MEXICO CITY (BP)–Israel leans back against a cast-iron gate on the streets of Mexico City’s Tepito barrio. With arms crossed in front of his chest and head bowed in prayer, he shifts his weight, then wipes a tear from his eye.
Mauricio Rojas knows the feeling. He was once in Israel’s shoes.
The drug addictions that enslave Israel once trapped Mauricio. Standing at Israel’s side, Mauricio gives the young man his address and tells him to stop by whenever he wants.
“Christ can do anything,” Mauricio says. “He got me out of the trash, and He can do the same for you.”
In Mexico City, a city of 28 million, Israel is one of countless young people battling drugs in a barrio with rampant drug trafficking, prostitution and a thriving black market. The presence of evil-spirit worship and animistic cults makes the darkness of barrios such as Tepito seem oppressive.
While other missionaries concentrate on areas outside the city proper, William and Orpha Ortega are the only International Mission Board missionaries among an estimated 9 million people living in Mexico City’s inner city. The task before them and believers like Mauricio is great.
With five inner-city missionary opportunities available in Mexico City alone, Tom Benson*, a regional strategy associate for the IMB, estimates 20 job requests have yet to be filled in urban centers across the country.
“We have to go where the people are,” Tom says. “We have entire hidden cities within cities that are yet to have a serious Gospel witness.”
For the Ortegas, the spiritual darkness of Tepito can be overwhelming, but it’s also the primary reason they chose to serve here.
“When God called us to Mexico City, it was a great lesson for us because we came to a place where the people are dying without Christ, without hope,” William says. “What I’m trying to do is just a small part of what needs to be done.”
Orpha, a Texas native, had been a summer missionary to Mexico. She and William, from Costa Rica, were involved in ministry and education in North Carolina and Utah before becoming IMB missionaries.
When the Ortegas and their two daughters moved to Mexico City in 1999, they began working on the periphery of the city. After a fellow missionary asked the couple to develop creative ways to reach the inner city, they began to venture into areas like Tepito.
Orpha composed a lengthy list of outreach strategies. Brnson liked them and asked the Ortegas to consider shifting their focus to the inner city to implement them.
“We prayed with the idea of saying, ‘No thanks. It’s too much for us,'” Orpha says. “But we continued praying.”
Since mid-2006, William and Orpha have worked alongside believers in Mexico City like Mauricio to plant churches in the inner city. With five house churches and four outreach groups started in areas like Tepito, Orpha says the greatest problem is not the lack of a harvest, but the lack of laborers for the harvest.
“Our goal is to reach Tepito, and we cannot do that alone,” William says.
William and Orpha understand how fear can easily deter those who would serve. In fact, the Ortegas still remember their own fears and hesitations about serving in crime-ridden areas of the inner city.
“Being afraid is normal,” Orpha says. “We just prayed and asked God to give us a peace because someone has to do it.”
Maria Martinez, a self-proclaimed witch in Tepito, stands beside the painted symbols on the sidewalk marking the entrance to a shrine of Santa Muerte (holy death).
Maria believes that by standing on the white markings she will receive purification, cleansing and protection from her enemies.
“We believe that whatever we ask, she will give it to us,” Maria says of the saint.
Standing before a plastic skeleton topped by a black wig and blue gown, cult worshippers cross themselves and place their hands on the glass window enclosing the shrine. Candy, flowers and candles litter the base of the altar where others bow in reverence.
With an estimated 700 Santa Muerte shrines and 2 million cult followers throughout Mexico City, William and Orpha realize the battle for the souls of those living in the inner city is not against flesh and blood.
“We know [the enemy] we’re going against,” Orpha says, “and we know in whose name we’re going –- and He is greater.”
Kristen Hiller is a writer-photographer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.