Violence in Mexico prompts some faith groups to curb trips

| March 20, 2010

When the Rev. Paul McKay went to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, three years ago to help build homes for the poor, he used some free time to go downtown.

"There were outdoor cafes, and the market was booming," said McKay, a chaplain at Baylor Medical Center at Garland. "You felt like you were in a European city."

But in 2008, drug cartel violence escalated, and while there have been ups and downs in the level of killings, Juárez hasn't been the same since.

McKay returned last month with a group from Allen's Suncreek United Methodist Church, and again checked out the center city. "This time it was like a ghost town," he said.

Though McKay wants to go back to Juárez – "If something were to happen, I'd be doing what I was called to do" – he doesn't blame any individual or church steering clear.

And staying out of Juárez, and all of Mexico, is the unhappy norm for North Texas church groups and ministries that used to send groups there routinely, especially during spring break and summer.

The Catholic Diocese of Dallas continues a ban on churches or schools sponsoring trips to Mexico. The Baptist General Convention of Texas is advising affiliate churches not to send groups to Mexico, out of safety concerns.

Buckner International, the Dallas-based charity, has about 300 volunteers from various churches along the Texas-Mexico border this week, adding bathrooms to homes of the indigent, doing health screenings, handing out shoes and leading Bible studies.

But the volunteers are staying on the Texas side.

"We're just not crossing over the border. We're being real cautious," said Scott Collins, a Buckner spokesman who is with a group from The Crossing Baptist Church of Mesquite doing construction in Donna, near McAllen, and a few miles from Reynosa, Mexico. "There's plenty to do here."

Rich Mackey directs Arrow Outreach, a Van, Texas-based ministry that works in Juárez, and used to bring in volunteers from about 10 churches each year, including First Presbyterian of Dallas.

"We have no groups going into Juárez," Mackey said. "We didn't have any last summer, and we don't have any this year. Our groups have essentially been put into hiatus."

But a few churches are still going, and Suncreek Methodist had a team of four in Juárez from Saturday through Wednesday.

Janet Hunt, Suncreek's director of community ministries, had barely settled in with her two sons and an adult volunteer when she got word that three people connected with the U.S. consulate in Juárez had been shot to death.

"My pastor was extremely concerned and wanted me to come home right away," she said.

But Hunt, a veteran of many trips, consulted with the Juárez pastor who coordinates Suncreek's building of cinderblock homes for indigent families. He thought the trip could go forward, and she agreed.

"I never felt unsafe," she said, adding that the area where Suncreek works, while desperately poor, does not have drug cartels.

With the U.S. State Department having issued a travel warning about Mexico, with an emphasis on the border, Hunt doesn't blame anyone for staying away. But she's looking forward to her next trip.

"I can't not go," she said. "Those people just get more and more impoverished because we're not helping them. They're hardworking people who just want to take care of their kids."

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Category: Mission Trip/Missionary Security

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