Jared Siebert, Director of Growth Ministries for The Free Methodist Church in Canada
When God closes one door He often opens another. When the door to the Dominican Republic was closed to Canadian short term missions, another door seemed to open up. That door was right here in Tillsonburg. A group of likeminded people came together from areas of South Western Ontario and began dreaming and planning for an outreach to the Spanish speaking migrant workers who come to this area in the summer and fall. In the summer of 2005 the Dawson family in Tillsonburg, the Peterson family from Sarnia, the Gurrola family from Durango, Mexico along with a few others from the New Horizons Church in Sarnia were involved in Friday afternoon street evangelism in Tillsonburg. We were somewhat overwhelmed at the positive response from the migrant workers, most of whom were from Mexico. As the cold weather came in October, the street ministry came to a close and ideas and plans were made for this past summer and fall.
How could we be more effective? Could we find a “permanent” location on the main street of Tillsonburg? Who was going to pay for rent, Bibles, tracts, etc. How could we connect workers with churches in Mexico? How could we make a lasting difference in the lives of those who came to our community?
Over the winter of 2005/2006 a committee called the South Western Ontario Spanish-Initiative was formed and work began. A couple of churches began to catch the vision and supported the work financially. God began to weave together a wonderful plan.
Spanish speaking volunteers were needed. We contacted a man in the Dominican Republic who expressed a desire to come and help us. We interceded on his behalf to the Canadian Embassy , but after three failed attempts he was denied the opportunity to come to Canada. No particular reason was given.
Around the same time God opened some more doors. A new pastor from a Spanish speaking church in Aylmer, about 30 minutes from Tillsonburg, heard about us and contacted us. Through an interpreter we found that he had just arrived from Cuba and was looking for opportunities to evangelize. He volunteered to help us out. The interpreter and her husband were excited by what they heard and they also came on board. Three Spanish speaking people from the Tillsonburg area contacted us and wanted to help. Along with Barb and Lloyd Peterson we were developing a good core of Spanish speaking volunteers.
Next came a place to meet. The migrant workers from the area farms usually only have from 4pm to 8pm on Fridays to come to town and shop, eat, etc. A place had to be found that was located on the main street, was easily accessible, had cheap rent and utilities and was available from August through to the end of October. After walking the main street and praying I called a number that was displayed in a vacant window and found myself speaking to a familiar voice. My friend Peter owned the building and was willing to let us rent it for less than half the usual price, utilites included. Praise God.
We cleaned out the building, prepared signs and ordered Spanish Bibles. We were given a good refrigerator and stocked it with cold pop. We ordered a temporary phone line so that the Mexicans could call home with calling cards to speak to their families with some degree of privacy. The phone was paid for by the Tillsonburg Ministerial Association. We came up with the name: Brazos Abiertos, Centro de Hositalidad: “Open Arms Hospitality Centre”. A church in Tillsonburg which seldom connected with other churches approached us and offered to supply all of the Spanish tracts we needed. They even bought a beautiful rotating display rack for the Centre.
The grand opening, complete with ribbon cutting, cake and reporters came on the second Friday of August. Over the next three months hundreds of migrant workers walked through the doors. We served coffee, pop, lots of homemade cookies and tortillas. We even celebrated Mexican Independence Day with a beautifully decorated cake and music. We were even able to rent a bus each Friday to pick up workers and transport them to and from the Centre. Each visitor who came to the Centre used a pushpin to locate his home in Mexico. We were then able to arrange follow-up contacts with pastors/missionaries in Mexico.
After we were accepted by the Mexicans, after all, “who are these gringos who are doing all of this for us?” God began to open hearts. There was a demand to meet more often so we started having Sunday afternoon services in Spanish.
Did any of this make a difference? I think Sergio’s story will answer that question. Sergio was walking along Broadway St. in Tillsonburg and saw a man holding a sign written in his native language. It was an invitation to come to Brazos Abiertos. Curiosity and a warm greeting in Spanish compelled Sergio to come in. He stayed for a while, spoke to some of the volunteers, enjoyed a Coke and some cookies and left a while later with a Spanish New Testament and a tract. When I walked down the street later I saw Sergio sitting on a bench reading his new Bible.
The next Friday Sergio came back to the Centre. He was smiling. He shared with us that he had read the four Gospels that week, read the tract and had given his life to Jesus. We rejoiced with him, prayed with him and began answering questions that he had. The following week Sergio was bringing new people with him to hear the Good News and experience hospitality and unconditional love. Each week Sergio came back and continued to grow spiritually. When Sergio Muniz Murga, was returning to Mexico, he asked for someone who could help him to grow spiritually. Since he was returning to Durango, we referred him to Victor Gurrola a leader and local pastor in the evangelical church in Durango. Sergio had an address for the bank where Victor was a manager and a phone number for Victor’s home. One Thursday afternoon, Victor was about a half hour late leaving for his lunch break at home with his family.
Sergio entered the bank and asked for Victor, saying, “You don’t know me but I was told to look for you when I arrived in Durango”. Sergio had arrived in Durango early that morning and in the afternoon sought out Victor. First he discovered that Victor was now working in a different bank but he was directed to the correct branch. Then Victor was late leaving. Lloyd Peterson who was visiting Mexico and who first invited Sergio to enter the drop in hospitality centre in Tillsonburg arrived at the same time to drive Victor and Sergio to Victor’s home. Was it just a coincidence that Victor left work late that day, or that Sergio actually arrived at the right branch of the bank or that he arrived the week that Lloyd and Barb Peterson were in Durango as part of their mission trip to Mexico? No! As Sergio joined Victor’s family for the noon meal, and as Victor answered his questions about the relationship between Jesus and God, it was clear that God had directed all of the events that brought Sergio to a mentor like Victor.
The first day Sergio was in his country even before connecting with his wife and children he learned of a service and congregation in the area where he and his family would re-locate. Once Sergio had a small map for Sector 1, he left for his hotel room, showered and changed and came to the service. Before preaching about God’s love and our need to share that love, Barb Peterson spoke to the congregation outlining the ministry in Canada and indicating that Sergio was a product of that ministry who might soon be a member of the congregation. Sergio arrived and shared testimony of God working in his life while in Canada. People from the congregation welcomed him eagerly and looked forward to meeting his wife and two daughters.
While the Petersons were in Mexico they hoped to meet Sergio’s family. On a Saturday morning they set out for El Salto about 1-1/2 hours from Durango. It was easy for them to find 16th of September Street; it was the main street, but the house number was a real challenge. Houses and businesses on the street did not have numbers. Finally someone asked who they were lookling for and they went up three flight of stairs to a small apartment. There they met Petita, Sergio’s wife. She was shy and quiet but open to their visit and had prepared a hot drink and bananas. She could see a difference in spirit in Sergio and they had a long talk about the change in him. She seemed receptive as they spent a little more than an hour with her. They prayed twice for the family and Sergio said he would be in touch with Victor as soon as he was back to Durango for work.
Yes, the work in Tillsonburg and similar works in Forest and other small communities in Southern Ontario are having an impact. Lives are being reached and changed for Christ. So where do we go from here? Well, in Tillsonburg we have started Spanish classes for us gringos so that next summer we will be better prepared. We would still love to have Angelo from the Dominican Republic come so that we will have someone available every day to help us reach out to the workers on the farms. What can you do? You can come and help us in Tillsonburg. You can pray that many more like Sergio will be changed by the Good News. You can pray that we will be able to set up a good network of contacts in Mexico who can follow up with the work that is done here. You can give financially so that we can have a location next summer, a bus, Bibles, a full time helper and more. You can be willing to open your hearts so that when a missions opportunity arises in your community you too will be ready to open the doors to those who are seeking.
Rev. Doug Dawson is Pastor of Open Door Church in Tillsonburg, ON