Bringing mission back to church

written by Nicole James

Despite being a trained veterinarian and volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT), Sam Castro spends his days sandwiched between his computer and a bright blue backdrop, working as a video medical interpreter for hospitals. “I like it because it gives me plenty of time to be involved in church,” the 32-year-old from Mexico said. Running a veterinarian practice, on the other hand, would have required him to be available for emergencies almost 24/7.

The fact that he now uses English to make a living goes back to his childhood, when Sam said his parents showed him God’s love by sacrificing some things for themselves in order to afford tuition at a private Christian school for Sam and his brother. There, the boys learnt not only Biblical values but also English. “My dad always said that, ‘If you want to get involved in missions, you've got to know English,’” Sam shared. “Now, here I am, and it has been the basic tool for me to get involved in missions.”

Sam’s newest ministry opportunity—translating materials for OM from English into Spanish—resulted from his early language training, but his ongoing passion for missions comes from even earlier in his childhood. His father was a leader for OM in Mexico, and “when we were kids, we were always going from summer conference to Christmas outreach to Easter outreach,” Sam remembered. “We were always around missionaries that would come [visit].”

Sam himself served with OM on the ship, Logos Hope, from 2013-2016. When he returned home to Pachuca, Mexico, the leadership team at his church appointed him head of its missions ministry. By that time, the church’s previous missions ministry had dissolved, so Sam had to start from scratch.

Start with prayer

First, he and two friends began meeting weekly for prayer. They asked God for short, medium and long-term goals to reintroduce the church to mission. Then they invited people from their church of about 150 to join them.

“People started coming to the mission ministry gathering, and little-by-little, we started doing things,” Sam explained. For one month in the summer, they set up a coffee shop in the church and shared stories and testimonies from workers serving in other countries. Around Christmas, they collected small toys, colouring books and other items from people in the church and, after adding candy and a gospel brochure, distributed them to children in smaller towns in the mountains.

Over the course of 2019, Sam and the missions team hosted weekly prayer meetings focused solely on missions. Once a month, the meetings lasted four to five hours. But the ‘missions’ concept prevalent in Mexico is “just going to the next town,” Sam explained, “…and maybe it’s a different culture if you go across states.”

Expanding his church’s understanding of cross-cultural missions has been one of the themes of his new missions ministry. “One of the things we’ve found really helpful are newsletters that I get sent from my own friends [from] the ship that are still serving,” Sam said. “I don’t do anything but translating some of the news, some of the prayer and the pictures.”

Updates come from an Asian friend serving at Lake Tanganyika in Zambia, another friend ministering in Thailand, a European medical professional working in the Middle East, a Latino couple continuing with the ships ministry and a handful of others engaging in full-time missions roles after their shared time at sea. Sometimes Sam brings a picture of the national flag and a map of the place a person is serving. When he shares with church members about his friend in Zambia, “I’m certain that they don’t even know exactly what she’s doing … but having people pray for her health, for her spiritual life, for her faith, …just for her ministry, I think there’s such a powerful connection that God gives us,” Sam explained.

In addition to the prayer nights, Sam has organised a handful of meetings each year where he invites workers to come share their stories in person. At one of these events, after a particularly moving testimony, Sam saw tears in some of the church members’ eyes. “They were realising themselves: What am I doing here? What am I doing with my privilege; what am I doing with my freedom in Mexico? There are people going to difficult places to share God’s love, and I can’t even say I’m a Christian in my own town? In that conference, that was one of the big moments for us as a team,” he remembered.

The church’s response to the missions ministry has been an increased awareness of the power of prayer, “realising their prayers can go further than just my city, further than just my family, further than just my health or my church. There’s no limit to prayer,” Sam said.

Coronavirus challenges

In 2020, Sam said the missions team had planned a trip to El Salvador, a mid-range goal they hoped would provide a taste of cross-cultural missions to church members planning to go, but the trip was cancelled because of the new coronavirus. Sunday services have continued via YouTube, while missions ministry activities have moved to WhatsApp. Sam still sends translated prayer requests from his friends serving around the globe, and he’s considering hosting the fall missions event on Zoom.

People in his church, however, are primarily part of an older generation and have struggled to adapt to pandemic-necessitated virtual gatherings. “They love praying, and they love getting involved, [but] the technological side of things, they still struggle with that,” Sam shared.

So far he hasn’t used an online option for the monthly missions prayer meetings. “You don’t go to the meeting just to have the meeting; for us, it’s: How are you doing? How’s your family? How’s your health? We’re people people,” Sam explained. “So it’s difficult to have all of that in a screen. Although the message is given and the vision keeps going on, the people factor is just not there, so it’s difficult for us.”

The basis of missions

Until he was in college, Sam said he never truly understood the necessity of prayer. “I always heard about prayer and prayer is talking to God, but … it loses its meaning if you don’t have any experiences,” he shared.

On the ship, Sam remembered the challenge of being the newly appointed bookshop manager and recognising that his decisions would impact the lives of fellow crewmembers. He went into his cabin, knelt on the floor and cried out to God for ways to help his team. “All of a sudden, ideas would come to me,” Sam remembered. “There’s no way that was myself; that was God whispering to me.”

And while English may be essential for involvement in some international missions organisations, “prayer is the basis of missions, [of] any kind of relationship you have with God,” Sam stated.

Globally, the needs of workers and missions organisations can be overwhelming, he admitted. “There’s no way you’re going to be able to pray for everything, so just take what you can,” he encouraged other believers. “We have no idea how powerful five minutes of prayer would be for one person every single day. Just focus on one. Start with someone. That’s it.”

Coatzacoalcos, Mexico :: Crewmembers worship with members of a local church.