Ilamatlán, a name that would strike dread into my heart. I’ll never forget the first time we visited this village. Six missionaries and another 4 indian guides left the house that morning around 4, drove for almost 2 hours before parking our trucks at the edge of a makeshift soccer field in the mountain village of Zontecomatlan. A few feet away our trail led us in a zigzag trek straight up a 700 ft. rise. At the top we stopped to pick some wild “Lima-Limon” fruit (not really a lime nor a lemon). The only time this kind of fruit was worth picking was after hiking uphill for 40 minutes. It made a decent breakfast at 6:30 in the morning as the first rays of sunshine glistened in the dew drops on the leaves. After another 20 or 30 minutes of piggy-backing along the ridge the trail returned to it’s zigzag formation and we began our descent to the river valley below. In the coming months we named this return climb, “heartbreak hill”. At the bottom we turned and climbed another small hill where we found a freshwater spring, we drank and soaked our handkerchiefs in the cold water and draped them over our necks to cool us. Then we went back down to the river where we stripped to our underwear holding our clothes over our heads as we forded the rushing water. Before long we came to the village of Chahuatlán situated along the river bank. Up and over again to the village of Amatepec and then we simply climbed and climbed and climbed for hours.
As we passed through each village children ran from us, women hid their eyes and turned their backs, men simply stared. To my knowledge they had never seen white red-faced giants like us. I thought of the preparation that had gone into this trip. The man we met on another trail who invited us to his village and gave us directions to his house. The hours and days of fasting and prayer we had invested into preparing for this visit. We were God’s ambassadors, we had a message of hope, we were carrying the Light of the Gospel into the darkness of witchcraft, alcoholism, superstitions, and idolatry. This was a day filled with expectation. Look out devil, here we come!
As none of us had ever been there before, we relied on the indian brothers to tell us how much further. They didn’t use watches and the idea of time was relevant to them. So the answer usually was something like, “Falta poco hermano” (not much further, brother), “ya mero” (almost there), “allí no mas hermano” (just right there, brother). Well, there idea of almost there and mine are completely different. After six hours of a hope-filled hike we arrived at a stone wall that marked the outskirts of Ilamatlan at 4000 ft. elevation. It was laid out around a bowl at the top of the ridge. This was the moment we had prepared for. Weeks of anticipating what God would do were about to be fulfilled. We were going to share the message of Jesus Christ with this man and his family. Just like Peter and Cornelius. This man and his whole household were waiting to hear the Good News.
We found his house, just like he said, close to the entrance to the village. These villages had no roads, no electricity, no running water, no grocery store, no pizza parlor. Whatever goods they had to sell were either handmade or brought in by packmule or on the backs of villagers. We knocked on his adobe hut wood door and waited. It was custom to prepare a meal for visitors, he knew we were coming, we knew he would have some black beans or hot soup and tortillas prepared for us. After two hours of driving and six hours of hiking we were looking forward to that almost as much as seeing him come to Christ. As I think back on that moment, six white giants and four small indian men standing in his hard-packed, bare-dirt, straw-broom swept patio overlooking the village, I imagine it could have been an intimidating sight for him and his family. I can imagine his wife inside insisting that he send us away, don’t you dare let them in, they might eat us!
And then that moment when he opens the door, we all hold our breath as one of us greets him and says, “See, we told you we would come!” He never makes it past the threshold of his house. He kind of half-closes the door behind him while he informs us that he never really meant to invite us. Our attempts at persuading him to allow us to share the Gospel with his family are futile. He is resolute in his determination. We are not welcome.
Exactly what led him to change his mind remains a mystery. One thing is for sure, we had entered one of Satan’s stomping grounds and he wasn’t about to give it up without a fight. I wish my spiritual eyes could have seen the darkness shrinking back as the Light entered that village for perhaps the first time in the history of the world. I imagine all that day, as we trekked through village after village demons were running and hiding. Pandemonium in the ranks, all asking the same question, “What is the Light doing here?”
We were famished, so we made our way to the center of the village and were able to purchase some bean-filled, banana leaf-wrapped tamalitos and apple-bananas that we washed down with some warm Orange Crush. We attempted to pass out some tracts, witness to some people all to no avail. After such an anticlimactic ending to our journey, we turned and headed back down the trail that would lead us home. It was late in the afternoon by this time and our hearts were heavy.
With each step my legs grew heavier and my soul grew wearier. Why bother, what good does it do to prepare and sacrifice so much to take these people the Gospel when they like their darkness. You see, I truly expected people to flock to the message of Jesus Christ and this wasn’t how I imagined my missionary service playing out.
Around 10 that night we had recrossed the river and were standing at the foot of “heartbreak hill” just an hour and a half left to go but first we had to get back up this stupid mountain. By the time we got to the top, we were all spread out in a very long line. Most of the time you couldn’t see the person way out in front you somewhere. I remember it being so bright that night that we didn’t have to use our flashlights to navigate the trails. At some point along the top of that ridge, I laid down in the middle of the trail. My legs were shaking so bad from exhaustion that it seemed impossible to take another step. The stars felt so close as I lay there on top of the mountain, but my soul was in the valley of “woe is me”. I remember clearly saying to God, “it isn’t worth it! These people don’t want to hear about you. I left the comfort of Pennsylvania to come to these God-forsaken mountains in Mexico to share the Gospel with these poor people and they don’t even care. It’s simply not worth it!”
As I lay there looking at the heavens, I heard Him speak. “You think you’ve come a long way! Are you telling me it wasn’t worth it for me to leave heaven, come to earth, be born as a baby, grow up and be crucified by the very people I came to save!?! I didn’t send you here for them, I sent you here for me! Am I not worthy of your sacrifice!?!”
God has a way of putting things in perspective and of putting us in our place. I repented then and there, on my back in the dirt of that trail. And I have never looked back since, for “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62
Another verse was made real to me that night, “They that wait upon the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31) As the Holy Spirit finished speaking those words to me I rose and finished out the hour long final stretch to the truck.
Although we visited that village many times over the coming months, while I was there, we never were able to establish a church in Ilamatlan. But I am confident in a truth I have seen played out over and over again. One plants, one waters, but it is God who gives the increase.
And never again have I lost sight of who I was working for. The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive the reward of His suffering.