Rich Cooper

May 12, 2010

With summer quickly approaching, many church groups are making plans for the various mission trips that they sponsor for adults and youth. For the people who participate in these annual trips, they are more than a chance to get away. They present opportunities to engage communities in the United States and around the world and work on various service projects that help their fellow human beings. In the United States, places like post-Katrina New Orleans, Appalachia and other areas with economic challenges and post-disaster problems have benefited for years from the fellowship of many hands repairing old structures, building new ones and bringing faith into action.

Mexico has also been a place where many mission trips have taken place. For years, churches of all types have traveled south of the border to aid impoverished communities with irrigation systems for farming, building construction and repairs, and other projects. These Mission trips are often times in addition to the trips sponsored by churches and other charities that bring healthcare services to people who can not afford it or do not have access to it. All of these actions are emblematic of the human charity and decency  that every religion preaches and that we are all capable of achieving. Unfortunately, such grace and generosity has now become another victim of the on-going violence in Mexico’s increasingly bloody drug cartel wars.

Like those at my own church, Heritage Presbyterian in Alexandria, VA, mission trips planned for this summer are being canceled on account of the unrest south of the border. While there have been no publicized or direct threats made to specific missionaries or charitable groups, the uncontrollable violence makes each visiting mission trip a prime target by the warring drug cartels for kidnapping, assault and murder. In short, anyone and everyone is a target in Mexico.

Not a day goes by when gruesome headlines about the ongoing Mexican violence are not available for us to see. Furthermore, when U.S. consulate officials and Mexican public officials, police officers, military personnel and regular citizens are daily targets, there is no chance that well-intentioned Mission groups will not find themselves in the crosshairs of violence.

In hearing my church make its announcement about canceling this summer’s mission trip to Mexico, there was genuine heartbreak and disappointment at being forced to make this difficult decision. For the past several years, Heritage members have traveled to repair homes and improve infrastructure in Mexican villages while also assisting with healthcare and educational services, which are few and far between. Their efforts, like those of other congregations around America, have been an incredible lifeline to people who desperately need help.

While the needs of many of these people remain ever-present in Mexico, the ongoing violence makes it next to impossible to support any type of humanitarian service operation in that country.  To go there puts the well-intended in harm’s way and risks bringing further pain and hardship to those who already have it hard enough.

Needless to say, it is politically sensitive for anyone in the U.S. government, particularly the U.S. State Department, to advise against visiting Mexico. As one of our country’s leading trading partners and a destination for thousands of American tourists, it would cause a firestorm of controversy if the Secretary of State where to step in front of a bank of microphones and say, “Stay away from Mexico.”

While the Secretaries of State, Homeland Security, Defense, etc. have all made numerous public comments about the unrest raging in our southern neighbor, political diplomacy necessitates carefully worded statements of support and warning about what is happening there.  Furthermore, a declarative statement of the kind mentioned above would communicate a complete lack of confidence in Mexican President Calderon’s ability to secure his country. No one from the Obama Administration would understandably want to do that, but when communities of faith cannot go into a community to perform public service projects that serve those in dire need because they are not safe, you know how fragile the situation has become.

History records that people of faith have long risked their lives to promote their respective religion’s views, but few if any churches are willing to risk the lives of their members in today’s Mexico. When comparing that decision to those early missionaries who indeed risked it all for their faith, some might call such actions cowardice. It’s not. Rather, it is a painful act of courage in recognizing that there are those times when stepping forward to do good may cause more harm.

Heritage’s decision and that of other congregations is an uncomfortable realization that by going to Mexico, they risk giving the drug cartels an even more lucrative target – do-gooder Americans who can be kidnapped, ransomed and even murdered. If that were to occur, an already uncontrollable situation would become even more so. Staying away is the safest and most sensible option any mission organization can make under the current circumstances.

It is also a difficult decision because people who need a hand will not be getting it. They remain trapped in a culture of violence that spares no one. Their victimization is only further multiplied while hands across the border, ready to serve, remain out of reach.

Until this situation is ultimately resolved, there is only one thing the hands on both sides of the border can do. Pray for it to end.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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