IT’S GOOD TO BE HERE
When asked what there is to see and do in the place where he lives, “There’s not much,” says Pastor Alejandro Sánchez. After a moment, he adds, “Just horses and chickens.”
Sánchez serves Cordero de Dios (Lamb of God), a congregation located in the town of Sásabe, Mexico. Sásabe is on the U.S. border, nearly touching the state of Arizona. It has about one thousand habitants and is in the midst of the Sonoran desert, far from any other Mexican villages.
Originally from Puebla, a large metropolitan city in central Mexico, Sánchez felt the change when he arrived in Sásabe in 2010. He quickly learned, however, that the shift in scenery was not the biggest difference between the two locations. “Nearly 90 percent of the people here depend on illegal activities to make a living,” he explains.
A barren place
For many, the dry, dusty town of Sásabe, Sonora, “is literally the end of the world,” notes Missionary Michael Hartman, who serves Latin America. There are two ways to get to the village. A dirt road runs through Mexico, connecting Sásabe to the nearest town, which is 30 miles away. Another dirt road leads to the U.S. border. For those without a visa or passport, however, it is legally impossible to enter America.
Within Sásabe, parks and movie theaters are nonexistent. “There is no gas station or bank,” adds Hartman. Those passing through will find a store selling food items and other trip-related gear, like backpacks and water bottles. There is also a bare-bones hotel, which allows trekkers to claim a space on the floor inside the building to rest for a night.
Due to Sásabe’s proximity to the U.S. border, it is a central hub and final stop for individuals who are trying to cross illegally into the United States. It is not uncommon to see Central Americans pass through the town. After leaving their homeland, these travelers have undergone a treacherous journey spanning thousands of miles on trains and buses and often on foot to arrive in Sásabe. After staying in the village a short time, and perhaps attending a final Sunday service at Cordero de Dios, they move on toward the border.
It falls into place, then, that Sásabe’s economy revolves around this trend. In addition to human trafficking, it is also a place where drug trafficking is alive and thriving. Those who are not involved—either directly or indirectly—in these activities find it hard to make a living.
Given the town’s economy, its residents do not naturally greet newcomers with open arms. “Generally speaking, the people are very distrustful of anybody from the south,” says Sánchez. “That’s the first obstacle I encountered.”
In addition to being met with wary eyes, Sánchez arrived during a time of unrest and violence, as two cartels fought for control of the area. As a result, one of the groups blockaded the road leading out of Sásabe and toward other Mexican villages. It also cut off the water in town.
“For the first three months, I didn’t have any water,” explains Sánchez. The blockade remained in place for a total of nine months.
The only way to access food and water involved exiting Sásabe by way of the road leading to the Arizona border, which was not blocked off. Those that had a visa to the United States traveled there, and returned with food and provisions for others in the town. Residents without a visa, including Sánchez, stayed in Sásabe. Members of the church helped Sánchez with food and also bottles and jugs of water during this time.
Unlike many areas of Mexico, where mild temperatures dominate the climate, Sásabe, Sonora, fluctuates greatly. Temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, and drop below freezing in winter. Most places don’t have central heating, air conditioning, or anything to heat or cool homes.
“This is hard ministry,” explains Hartman. “In many ways, it is reminiscent of WELS missionaries going out to Apacheland one hundred years ago.”
A childhood dream
When he was a child, Sánchez attended a Lutheran church in Puebla, the fourth largest city in Mexico. He went regularly to worship with his mother and siblings. He enjoyed going to church and admired the role of the pastor. “I saw pastors preaching and wearing a suit and tie, and it really caught my attention,” he explains.
During his younger years, he often pretended to be a pastor. Later on, he decided to study to become a pastor. “When I got to the seminary, however, I realized that being a pastor wasn’t so easy,” he recalls. WELS Latin America missionaries taught Sánchez for the following four years. In 2010, after completing his training, Sánchez graduated from the seminary.
At this time, the Mexican Lutheran Church called him to serve in Sonora, Mexico.
Mission to the Children, a nonprofit, volunteer organization based in southern Arizona, helps support mission work in Sásabe and other villages in the state of Sonora, Mexico. WELS members, who run the organization, began working with Sánchez. Together they attend to some of the physical needs of those living in Sásabe. Mission to the Children has also played an instrumental role in the founding of congregations and ongoing work in the area.
A reason to stay
“When people get to know you, they are very receptive,” explains Sánchez. “They are very friendly, and there is a lot of respect toward those that are dedicated to the ministry.”
The violence in the area, which made it impossible to leave Sásabe and get essentials, has tapered off in the last two years, adds Sánchez.
Furthermore, an interest in the Lutheran church, and the saving gospel message of Jesus, is evident. Everyone in town has visited Cordero de Dios at least once.
And the church is growing. Members of Cordero de Dios currently worship in a house but are looking for ways to expand, as they no longer fit in the current space.
Members may have economic needs, but they are eager to help out in ways that they can. Many attend regularly, help clean the church, and organize church gatherings. And several provide meals and food for Sánchez. “There are some families that consider me to be part of their family,” he says.
“It may be a rough place to live,” adds Hartman. “But the people there need the gospel and want the gospel.”
And for that reason, Sánchez is happy and eager to stay.
Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in León, Mexico.
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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 102, Number 2
Issue: February 2015
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