MEXICO CITY (BP)–The police were standing around a grimy box on a street in Mexico City.
Southern Baptist missionary Pam Wong and a group of church volunteers spotted them while distributing Gospels in the inner-city neighborhood. When they asked a woman standing nearby what was going on, they were told a homeless man had died on the street the night before.
“He was in a cardboard box. His body was there -– and nobody cared,” Pam recalls.
Of the 9 million people jammed into the centro area of Mexico’s vast capital city, about 80 percent are poor. At least 50,000, according to estimates, live on the streets –- because of drug or alcohol abuse, or joblessness, or both.
“Some have checked out on society,” missionary David Wong, Pam’s husband, explains. “Others, though, truly want work. I met one man who had lost his business, home and everything else in the Cancun area because of a hurricane and could not get back on his feet. Economically in Mexico, it’s hard for the working class to get off the low rung.”
About 300 street people line up weekly for a free meal at a ministry center for the homeless at a church in Mexico City. Southern Baptist missionaries William and Orpha Ortega joined the ministry as part of their larger effort to reach the inner city.
“We have a worship service with them,” William says. “We sing. We give testimonies. We preach the Gospel. After that we feed them. Some of them have come to know Jesus, but it’s very difficult for them to change because they don’t have a place for rehabilitation. We are praying God will provide a place for them” -– not just a shelter, but a place where homeless people needing a new beginning can break free of old habits, grow in Christ and learn basic skills for living.
In the meantime, they need to know someone cares.
That’s why Pam and David Wong got involved. They work with “Operation Gospel Outreach” (“Operation GO” for short), an initiative to mobilize hundreds of Southern Baptist volunteers and short-term missionaries each year to distribute Christ’s message door-to-door throughout Middle America and the Caribbean -– including Mexico City, by far the largest urban center in the region.
The Texas natives were short-term missionaries themselves, serving two terms in the IMB’s International Service Corps before being appointed as career missionaries in 2006.
The homeless, although they don’t have a “door” to knock on, need hope just as much as others.
“I checked with William on whether we could bring a ‘GO’ group to the homeless center and he was all for it,” David says. “The first group just fell in love with the ministry. It’s become one of the highlights of the week [for volunteer groups]. They jump right in and help share the food. Sometimes they preach or share a testimony or sing or do whatever’s needed. But more than anything else, the groups give love –- a hug, a handshake, a smile. The people there are so hungry for some affection and compassion. They’ve been shunned for so long. They feel dirty and neglected. For a group from the United States to come and share speaks volumes.”
A recent ‘GO’ group from First Baptist Church of Gray Gables in Callahan, Fla., included several volunteers who understand some of the struggles of the homeless from personal experience. Warren Hunter freely admitted he used to drink -– “real bad,” as he describes it. Who better to pray over a concerned father and his young adult son struggling with alcohol addiction?
“I can relate to this man and his son because I used to be alcoholic,” Warren says. “I know how bad it can be.”
Warren and 12 other Gray Gables volunteers joined the Wongs and Pastor Arturo, a Mexican Baptist house church leader, to distribute more than 6,000 copies of John’s Gospel. They visited door-to-door, fed the homeless and shared Christ with adults, youth, kids, drug addicts.
“I’ve been in cubbyhole apartments. I’ve knelt down with people in the street and prayed for them,” says Warren, eyes glistening the night before heading home to Florida. “The Holy Spirit has been so strong I had chill bumps. It’s the greatest time I’ve ever had serving my Christ.”
For Pam, one of the most powerful moments of the week came as she was distributing Gospels with Mark Tuso, Gray Gables’ pastor.
“We were walking down the street and there was a man sitting on the sidewalk,” she recounts. “He wanted us to give him a Gospel. He was crying and said he was all alone and had no family. We tried to talk to him, but we knew he could only understand so much. He was drunk and maybe high on drugs. But he was so grateful that we would bend down on our knees and touch his leg and pray for him. He needed that time, just that little bit of time. He said he was going to come and speak with the pastor and get some counseling for his alcoholism.”
Many Southern Baptist volunteers come to Mexico, but the Wongs report it’s hard to get church teams to come to the nation’s sprawling capital. Some fear crime and violence in the city. No recent volunteer groups have been threatened, Pam says, but she spends a lot of time on the Internet assuring nervous churches that it’s OK to come.
“It’s overwhelming,” David Wong acknowledges. “It’s overwhelming when you see so many in poverty, when you see young people taking drugs in broad daylight.
“We just want to give people love, give them a hug and show them there is hope.”
Erich Bridges is a senior writer for the International Mission Board. For more information on “Operation GO” needs and opportunities, visit macregion.org and click on “Volunteers.”