When missionaries and pastors serving in Mexico discuss drug violence, a common theme emerges. People are suffering and dying in terrible ways, they say, but the fear this creates is driving unprecedented numbers of Mexicans – especially teens and twenty-somethings – into the arms of Christ.
"Victory in Jesus, that's what's happening in Mexico," says missionary Mary Stroud. "There has always been violence there, but now what used to be done in darkness is being brought into the light."
She and her husband, Matthew, served for two years in northern Tamaulipas state – one of the most violent in Mexico, and the stomping grounds of the Zetas, the most brutal and notorious cartel. For security reasons, they asked that their real names not be used, as they are still ministering in Mexico. The Zetas sometimes murder people merely for talking about them.
"The Enemy uses deception through the media to paint a bleak, horrible, hopeless picture of Mexico, which isn't a true one. There's a tremendous uprising of youth coming to Jesus. Seeds that were planted year after year are coming to fruition. The time of harvest is now.
"Yes, due to the violence people are losing their lives – that's real. But God is reigning in Mexico. Victory is here, and it belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ!"
Andy Rodriguez, 48, who works in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas with Victory Outreach, a Christian drug recovery program, says crack cocaine is a huge problem on both sides of the border because it's so cheap and plentiful, thanks to the cartels. But over the past two to three years as the violence increased in Mexico, he has seen something amazing happen in the Valley.
"The more violent it gets, the more addicts get hungry for God. When their families see the good changes happening in them, they get on fire for the Lord, too," he said.
"It's written in the Bible, when things go wrong it makes people want God. When everything's going good, they think they don't need Him."
Moises Suniga is pastor of El Cordero de Dios church in Matamoros, Mexico. Speaking in Spanish through a translator he said:
"Since the violence got worse, we've seen God moving in a big way. More people are coming to the churches and the churches are doing better financially. There's a great unity between the churches we've never seen before. Before the violence started getting really bad, attendance at our church in Matamoros was going way down and so was our income. Now we're growing in both numbers and finances and doing well."
For 15 years, Mike Fink has been running a missions organization in Baja California, Mexico, four hours south of Tijuana and the California-Mexico border. His organization, Go Missions to Mexico, serves 50 to 75 local Mexican churches using volunteers from the U.S. and Canada. He says there have been no problems with cartels in his area and he feels safer there than he does in many areas of the United States.
He said that while Mexico does have a problem with violence, so does the U.S. Except in the case of Mexico, the media has blown the issue so much out of proportion that Americans have come to believe the whole nation is engulfed in a bloody combat zone, when in reality, it's not.
"Due to the media coverage, the number of mission teams coming to Mexico from North America has dropped by 50 to 75 percent. They're just not coming," he said.
In an e-mail message, a long-term missionary to Mexico had this to say about the situation:
My husband and I oversee four churches in Mexico. For security reasons, we prefer to withhold our names and the names and places involved. But I can tell you some testimonies of God's grace during this troublesome time.
Churches all over Mexico now get together at least twice a year to pray. The number of churches involved has tripled since they began. In addition, the wife of Mexico's president and some high-ranking people in the government have participated in the gatherings, something never heard of before.
While everyone knows someone who has been kidnapped, our largest church in Mexico has been able to see the release of everyone who has been prayed for by the congregation. All the victims have been family members or acquaintances of church members, but not one of our own members has been kidnapped.
Now that the American missionaries have mostly stopped coming, the churches in Mexico have been raised up and matured to fill the gaps. Now the reliance is on the Lord, not on the Americans, to get things done.
God has intervened on more than one occasion to provide protection for us and our co-laborers in the face of danger. We have met some cartel members, and even ministered to one.
Now that the soldiers check vehicles frequently, we are able to share Christ with several on our journeys. Since they face constant danger, they are very interested in their spiritual condition and quite receptive to receiving New Testaments and tracts. Some even ask us for literature before we can offer it to them. We have lost count of the amount of New Testaments and tracts that have been distributed to the soldiers. The Gospel is spreading now faster than ever.
As the scripture says, grace is much more abounding in Mexico as the wickedness increases.
Dr. Lucy Hernandez, M.D., 47, does complicated open-heart operations and brain surgeries for no charge in Reynosa and other Mexican towns for people who can't afford doctors. She's been a medical missionary in Mexico for 18 years, heading a foundation that provides free health care to the poor, and until recently ran a free clinic in Reynosa.
She managed to keep the clinic open through all the violence until a cartel shootout sent bullets flying into the building through the windows, impelling staff and patients to throw themselves on the floor. No one was hurt. It was the third cartel shootout Dr. Lucy had experienced in the past few years. She's been beaten nearly to death by drug addicts, bitten by poisonous snakes that almost killed her, and come close to dying while awaiting a kidney transplant. But nothing keeps the good doctor down.
"Her only fault is," says someone who knows her well, "she's always doing too much for others and never enough for herself."
Dr. Lucy laughs at the compliment. "That's the way I like it," she says before rushing off to check on patients. She treats them all like beloved family members, and many of them call her mom, sister, or auntie.
In her extensive travels around Mexico, she's seen more than her share of evil, but prefers to focus on the good.
"Churches in Reynosa have been more full than ever these last two to three years. Last summer we had a free concert for the youth in Lopez Mateo baseball stadium and over 3,000 packed the place praising the Lord. The churches are being filled by the young, and I'd never seen that until recently. Even prostitutes and drug addicts are coming to church like never before. More and more people are being drawn to God."
Andrew Garcia, 38, who pastors Voz Profética church in Monterrey, one of the nation's most violent cities, said he believes Mexico is ripe for the first great awakening in its history.
"People who used to work for the cartels are coming into our church and receiving Christ. People who were killers are coming into the kingdom of God. The Lord is bringing unity among his children and breaking down walls of division. He is leading us to put other's needs before our own. God always shows up on time. He is showing up today in Mexico."
This article is the last in a four-part series on the effects of drug violence on Christianity along the Mexico-U.S. border