the encouragement that such videos bring, I couldn’t help but ask the question, “…and the Godzwas? What have we done in comparison?” The progress that we have made all of a sudden seemed to pale in comparison to the reports of victory being broadcast before our eyes. On top of this, our son Jonathan had come down with a fever, leaving Kelly and I taking shifts staying in the hotel room with him, instead of participating as we had expected.

I was in a funk by the time Doug Clay took the stage to talk about restoring the joy of our calling to the ministry. As he finished his sermon, he asked for those who would like to experience a fresh touch of that joy to meet him at the altar. I walked forward, knowing that that was something I needed. A group gathered around the altar, and after a time of individual prayer, Doug led us in an exercise. He told us to look around and find a partner ten years removed from our age. As I looked to the left, standing beside me as Dale Coad who, 17 years prior, was a missionary on the field in the Dominican Republic where Kelly and I had taken our first short-term missions trip. As the speaker told us to join hands, I reflected on the time I had spent there on the mission field with Dale and his wife Patti. I remembered wondering, as I watched them go through their day to day ministry, “Do I have what it takes to be a like them? Do I have what it takes to be a missionary?” Now I was standing next to him as a co-worker singing, “He has made me glad!”

We then were told to widen the circle, and there, in our group stood Ron Hittenberger, a missionary that attended AGTS with me when I was in the first year of my masters degree program. At that time in my life, the mission field seemed farther away then when I was 18. I had a growing family and an uphill climb to complete my studies, but here we now stood together in our circle, Dale, Ron and I, along with other missionaries, sharing in the joy of the realization of our dream of serving our master on foreign soil.

It was unmistakable. God “opened my eyes” that night to see past the little pity party that I was giving myself. He has made my dream come true. He has completed what He had promised, and what He had confirmed so many times before has become a reality. I am a missionary!

Of course, this is only the beginning. God has bigger dreams, dreams I am only now becoming aware of after spending the last four years on the field. One such dreams is the dream of a relevant, outward-focused, Mexican church that reaches across cultural boundaries and generational assumptions to practice true Christianity in everyday situations. God has done it before in my life and in the lives of so many whose testimony was on display during our retreat; He can do it again.

How about you? What dreams have you seen God bring to fruition? What dreams does God have you dreaming right now?

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Leading Worship

Even after a year and a half here in Mérida, God still finds ways of stretching us. In January, while chatting with pastors before a sectional meeting, our president asked if I played an instrument. I responded that every now and again I played the guitar, while I had considerable experience on the drums. He followed up that question with a request that I lead worship that meeting. Now, I had lead worship in the past, but always in English. (I think the number of choruses that I know on the guitar in Spanish could be counted on one hand.) Therefore, I did what any self-respecting perfectionist would–I put him off, until the next month.

I used that time to gather the some more choruses, practice, and pray. (It’s amazing how the weeks fly when you’re anticipating something like this.) Of course, I second guessed my decision. I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I thought that perhaps the meeting had been canceled for the month, but, regardless of my doubts, the event came. The end result this last Monday certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was a beginning. I was able to sing (staying on key for the majority of the service), play the guitar, and I actually felt that I had led others in worship.

When I began my Spanish classes, I looked forward to the day when I would be able to do this very thing, but for one reason or another, I had put it off. Not enough time, other responsibilities more pressing, the list could go on. Isn’t it great that God doesn’t forget those dreams? In fact, I’ve found He sometimes uses others to push us into realizing them.

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