by Tim Crutcher
A young girl watched in earnest as a teenager manipulated a small, colorful cube in his hand. Pictures appeared almost like magic as he turned, folded, and reopened the cube. As he showed her the pictures, he told a story. It began with man’s sin and how it separates us from God. Then he showed her a picture of Jesus dying on the Cross and explained how that act of love removes our sin. Another picture showed Jesus rising from the grave, and the teenager talked about the new life Jesus brings. The girl listened intently. She’d heard bits and pieces of this story before, but never in a way that was so clear and so visual. When given the opportunity to pray and ask Jesus into her heart, she did so, and another child of God was born again.
Scenes like this occur often throughout Mexico. Along with the JESUS film, the EvangeCube is one of the more creative ways Mexican Nazarenes are sharing their faith. As they do so, God is growing His church.
Mexico is home to over 100 million people. Almost a third of them are direct descendants of the great Amerindian empires, such as the Aztecs and Mayans, who ruled this part of the world from the time of the Roman Empire to the coming of the Europeans. They inhabit a land of lush jungles and arid deserts and live in the shadows of both ancient ruins and modern, high-tech universities. They have known peace and civil war; some have known wealth, but many more have known only want. The gospel first came to Mexico with the missionaries who accompanied the early European colonists, but the church that was planted struggled as it became just another institution of colonial power instead of a vehicle for divine grace. Teaching about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the message of holiness was almost unheard of in this country. Thankfully, however, the grace of God was still at work, planting seeds, stirring hearts, and opening doors. For part of this work, God arranged the coming of the Church of the Nazarene.
The roots of the Church of the Nazarene in Mexico lie deeper than the denomination itself. Evangelistic outreach in southern Mexico began with the Texas Holiness Association in 1903, five years before they joined with other groups to form the Nazarene Church in 1908 at Pilot Point. These early ministers preached, distributed Bibles, and even translated Scripture into one of the local Amerindian languages. In 1905, God called one of the ministers, Charles Miller, to plant a church in the capital of Mexico City. Despite rumors of revolution and civil unrest in the city, Rev. Miller obeyed. For nearly two years, the Millers held services-sometimes all by themselves. Their perseverance paid off when one day. God connected their work with what He was doing in the life of a young Mexican doctor named Vincente Santin.
Raised in an evangelical home, Dr. Santin had felt a call to preach at an early age. However, he had forsaken that call for a more lucrative career in medicine. On a warm May evening in 1907, he was walking through the plaza on which the Miller’s rented hall stood when he heard the sounds of familiar hymns from his childhood. Drawn by the songs, he entered the hall, heard the message of entire sanctification, and came forward seeking that blessing. Though no one knew it at the time, God was preparing Dr. Santin to be His man of the hour-the one who would see this fledgling holiness church through many dark days.
The dark days were still a few years off, how ever. After the merger of the Texas Holiness Association with other American holiness groups in 1908, more missionaries arrived in Mexico. Several Nazarene families even attempted to found a Nazarene colony near the southern coast of the country. They moved from Texas to help establish the church and set up a printing press for holiness literature. They 4also farmed the land and passed along to the local people their knowledge of the most modern agricultural practices. A couple of doctors even came along to assist in the local hospital. Those heady days of optimism were not to last, however. The hotly contested national elections of 1910 sparked a new era, and by November of that year, the Mexican Revolution had begun.
"When armed militia showed up at his services, Dr. Santin preached messages of sanctification to them."
Because much of the revolutionary fervor was aimed at the Mexican government, which held close ties to the United States, it soon became too dangerous for Americans to remain in the country. In 1911, the Nazarene colony in southern Mexico was abandoned, and the Americans were urged to leave the country. Over the next three years, the Nazarene missionaries were also forced to leave as political and economic conditions worsened. Many wondered if the work would survive. If it had depended on humans, it wouldn’t have. God, however, had already prepared the way and raised up Mexican Nazarene leaders for such a time as this.
After the Millers left Mexico, Dr. Santin became the de facto leader of the Nazarene church in Mexico City. During the bleak years of the revolution, he kept the church open whenever the government or militia forces would let him. When they forbade all religious services, he spent his time going from house to house among his parishioners, preaching to them one family at a time. For a long time, he worked without a salary but still sent regular reports through whatever channels he could to Kansas City. When armed militia showed up at his services, he preached messages of sanctification to them. When the streets became too unsafe at night, he held services during the daylight hours. No matter the obstacle, he stayed at his post. In one letter sent to General Superintendent Hiram F. Reynolds, he reflected on his trials with great optimism. After recording the persecutions of Protestants and Christians in general, he wrote, “But the great religious revival will yet come, and then we will forget all that we have suffered. That a great and powerful revival is coming to Mexico there is no doubt.”
God added to the Mexican work, even in the midst of the challenges of the revolution. Another medical doctor, Dr. C. E. Morales, heard Dr. Santin preach his message on sanctification. As a result, Dr.Morales devoted his life to God and began planting another church in Mexico City. By the time the first American missionary returned to Mexico in 1919, the Nazarene work in the city was thriving. In the rural areas, though, it had all but died out. Periodic unrest kept the American missionaries away, so it was up to the Mexican Nazarenes to revive and expand the work that had languished during the revolution. After their efforts met with only temporary success, Drs. Santin and Morales realized that if the church was going to grow, it needed more well-trained Mexican leaders. Thus the idea for a Nazarene Bible training seminary was born.
Lack of funds didn’t stop the two determined doctors. They volunteered their time and ran the school on whatever monies they could find. Over the next 25 years, young people called to preach moved to Mexico City to take university classes during the day and study theology and the Bible at the Nazarene seminary at night. In that time, the seminary trained the majority of the church’s leaders and many pastors for the work in Mexico.
After the revolution, the new Mexican government struggled both internally and in its relationship with the church groups throughout the country. Officials passed laws that were originally designed the restrict the influence of the Roman Catholic Church but which ended up affecting all denominations. Some of these laws forbade monetary collections in the church and forced congregations to meet in permanent facilities rather than rented ones. These facilities would technically be property of the government, which the church was then allowed to use at the government’s good pleasure.
In the midst of these changes and challenges, the work of the Church of the Nazarene in Mexico continued to advance. In addition to his pastoral and teaching duties, Dr. Santin opened a medical clinic. His work there went a long way toward building goodwill between the government and the church. With help from the international Nazarene Church, a permanent facility for the First Church of the Nazarene in Mexico City was built and dedicated in 1927.
God then began using the Church of the Nazarene to unite other groups with the message of holiness. In 1928, a Nazarene pastor in the south heard of a group meeting for Bible study in a remote mountain village. He traveled for days on the back of a mule to find them. When he did, he shared with them the message of holiness. They responded so positively that the whole group voted to join with the Church of the Nazarene. Despite opposition from the local Roman Catholic community, they reached out to their neighbors, willing to suffer whatever hard-ships they might so others could learn of Christ’s salvation. One of them, Rev. David Sol, eventually became district superintendent of the work in the southeast.
In 1933, a pastor in Guadalajara was banned from his church for preaching scriptural holiness. He and 300 of his parishioners began meeting in houses, despite government regulations against such. They soon adopted a name they felt would positively identify them with Jesus-“Nazarenes.” When a Nazarene visitor from Mexico City discovered the group, the connection was made between them and the larger Church of the Nazarene. The small group was delighted to discover a large international church teaching virtually the same thing they had discovered in Scripture. When the Church of the Nazarene received this group into membership, it suddenly expanded into a whole new area simply because the grace of God had gone before them.
During the 1930s, the Nazarene work continued to advance at a steady rate. New opportunities opened along the United States-Mexico border, and the seminary trained leaders like David Sol and H. T. Reza, both of whom would make significant contributions to the life of the Mexican church in the decades to come. The church established new preaching points, founded new churches, and received many young people who had been called into the ministry and arrived in Mexico City for training. By 1937, the Church of the Nazarene in Mexico consisted of 17 churches with a little over 1,300 members. A group of 12 elders and 19 licensed ministers served as leaders.
Of course the church still had to contend with the occasional government crackdowns on religion. In the state of Tabasco, for instance, the government forbade all preaching. Undaunted, a number of Nazarenes took to becoming “peddlers,” going from house to house with a cartful of trinkets. Once inside, they shared the gospel with the people as they inspected their wares. In Chiapas, all the churches were closed for a time, and the people began meeting outside. When a revival broke out, being outside allowed many more people to hear the gospel than if they were still in the small church buildings.
The decade of the 1940s was a time of readjustment and reorganization for the church in Mexico. As external pressures lessened, internal conflicts developed. Earlier leaders like Dr. Santin retired, and the work in Mexico City slowed and stalled. Even the Bible training school fell on hard times. To ease the tension, the Church of the Nazarene relocated all Spanish language ministerial training to San Antonio, Texas. There the Spanish Nazarene Bible and Missionary Training Institute had been launched under the leadership of H. T. Reza who, ironically enough, had been trained in the institution this one replaced. Dr. Morales returned to pastoral ministry but continued to train groups of students in ministry who couldn’t afford to attend the school in Texas. With these adjustments, the church in Mexico recovered well, and by the early 1950s the Nazarene work in central Mexico had regained its lost momentum.
By the 1950s, technology formed an integral part of the church’s outreach as a Spanish radio pro-gram, La Hora Nazarena (The Nazarene Hour), began broadcasting the messages of Dr. H. T. Reza. Produced in Kansas City and broadcast initially from radio stations in the United States, La Hora Nazarena proved to be a wonderful tool for introducing people to the church. Often when Nazarenes entered a new area of Mexico-as well as other countries of Central America-residents recognized the church and became interested in its message because they had heard this program on the radio.
Through the next several decades, the Church of the Nazarene in Mexico grew in number and expanded into new areas. With the intentional efforts to reach more of the indigenous (and non-Spanish speaking) peoples-and with Mexican pastors and evangelists pioneering many new works-the church reached a milestone in 1969 of 140 churches, almost as many preaching points, and nearly 14,000 members.
All that growth, however, meant that the church needed more trained pastors, especially as the membership grew among educated populations. While the Spanish-American Nazarene Seminary in San Antonio was doing good work, and many people received a good education there, there were still those who couldn’t make the long trip. After some tentative efforts in the late 1970s to establish extension classes from the Nazarene Theological Semi-nary, the church finally authorized a new school, the Seminario Nazareno Mexicano. It soon began holding classes on a new campus outside Mexico City.
Today the Church of the Nazarene in Mexico is thriving. Its growth and maturity can be seen in four main areas. The first is in the exciting innovation of extension education. There have always been more ministers needing education than could easily move to a residential school, and moving the school back from the United States to Mexico only solved part of the problem. So in the mid-1990s, the church decentralized its education work, and today there are four training centers throughout Mexico all under the heading of SENAMEX (as the Seminary is now known). Close to 650 students study in these centers as they prepare to take the Church of the Nazarene in Mexico to even better days.
Another mark of growth has been the national conferences where Mexican Nazarenes from around the country come together for worship and encouragement. The first National Youth Conference was held in 1971 near Mexico City. A National Laymen’s Conference was held in 1974. There a young banker by the name of Samuel Ovando received a call to missions. Two years later, Rev. Ovando became the first Mexican to be officially appointed as a missionary by the international church. He was sent to help pioneer the work in Colombia, South America. In 1983, he returned to his native Mexico to continue the work there until 1999, at which point he left to serve in both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico before retiring from 30 years of missionary service in 2007.
The participation of Rev. Ovando in the international mission work of the church leads us to a third mark of maturity in the Mexican Nazarene Church, namely the way they’ve given to the church at-large. While Mexico has, of course, received many Work and Witness teams from the United States, it has also sent out its own teams, most recently to Haiti, Nicaragua, and Cuba-a place where American teams are forbidden to go. The church has even started a new Border Initiative along the United States-Mexico border to better use its resources to reach new people for Christ. Through that work, Mexican Christians are able to reach out to immigrant communities in the United States.
One final place we see the maturity of the church in Mexico is in the expansion of its districts and its overall growth. Since 1978, Mexico has added, on average, one new district every three years with all of the new areas pioneered by Mexican pastors and evangelists. Today, nearly 50,000 Mexican Nazarenes meet in over 700 churches on 14 districts with additional preaching points scattered through-out the country. Every one of these is a testimony to God’s work and faithfulness. Missionaries helped plant the seeds, national workers nurtured and watered them, but God gave the increase. Best of all, we know He’s not finished yet. As He leads with His grace, the church in Mexico will follow.
-- Taken from Tim Crutcher's Mexico and Central America: A Tapestry of Triumph ( Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 2008). The full article is the first chapter titled "Mexico".