Photo: With my wife, Tamie, in British Columbia, Canada.
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While I focus on national writing, I make periodic international reporting trips.
I’ve covered a number of stories in Mexico and Canada and reported from eight countries outside North America: Belgium, Brazil, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands and South Africa.
Some of my international work (asterisks denote stories honored by state or national journalism organizations):
• A rocky road for Mexico missions, from Aquiles, Mexico, published May 2012. *
AQUILES, Mexico — A year ago, Bethany Gibbs raised more than $2,000 to buy Spanish-language Bibles for 350 families in this remote mountain village and nearby communities.
Gibbs, then a high school senior, eagerly anticipated sharing God’s written word with Mexican friends she had made on two previous mission trips here.
But safety concerns south of the U.S. border prompted her home congregation — the Edmond Church of Christ in Oklahoma — to cancel its planned trip.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Deborah Gibbs, Bethany’s mother. “She didn’t know if she’d ever get to come back.”
Turf wars between drug cartels have claimed more than 50,000 lives in Mexico since 2006, even as President Felipe Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to combat criminal organizations.
The violence, which includes kidnappings, carjackings and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, has caused many Churches of Christ in the U.S. to rethink Mexico missions.
• More precious than gold, from Vancouver, British Columbia, published February 2010.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia - For two weeks, the world’s spotlight will shine on this coastal metropolis as athletes from more than 80 nations compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Long after the Games end in late February, however, the Pacific Northwest city will retain its international flavor, as leaders of Churches of Christ can attest.
Roughly half the 2.1 million residents of Vancouver and surrounding communities were born outside of Canada and speak a native language other than English.
“It’s like the United Nations,” elder John Clelland said of the multicultural crowd of 150 that worships each Sunday morning at the South Burnaby Church of Christ, east of Vancouver.
Growing up, Belisha Duan accompanied her mother to a Buddhist temple. As an adult, the Chinese immigrant claimed no religious affiliation.
But when a friend invited her to visit the South Burnaby church, she accepted.
• For South African churches, post-apartheid era brings blessings, from Benoni, South Africa, published November 2009. *
BENONI, South Africa - On the fourth and final night of the Southern Africa Bible College lectureship, the voices of 500 Christians rang out in praise.
The diverse crowd — a mix of blacks, whites and “coloreds,” as those of mixed races are known in South Africa — sang first in English.
Then Clive Landsberg, a Zimbabwe-born immigrant, led two hymns in Venda, one of 11 official languages in Africa’s wealthiest and most developed country.
“It helps with unity,” said Landsberg, who a few nights earlier joined attendees in worshiping God in Zulu, another official language. “People feel welcome.”
A loud chorus of “Amens” greeted that night’s guest preacher, David Duncan, minister of the Memorial church in Houston, when he pointed out that Jesus did not speak English.
“We are all here today because someone shared their faith with us,” Duncan said. “And we are called on today, no matter what country we’re from or what culture or what color we are, to share our faith in Jesus with other people.”
Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, signs of racial harmony can be seen in Churches of Christ in this country that former president Nelson Mandela touted as a “Rainbow Nation” in his 1994 inaugural speech.
• Lead me to Calgary, from Calgary, Alberta, published November 2009.
CALGARY, Alberta — In the shadow of a white steeple, spray-painted graffiti defames the beige brick wall of the Calgary Church of Christ.
The black scrawls testify to the gritty nature of the area served by the 300-member church — one of only eight a cappella Churches of Christ in a province nearly the size of Texas.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have drug deals going down in our parking lot,” said Kelly Carter, lead minister for the only mainstream Church of Christ in this city of 1.1 million souls east of the Rocky Mountains.
But what some might see as a burden, Carter counts as a blessing, as the church endeavors to share Jesus in an ethnically diverse boomtown known for its oil-and-gas headquarters and love for hockey, football and country music.
• Little church on the prairie, from Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, published August 2009.
GRAVELBOURG, Saskatchewan - Just off the main highway, behind the Snack Shack Eatery and the GravelBowl Lanes & Billiards, sits the Church of Christ.
A bright green John Deere tractor rumbles down a nearby street as an older couple watch closely from their front porch.
“Everyone Welcome,” says a sign outside the church’s newly renovated building.
In more than a few places in rural Canada, Churches of Christ are dying.
But in this historically French Catholic prairie town, the 100-member church is thriving.
“Here’s a church in a rural community that has figured out what it’s supposed to be doing,” said Stan Helton, former academic dean at Western Christian College in Regina, about 120 miles northeast of Gravelbourg.
• He takes notes, shoots photos — and preaches, from Amsterdam, published August 2009.
AMSTERDAM - Seven time zones and 5,000 miles from home, Erik Tryggestad got an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Erik, The Christian Chronicle’s international writer and assistant managing editor, was asked to deliver the sermon at the Amsterdam Church of Christ.
Edward Acquah, minister of the congregation of more than 100 Ghanaian immigrants, extended the invitation to preach as Erik and I greeted him in his office.
A veteran of international reporting, Erik came prepared that Sunday — with not only his notebook and camera but also a sermon tucked in his Bible just in case he needed it.
On a rare joint-reporting trip, Erik and I had flown all night from Dallas to Amsterdam the day before and then taken a train to Antwerp, Belgium, to meet up with missionary Paul Brazle and high school mission groups from Oklahoma and Ohio.
• Born at ACU, dream comes to pass, from Accra, Ghana, published July 2009. *
ACCRA, Ghana - Through an open window, the familiar voice came.
From a blaring television at an auto parts store next door, President Barack Obama’s recent speech to Ghana’s Parliament drifted into the Nsawam Road Church of Christ auditorium.
“America will be with you every step of the way, as a partner, as a friend,” the nation’s first black president said.
In his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, Obama promised U.S. support to help Africa build a better political and economic future.
At that exact moment, several hundred Christians were gathered inside the Nsawam Road church building to celebrate a different kind of partnership — one with eternal ramifications.
“As significant as Obama’s visit is … what we’re doing has a far more staggering impact for Africa because we’re dealing with souls,” said Deon Fair, a member of the Richardson East Church of Christ in Texas and a key figure in efforts to develop a Christian liberal arts university in this small coastal nation.
• Border violence curtails mission trips to Mexico, from Tijuana, Mexico, published April 2009.
TIJUANA, Mexico - Three times a week, San Diego resident Steve Mock crosses the U.S.-Mexico border to teach preaching students in this violence-scarred city of about 1.5 million souls.
Mock, an instructor at the Latin American Christian Institute in the heart of Tijuana, recognizes the dangers involved.
“I mean, I’m aware of it,” said Mock, a member of the Canyon View church in San Diego. “There were almost 900 people murdered in Tijuana last year. But most of them are drug cartels fighting each other.”
Still, Mock said he understands why a number of American church groups canceled annual spring break mission trips to Mexico, while other congregations reassess scheduled summer efforts.
“I have not tried to talk anybody out of it who made the decision not to come this year,” Mock said. “I mean, I still go on. I don’t worry. … But it would just be a disaster if some student or some college kid or parent was shot in the crossfire somewhere between gangs.”
A 2-year-old offensive on drug traffickers by Mexican President Felipe Calderon has caused gang violence to surge along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border and claimed more than 7,000 lives in the last 15 months. The 843 killings in Tijuana last year were more than twice 2007’s total of 337.
• Fertile field for faith? Struggle in a secular culture, from Toronto, published April 2009.
TORONTO - Gerald Ellis is a rare breed at the Strathmore Boulevard Church of Christ.
He’s a native Canadian.
In this cosmopolitan city of 2.5 million residents — roughly half born outside of Canada — the 200-member congregation reflects the international population.
“We’re all God’s children, no matter what color,” said Ellis, a deacon who has seen the church grow much more multicultural.
On any given Sunday, Christians representing 32 nationalities assemble at the red-brick church building, across the street from a subway station.
“This is how it’s going to be in heaven,” said Jean Volcy, an immigrant from Haiti who serves as one of the congregation’s four elders. Peter Dwomoh, another of the elders, is from Ghana.
A bus driver who works 12-hour shifts, Dwomoh arrived in Toronto on a Friday and showed up at the church that Sunday.
As Churches of Christ in Ontario — and throughout Canada — struggle to influence a largely secular culture, Christian immigrants from around the world provide a spiritual and numerical boost, leaders said.
• Ministry of mortar, from San Antonio de las Alazanas, Mexico, published April 2008.
SAN ANTONIO DE LAS ALAZANAS, Mexico — He’s an American by birth.
He’s a Mexican at heart.
Friends of Rick Owens — a former Alaska oilfield worker who has helped build more than 150 churches all over Mexico — will tell you he’s a bit rough around the edges, even cantankerous.
But they’ll also tell you he’s a dedicated disciple of Jesus Christ whose tender heart melts with compassion for his brothers and sisters south of the U.S. border.
“Rick has that same zeal that most of us had when we first became Christians and we wanted to go out and save the world,” said Joe Bright, minister of the Sunset church in Springfield, Mo.
“He’s not very tolerant of things that he views as a waste of the church’s time and money and effort,” added Bright, who has made 30 trips to Mexico to help. “He’s found his niche, and he thinks everybody ought to jump on board with both feet.”
• Not-so-material world: Blessings in remote village, from Aquiles, Mexico, published May 2007.
AQUILES, Mexico - I am lying on the ground in a sleeping bag, within earshot of a braying burro and an insomniac rooster.
A soft wind occasionally blows a much-too-strong whiff of the nearby outhouses to the patch of grass and rocks where my 9-year-old son, Keaton, and I have set up camp.
It’s the final night of our church’s annual spring break mission trip to this mountain village. Since our caravan of white vans and trailers will pull out before sunrise, we’ve already packed our tents.
Some of the women and children are sleeping in the vans. A few men and boys have taken up shelter in the concrete-enclosed building where w keep Vacation Bible School supplies. Many of the teenagers and college students mingle by the campfire, content to delay resting until the ride home.
“How would you like to sleep under the stars?” I asked Keaton hours before.
His eyes lit up, and so here we are — enjoying the experience, if not getting much actual rest or seeing many actual stars on this cloudy night.
• A vision for Central America, from Las Tres Marias, Guatemala, published September 2005.
LAS TRES MARIAS, Guatemala - A tree stump with a flat piece of wood on top serves as the pulpit at the Church of Christ in this remote mountain village.
In a pavilion-like structure with a metal roof, three single light bulbs and no walls, church members sit on handmade wooden benches on a dirt floor.
The 50-member congregation’s prayers and songs of praise echo over a lush mountainside covered with coffee, corn, beans and bananas.
“I’m so glad to work for the Lord in this little village,” said minister Roberto Caal a 39-year-old father of six who supports his family by working in the coffee fields.
Here — in a village that had no church 14 months ago — and in places like it throughout Central America, a Texan named George Hall intends to realize a vision for the Lord.
• American boy and his church share faith, friendship with Mexican orphans, from Juarez, Mexico, published September 2004.
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) – As the sun beats down on the yellow plaster building with the smelly trash dump out back, the skinny American kid with freckles and a crewcut raises his shovel again.
Eleven-year-old Taylor Eckert is part of a crew digging mounds of dirt and rocks 500 miles from his home in suburban Dallas. While friends are at camp or the mall, he’s sweating in Juarez, a world of poverty, hurt and graffiti. It’s his third summer visit here.
“We need a dump truck and a bulldozer,” the boy with the bright red neck jokes as he tosses another shovelful into an old Chevrolet pickup.
When the truck is full, Taylor and the grown-ups working with him at “The Hole” ride up a steep hill and shovel out the messy contents. It’s a labor of love in the 95-degree heat – part of a project to build a retaining wall at an orphanage.
But why have these folks from a land of plenty made this pilgrimage to the Emmanuel Children’s Home?
• They took a taste of Oklahoma to Brazil, from Vitoria, Brazil, published June 1999.
VITORIA, Brazil - Marcus Mendes has a dream.
The 8-year-old Brazilian boy wants to learn English and play soccer for Oklahoma Christian University.
It’s a dream inspired by Oklahoma missionaries, who had a dream of their own a decade ago.
In the late 1980s, as four college buddies neared graduation from Oklahoma Christian, they started talking about moving around the globe. Their hearts told them what they needed to do: Tell the story of Jesus Christ.
God, they said, showed them where: this South American city of 1.3 million, where 600,000 people live in poverty, many in flat-roofed slums built on the sides of mountains.
“Just somewhere along the way, when our Bible class teachers said, ‘Go out in all the world,’ we said, ‘OK,’” said Taylor Cave, one of the buddies.
Cave, David Duncan, Terry Fischer and Rick Sandoval persuaded their sweethearts not only to marry them – but also to learn Portuguese and raise children in a foreign land.
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Photo: At a wildlife park in South Africa.