Each September during the three years I lived in the state of Veracruz in the heart of Mexico the fall hurricanes would sweep in from the Gulf of Mexico and get hung up in the mountains where they would dump enormous amounts of water on our heads. Small streams that we typically forded with ease, now became mighty torrents as the water rushed down the steep inclines of the mountains. It seemed as though the waters were impatient to return to their place of origin in the Gulf.
I’d lay awake at night in my 11’ x 11’ open-air (screened window only), tin-roofed room petrified by the thought of facing those rivers the following day. You see, we had dedicated our lives to carry the Gospel to the indigenous tribes living in these remote mountains and come rain or shine we were expected to show up.
During those years we held a very rigorous preaching schedule. We took one day off a month, and preached at least once, if not two or three times, every day of the month. Thousands of Nahuatl, Otomi, Huasteco, and Tepehua natives were turning from the darkness of witchcraft to the glorious Light of the Gospel each year. Every day presented a new adventure, a new challenge, another opportunity to see God show up and show out.
With no dryer and most of the time no electricity, our clothes never seemed to dry. They always had that been-wet-too-long, you-smell-like-a-dog odor. During the hurricane season our shoes were continuously wet which meant our feet were subject to jungle rot. I would put medicated powder on my feet each night and leave them sticking out the foot of the bed with a fan blowing on them all night to keep the jungle rot at bay. It was a constant battle three months out of the year.
One day, two of us were assigned to speak at a village situated on a tributary of one of the major rivers in the area. You had to cross the main river in order to get to their village further up the valley. Most of the village men were skilled fishermen using pointed poles as spears, nets, traps and at times, even their hands. The river wove its way through this village and created some breath-taking pools for swimming and baptizing, but mainly fishing. On each visit they served us fish soup, fried fish, boiled crab or something taken from the river.
During dry season we forded the main river in our trucks. However, this was not dry season! The river had spilled over it’s banks and now rushed past us, twice as wide as normal with enough force and depth to carry a house downstream. Some twenty yards upstream the tributary tied into the mainstream at a ninety degree angle creating a very dangerous whirlpool about fifty yards downstream. We parked far enough away from the rushing current to keep the truck safe and began to make our way upstream through the jungle to get above the tributary. We figured there would be less water there, which there was, however the water was forced to flow through a narrow area with steep stone cliffs on our side so it flowed much faster with white water rapids. We still figured this was our best bet. I was single, ten years younger than my friend and a much stronger swimmer than he was. So I told him I would attempt it first, if it wasn’t too bad, then he could come. If it was too strong, then he could wait for me at the truck.
The raging river made my blood run cold. I stood for quite some time in a semi-crouched position getting my nerve up to jump off the safety of the rocks into the cold rapids. Finally I jumped and instantly I was swept under! My legs and arms were doing their best to propel me to the other side. At last my hands seized some tall grasses immersed in the river and I drug myself out of the water about 100 yards downstream. Working my way back up to where my friend was, I hollered above the noise of the rushing river, “Don’t come, it’s too strong!”. He shouted back, “I’m coming Lewis!” I kept yelling at him to “Go back! Wait for me at the truck!” But he simply dove off into the raging river and disappeared. I began running downstream through the flooded trees of the river bank. He bobbed up once and disappeared again. Over and over he repeated this but I noticed each time he was closing the distance. I continued to run while searching for a long limb to extend to him. Finally I found one, reaching out for him he latched on and I pulled him out of the water. He told me later that he immediately realized the water was too strong for him to swim in so he chose to sink to the bottom, push off in the direction of the shore, bob back up and repeat.
Soaked to the bone we hiked the remaining 45 minutes to the village. They were shocked that we had actually risked our lives to come visit them. The pastor’s wife fed us some warm soup, tortillas and coffee while we sat by their cooking fire. A short while later the believers of the village gathered together in the courtyard of their hut and we both took turns teaching them about Jesus. It is amazing how people will listen to you after you demonstrate to them how much you care for them.
Darkness had enveloped the jungle canopy above us so we pulled out our flashlights and made our way back down the trail. Once we arrived at the main river we stood between it and the tributary. It was pitch black, the river was at least 80 – 100 yards wide. Our truck was just on the other side but our lights couldn’t reach it. Darkness has such a way of enhancing the fear. Where the tributary came into the main river it had wallowed out a large indentation on the opposite bank over the years. That is what began the water swirling which created the whirlpool some seventy-five yards below us. We couldn’t see it at night but we could hear it’s sucking sound and knew it was there. We figured our best bet was to jump in the water of the tributary and let it carry us straight to the other side and then hopefully grab hold of something and pull ourselves to safety before we reached the whirlpool. It was just that easy. In a few short minutes we were stripped down to our shorts, sitting in the truck waiting for the heater to kick in. We still had a 90 minute ride home, but we were safe.
The very next time I made it back to the United States I visited a sporting goods store and purchased a skivest. Adventures like this and many others caused me to lay awake in fear at night listening to the rain pounding away on my tin roof for years to come. Even today, in the midst of a serious downpour, I can feel the familiar fingers of fear. Regardless, countless Aztec indians have been baptized in that very same river due to the faithfulness of men and women risking their lives to share the Gospel with them. I have many pictures and memories of the baptism services held there over the years. I have fond memories of arriving early on hot summer days and swimming and fishing with the indian brothers.
Those rivers were and are dangerous. As a matter of fact a few years later a young missionary, just like me, drowned at that very same place trying to reach that village. I’m not saying we were the wisest. At times, in our zeal, we were quite reckless. We thought ourselves invincible, as many young men do. In our foolishness we thought nothing could happen to us because we were preaching the Gospel.
Obviously, we were wrong. However, I believe our passionate pursuit of obedience to the great commision was commendable. Please take a few moments and ask yourself these questions:
- When was the last time I risked something to share the Gospel with someone?
- When was the last time I gave up something so others could grow in Christ?
- When was the last time I put my life on the line, my reputation, my money, my time or my comfort, just to make sure others heard about Jesus?