MAZATLAN, Mexico — Pastor Carlos Mariñelarena has used the power of gift-giving to reach hundreds of children and families for Jesus and has opened a dozen breakfast kitchens run by former inmates to help continue spreading the Gospel.
Mariñelarena, who has been in ministry for over 20 years, teamed up with Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, 13 years ago and has since helped lead hundreds of families to faith in Christ, making a multitude of disciples throughout the popular Mexican city.
“When I was a child, I never received a gift. My father made very little money. We never had a birthday celebration,” Mariñelarena told The Christian Post during a recent mission trip with Samaritan’s Purse before the holidays.
Several years ago the pastor and his wife, Marilu, felt called to Mazatlan to give gifts to the children of those in prison as they witnessed to the inmates.
“We did not know anybody. We had no financial support. But we knew God sent us here,” Mariñelarena maintained. "We started working in the prisons. We first wanted to give gifts to the children of those prisoners and no one gave us a simple gift. My daughter gave all her gifts.”
As time passed, the couple met a pastor who gave them soccer balls and that's how their ministry of giving began.
Mariñelarena eventually learned about Operation Christmas Child and received training on how to host outreach events and present shoebox gifts. Operation Christmas Child has provided an open door for people to help pastors like Mariñelarena around the world by filling shoeboxes with gifts of toys, school supplies, hygiene items, and booklets with the Gospel message that are sent to more than 160 nations, including 50 hard to reach areas.
“We heard that there were these gift boxes that would be available. So we looked for ways to connect with this ministry. We gathered a group of pastors, we receive training at that time and then we also started giving out these toys, these gifts,” Mariñelarena told CP.
Operation Christmas Child also offers a 12 lesson discipleship program called The Greatest Journey, which takes children further into discovering what it means to follow Jesus and how to share it with their family.
As the minister grew his church, he felt led to also launch feeding programs for children in the poorest areas of the city. Mariñelarena now has 12 food service programs in various locations that are run by rehabilitated former inmates and their families who serve the communities.
“This ministry right here is born out of prison. We work with people at these prisons who are at their lowest point in life with destroyed families, they have no hope. So we share Christ with them, we baptize them, we disciple them, we teach them to work. When we see that they're faithful and they come out of prison. We support them and help them find jobs. We will help them reconnect with their families again. Some of them we will give them housing,” he added.
Once reintegrated into society, Mariñelarena and Marilu then position the former inmates turned pastors at the breakfast ministry sites so they can help those in charge serve breakfast and share a word. Many children who received shoebox gifts from the outreach initiatives have become Christians and are still visiting the feeding centers every morning for breakfast and Bible study. Many have also completed The Greatest Journey program.
"We look for places, neighborhoods that have a lot of need. For example, we found this place. There was nothing here. There was just an empty land. We invite children to this party and then we give them the gift boxes. We invite them to The Greatest Journey and while we teach them The Greatest Journey, we built this building,” the leader said.
Mariñelarena has served as a national director of Operation Christmas Child in Mexico for three years. During the mission trip, he introduced CP to Shamir and his wife, Anna, who serve at one of the feeding centers. The couple emphasized that they do not charge for the food and they receive no income, instead they "do it for God."
The pair serve breakfast to some 40 children each day and then offer a Bible study. For some children, it’s the only meal they’ll eat that day.
"We help children with their school supplies, shoes. All this is done out of love for God,” Mariñelarena testified before commending Shamir and his wife for their work. “It's easy to give breakfast to five children, one day, maybe 15 days, but feeding 30 children, who are not your children for four years, every day, without a salary. It means that they love God. They do it for Jesus.”
All 12 breakfast ministries offer free meals and those who run them receive no income.
"We are all volunteers. We do not charge; we do it out of love, but we do gain a lot because the Lord pays us back,” Mariñelarena said.
During CP’s tour of several food distribution centers across Mazatlan, this reporter was introduced to another one of Mariñelarena’s mentees, a former inmate he witnessed to named Jesús.
“I came to faith in Jesus in prison,” the ex-prisoner turned pastor shared. “I went to prison for getting in trouble for drug abuse.”
“God touched my heart. I got to know pastor Carlos and Marilu, and they began teaching, disciplining, and they began teaching me how to defend my faith and be a Christian,” he added.
Jesús described his time in prison as “a blessing.” God had initially touched his heart before he went to prison through what he called a “Samaritans purse gift box” and years later God brought it all full circle when Mariñelarena placed him in charge of a feeding center that was launched with an Operation Christmas Child party.
Jesús and his wife now serve around 100 children through their breakfast ministry.
"It's such a blessing to serve children every day. I give thanks to God for just being entrusted to serve here and I'm just so thankful to have this ministry,” Jesús said, appreciatively. “Many of these children come from their homes feeling sad and defeated, but here we can teach them about the love of God. We give free food every day.”
He continued: "My wife prepares the meals and I share the Word. We take care of the physical and spiritual side. We've seen many changed lives. Children come with various attitudes. They fight, they’re just jumping all over the tables, and in just a little bit of time they begin to calm down. The Word of God is having an impact on their lives. Something's happening to them.”
Another former inmate turned pastor, Jesús Valerio, told CP that just like God transformed his life, he and his wife hope to offer the same to the children they come in contact with by sharing Christ with them.
"We teach children Bible lessons, we teach them values, to respect other people and we feed them,” Valerio said.
Operation Christmas Child has been in operation for 26 years, and thanks to their efforts to witness to hard to reach places by using the shoebox gifts, hundreds of people in the poorest areas of Mazatlan have come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
In 2018, a reported 2 million decisions were made for Christ as a result of Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts.
Although all the gift boxes have already been distributed for this season, it’s not too late to give to someone in need. Samaritans Purse's gift catalog offers opportunities to feed the hungry, care for orphans, or contribute to a clean water project for a village in need.