LA LAGUNA — Some might underestimate the impact of packing shoeboxes during the holidays for Samaritan's Purse, but a disabled pastor has used the ministry project to witness to an entire village of unreached people in a remote mountainous area of Mexico where they now have their first church.
Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, has provided an open door for people to be a part of evangelism efforts around the world by filling shoe sized gift boxes that are sent to over 160 nations, including 50 hard to reach areas. Operation Christmas Child collects shoebox gifts filled with toys, school supplies, hygiene items and booklets with the Gospel message. The project then delivers the boxes to children in need around the world in over 160 nations, opening the door for the next generation to hear the message of God.
Last month, The Christian Post witnessed how the shoebox ministry has impacted a secluded village in Mexico.
La Laguna is home to an indigenous people called Mexicaneros, or the Nahuatl people, and up until a few years ago these people had never heard the Gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ. It was the bold faith of Tequila resident pastor Jose Benitez that changed the spiritual fate of the villagers forever. On Oct. 22, the village dedicated their first church on the mountain.
There were over a hundred professing Christians — both young and old — at the church dedication, along with a small team from Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child and Edward Graham, a grandson of the late world renowned evangelist Billy Graham, and this CP reporter.
Benitez, a native of Mexico, contracted polio when he was 2 years old and has never been able to walk. But the pastor did not allow his disability to stop him from answering the call of God on his life. Benitez has repeatedly risked his life over the years to make a six-hour trek up the mountains to the village of La Laguna to witness to the indigenous people who live there.
After years of traveling up and down the mountain to preach and not seeing much fruit from his labors in the dangerous area, the minister decided to host an Operation Christmas Child shoebox giveaway in the village, which has resulted in nearly a hundred children accepting Jesus as their Lord. The children, in turn, became little evangelists to their own families who were all present at La Laguna’s church dedication ceremony.
So who is this man willing to risk his life and go into the mountains to win souls in Jesus name?
While in La Laguna, CP sat down with Benitez to learn more about his life and brave journey to make disciples in a region of the world most people wouldn’t want to go to.
"It was 42 years before I received Jesus in my heart,” Benitez said of his background.
Before coming to God, he admitted to living a life of drunkenness while traveling around town with a group of musicians.
“God changed my life,” he declared of his transformation.
The pastor, who gets around on a scooter because he cannot use his legs, came to faith after overhearing an evangelistic event in Tequila. He recalled hearing a young girl singing the lyrics “I have a friend that loves me and my friend is Jesus Christ.” Those words compelled him to surrender his life and be baptized.
"The Lord told me, 'I want you here in Jerusalem, in my neighborhood, You're going to begin to work there,'” Benitez recollected. So after hearing from God he started “knocking on doors."
"This is a calling, I saw a lot of need in my town and I said, 'God, I want to proclaim Your Word, send me, and here I am.' There are a lot of families, a lot of kids that have received Jesus Christ through my life," he testified.
After ministering for some time door to door, he was given a half-hour radio show that reached many towns across Mexico and even people living up in the mountains. It was his show that reached the village of La Laguna, which at the time he described as being violent with weapons, killings and drugs.
He received a letter from a local woman in La Laguna named Eusebia, who said his radio program brought her to faith in Christ and she wanted Benitez to go and visit her village and preach to the community because no one there had ever heard of Jesus. At that time, however, he didn't have a vehicle that could make it up and down the hard terrains of the mountain.
Yet God answered Eusebia’s prayers and shortly after the letter request, the pastor received a miracle.
"The Lord provided a truck. It arrived in front of my church. I did not know this person, but He received a word from the Lord and said I'll bring this truck. Then he left and to this day I do not know who he was,” Benitez told CP. “Through that truck, I was able to come [up] this way.”
Eusebia cannot believe what the Lord has done in her village and told CP she was happy that so many people attended the church's dedication.
When asked about his inability to walk and if he ever felt limited by it, Benitez teared up as he recounted his early life.
"I did not know my father or my mother [as a child]. They died so there were no resources for me to see a doctor. There were no vaccines. So I grew with this physical challenge. I used to crawl to get around,” he explained.
He was eventually gifted a scooter by a local politician who saw him crawling, and since then has used the vehicle to get around.
"These are my feet, this is transportation, so there's no limitation for me to bring the Word of God,” Benitez said.
He visited La Laguna village for many years before he saw any fruit come forth from the residents there, with the exception of Eusebia and her family.
And then one day he heard of the evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse and its project Operation Christmas Child. He decided to become a local ministry partner with the organization and use Operation Christmas Child’s program to make an impact in the remote village.
By capitalizing on the generosity of those who give gift boxes, Benitez went back and forth to the mountains for 10 years, blessing the families there and sharing the love of Jesus. Since the launch of Operation Christmas Child’s 12 lesson discipleship program, The Greatest Journey, which takes children further into discovering what it is to follow Jesus and how to share that with their family, the pastor has seen many people accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
His discipleship using The Greatest Journey led to La Laguna’s first church dedication in the region of unreached people. During the church ceremony, there were also several baptisms.
"That way, we have won many children for Christ and this is proof," Benitez said of Operation Christmas Child.
"We have two large communities working with around 200 children in two towns. This is going to be beautiful because those children will continue to share the Gospel,” he said.
Operation Christmas Child has been in operation for 26 years, and thanks to efforts to witness to hard-to-reach places by using the shoebox gifts, the village of La Laguna in remote Mexico has come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
The organization estimates that there are still 7,000 unreached people groups in the world today, many of whom have never heard the name Jesus Christ, and it wants to continue to duplicate what was done in the mountains of Mexico. In 2018, a reported 2 million decisions were made for Christ as a result of Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts.
For more information on how you can get involved in helping pastors like Benitez and others around the world by packing gift boxes, visit Operation Christmas Child’s website.