Photo: On a 2013 reporting trip to Antigua, Guatemala.
• • •
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 nine countries outside North America: Belgium, Brazil, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua and South Africa.
Some of my international work:
GUATEMALA CITY — Fifty years ago, the Pan American Lectureship was launched in this Central American capital to focus attention on fledgling Latin American missions.
Just a few years before, Jerry and Ann Hill and their two young daughters drove a 1955 Chevrolet 210 station wagon all the way from Pleasanton, Texas — becoming the first Church of Christ missionaries between northern Mexico and the Panama Canal Zone.
The Hills — the first of a team of missionaries who came to share Christ with this nation known for earthquakes, guerrilla warfare and its deep Mayan roots — arrived in 1959.
“The oldest Churches of Christ in Mexico were only about 20 years old,” the late Jerry Hill wrote in “Guatemala: Joy and Crown,” his 2011 autobiography. “The oldest church in South America was seven years old. There were no known churches in Central America.”
Fast-forward to a recent Sunday: The Pan American Lectureship celebrated its half-century milestone by returning to this sprawling metropolis of 3 million people where it began in 1963.
To mark the occasion, busloads of Guatemala’s faithful came together for a joint worship assembly — some traveling hours from remote rural areas.
Ann Hill, now 81, sat on the front row of a national convention hall the size of a U.S. football field, barely able to contain her emotions.
• 2013 — For a Nicaraguan church, a revival
MASAYA, Nicaragua — The front door of the Sacuanjoche Church of Christ swings open.
Children — 260 of them — stream out of the cramped concrete building with a tin roof.
Wearing freshly painted T-shirts that declare “God is our faithful provider” in Spanish, the boys and girls carry Bible-themed crafts and sack puppets with Jesus’ hair colored brown, orange and even blue.
These young residents of Central America’s poorest country — most of whom live in homes with dirt floors — giggle as they dig into plastic goodie bags filled with coloring books, crayons, candy, stuffed animals, toothpaste and toothbrushes.
It’s the final afternoon of Vacation Bible School in a busy neighborhood where bikes, motorcycles, small cars and horse-drawn carts share a street paved with hand-laid bricks.
In recent years, this congregation in the heart of a city of 150,000 — about 45 minutes southeast of Managua, the nation’s capital — has experienced a spiritual and numerical revival.
• 2012 — A rocky road for Mexico missions
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.
• 2010 — More precious than gold
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.
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.
• 2009 — Lead me to Calgary
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.
• 2009 — Little church on the prairie
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.
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.
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.
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.
• 2008 — Ministry of mortar
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.”
• 2005 — A vision for Central America
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.
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?
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.
• • •
Photo: At a wildlife park in South Africa.