Steve Crews and his outreach team from Mexican Medical Ministries were loaded up with equipment and supplies as they headed off in four-wheel-drive trucks toward the desolate desert areas outside of Cabo San Lucas. Their intentions far eclipsed their expectations.
"It's a very difficult place to reach people for Christ," Crews said. "They are very suspicious of outsiders. They live out there because they want to be away from people."
Most of the residents live on large ranchos, miles away from neighbors. The only church in town, a small Catholic chapel, operates without a pastor for months until an itinerate priest makes his rounds.
"There was no Christian influence in that community at all," said Crews, who now serves as president of Mexican Medical.
When they arrived in the town they found one pickup, a small public school and few signs of life. Crews and the team jumped out of their vehicles and began to prayer walk the isolated paths.
"A flock of pigs ran out of town," he said, the story of Christ casting out demons into swine an unspoken but immediate image. "I was pretty excited about that."
Moments later the pastor who had hosted the outreach and led the excursion emerged from the government-owned boarding school with 80 children who were giddy for the diversion.
It seems God cared as much about their expectations as their intentions, as the Lord eliminated the topographical barriers by bringing the young people to them.
Throughout the day, the Christian workers shared information about health and conducted screenings of the children. They also shared the gospel through Veggie Tales cartoons and portions of the Jesus film, until the rickety projector broke. The pastor filled in the spontaneous time gap by sharing the Good News.
"All 80 children responded to the gospel here, in an area where it was hard to reach people," Crews said.
School officials welcomed the health information and invited the team to return regularly over the course of the year to instruct the children on how to care for their bodies.
They complemented their health lessons with games and activities, and the children thrived on the attention. The teachers reported that the rugged, rough-and-tumble behavior of the ranch kids began to erode as they showed love and compassion toward one another.
"We realized these children were taking the gospel home with them along with the health lessons," he said. "These kids had dramatically improved their behavior."
Toward the end of that year, Crews recalled arriving at the school to hear the children singing. They shunned the planned activities and gathered around Crews and his guitar.
"The first thing they wanted to do was sing, and all they knew were praises of worship," Crews said, his voice cracking with emotion, years removed from the experience. "They were so excited because all they wanted to do was sing to the Lord."
In the 50 years that Mexican Medical has ministered south of the U.S. border, the stories are as vast and varied as the regions they serve, with missionaries assigned to Tijuana, Ensenada, San Vicente, San Quintin, La Esperanza, Palenque and Loreto. Launched in 1963, the ministry was the brainchild of Loren Long, a pre-med student who felt called to South Baja where rugged dirt roads limited access to both evangelists and doctors. Long moved his family to San Quintin, where they witnessed to the rural ranch owners and the workers who plucked the field by day and slept in adobe structures at night.
They built a small shed they intended to use to teach primary school but instead converted it into a clinic as word spread that Long had medical training. Eventually a Southern California-based pilot became involved bringing in supplies and workers. An ambulance service and new church followed.
"It started very simply with this man and grew from that," said Art Buckle, a retired businessman who has served on the ministry board for 25 years. "There were so many people down there without any medical facilities whatsoever."
On Cinco de Mayo, May 5, the ministry will mark its golden anniversary. The celebration will center on Long's founding vision and Mexican Medical's ability to adapt that vision to the region's pressing needs.
Today, the ministry has more than 30 missionaries, including eight full-timers working at its headquarters. The on-field missionaries raise their own support, while the employees raise about half of their salary.
In addition to regular medical outreaches, the hospital has helped to construct a dozen hospitals, which are now operated independently.
"We go in, equip them, train the staff and turn it over to a national entity," Crews said. "We've been allotted a lot of grace because we have a lot of doctors on the ground. We don't go into this by ourselves."
Non-medical missionaries provide pastoral training and operate Bible schools and an orphanage for disabled children.
"We have a dozen distinct ministries now," he said.
A developing aspect of the ministry is hosting large-scale health fairs in which medical personnel provide clinic assistance and education for the nationals. Hygiene kits with soap, toothbrushes and other toiletries are often distributed.
Responding to the changing needs of American and Canadian volunteers, Mexican Medial is offering more and more weekender outreaches.
"We are genuinely providing tremendous help and hope to people who are really without," Buckle said. "So many times we've been in great need, where we had a crisis, and the Lord is always there."
He dismisses the secular notion of "luck."
"When you know the Lord, you pray," Buckle said. "Then I have to feel that God blesses what we are doing, and we are doing it right. That's what keeps me involved."
For more information on the ministry visit www.mexicanmedical.com.
Short-term missions trip ahead
Mexican Medical Ministries is hosting a variety of short-term missions trips to its locations. In addition to the open trips below, the website has a list of trips by other organizations, some of which are open to other volunteers.
Upcoming Trips to Tijuana:
Aug. 11: Tijuana Brigada
Nov. 17: Tijuana Outreach
Dec. 1: Tijuana Brigada
Upcoming Trips to Palenque:
April 21 to 28: Palenque Surgical Team
June 2 to 9: Palenque Community Outreach
June 8 to 15: Palenque Surgical Team
Upcoming Trips to Loreto:
April 27 to 30: Loreto Weekender
May 25 to 28: Loreto Weekender
June 8 to 11: Loreto Weekender
Oct. 5 to 8: Loreto Weekender
Nov. 2 to 5: Loreto Weekender
Nov. 30 to Dec. 3: Loreto Weekender