[Some of you may remember the first third of this article, as it was written for a recent edition of the URCNA Trumpet.]
¡Saludos en el Nombre del Señor Jesucristo! Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! We are a small mission church of the URCNA in the city of Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico. My name is Matthew Van Dyken, and my dear wife’s name is Anne-Marie. The Lord has blessed us with two small children, Naomi and Steven. For four years now, I have been serving as a missionary called by Hope Reformed Church in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Perhaps some history of the work would be appropriate.
The work was started in 1996, when Rev. Harry Bout and his wife, Joanne, first arrived in Tepic. The city was chosen for the work because there was no Reformed presence in the entire region, not to mention the lack of almost any Christian presence. Starting from nothing, the church has grown over the years to a healthy though still relatively small size. We now have ten families as members, with four more families in membership classes. A good number of other families are just visiting for now, which means our weekly attendance is about sixty to eighty people. The majority come from Roman Catholic backgrounds, some come from different cults, and several families from other Christian churches. Most of our families are on the younger side, such that we have many children running around after the service. Visitors often remark on the warmth of our church fellowship. The Lord is good and has blessed us with a church that loves to be together.
Most of my activities as a missionary pastor are the ministry of the Word within the congregation. I say “most,” because as anyone knows who has been in a church plant, the missionary is not just the one who brings the Word but also (with the help of my dear wife) the ones who play the piano, bring out the garbage, fix the not-working fan, and such things. Thankfully with the growth of the church, more and more of these tasks are being done by the church, which is as it should be. But the biggest challenge we find now is not so much the bringing of people to the church—we have plenty of visitors—but rather is a matter of discipleship. Calling those whose lives are so broken to faith and repentance in Christ, working through the webs of a sinful past with new and old believers—that describes a good number of my visits. Yet I would say that the majority of what we do as a church together is simply the study of the Word. We have several weekly Bible studies, as our church is quite spread out. We have two overnight church retreats per year. These activities are natural ways for neighbors and friends to come hear the Word. But just as important, they are ways for the congregation to grow in the knowledge of Christ and in love for one another. And of course, there is center of everything we do—Sunday, the Lord’s Day!
About half a year ago, a young man, Daniel, who had visited our congregation from time to time became very sick and went to the local hospital. There it was discovered that he was HIV-positive, as a result of his life of sin. In addition, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis because of his low resistance to infection. I visited with him many times in the hospital (taking all necessary precautions, of course) and later in his house. As you can imagine, it was very difficult news for him to swallow. Twenty-two years old, from a very poor family, and with mediocre public health care. But he showed a great desire to leave his life of sin, to serve the Lord for the rest of his life, and to know the Lord’s forgiveness. We were working through the book of John together. In the Lord’s providence, the night before he passed away we were studying John 3:14–15, together with its Old Testament context. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
Early in the morning, Daniel died on the way to the hospital. It was quite a shock. No one knew he was that sick. His mother had just left for the weekend to go to an island prison to visit her husband. The family asked me to do the funeral. The only problem was that Daniel was from Xalisco, a driving distance of half an hour from the graveyard. Having the funeral in our church building was not an option. So we decided to have a graveside funeral, and we set up chairs and shade. What an opportunity it was from the Lord to preach in such a setting, surrounded by the dead, preaching to the living. And what a text to preach (John 3:14–15)! We trust that the Lord will in His time use the Word to bring His people to Himself. Many people afterward expressed their appreciation for the funeral. As one person said, “It was so beautiful! I have never seen anything like it. Can I have a Bible?”
A lot of people ask what life is like on the mission field. We always feel a little sheepish with such a question, as we aren’t missionaries like those in Papua New Guinea, for example. A lot of things are the same. You can buy most everything at the local supermarket. And yet there are things that are different. For one, the food is different. The missionary mantra most definitely applies: “Where you lead me I will follow; what they feed me I will swallow.” We have eaten boar, cold jiggly pig skin cured in vinegar, fried pig skin (sort of like chips), and cow tongue (a delicacy). But I must hasten to admit that we love Mexican food. We have gotten quite used to our tortillas, cola de rata chiles (super spicy “rat’s tail” chili peppers), and beans. There’s nothing like a good Mexican taco.
In general, we enjoy our life here very much. At the beginning, there were a lot of differences, but gradually it becomes normal. Some things continue to bother you, but it is good to have a sense of humor. The following are some of our favorites from the “Only in Mexico” files.
Only in Mexico does your furniture get lighter over the years. (Termites!)
Only in Mexico do twenty-five people get into two cars for a Bible study.
Only in Mexico do you open a granola bar package and bite into the bar, only to discover your hand is covered with ants.
Only in Mexico do you dust your car instead of wash your car.
Only in Mexico can you arrive both late and early for an event. To the tune of an hour either way. (If the people say to be there at 3:00 p.m. for a party, they DON’T mean 3:00 p.m.)
Only in Mexico do you search the city over for a thermometer—a simple, analog one—without success. Ten stores and counting!
Only in Mexico can you walk one minute to the corner hardware store to buy three screws.
Only in Mexico do you go into the right lane to turn left and into the left lane to turn right. (The first is completely legal and makes a lot of sense due to the ingenious Mexican system of lateral lanes. The second, however, is completely illegal but often happens at a red traffic light when people want to get past a line of stopped cars.)
Only in Mexico you need to keep one eye peeled for traffic, one eye looking for street signs that don’t exist, and your third eye looking down for those ever-treacherous topes (speed bumps) waiting to jump out and slam into your car wheels.
Only in Mexico can you find oranges sweeter than sugar, bananas that taste best fried, and people who love to spend hours chatting with you. (People always have time for you. What a blessing!)
Just in the short time I have been here, I have received a lot of interest with regard to mission teams. In the past, we had about one team a year. From the beginning, the work started with a yearly vacation Bible day school team. That was how the first missionaries (Rev. Harry and Joanna Bout, Rev. Richard and Angela Bout) made the first contacts in the city. These teams have been a great blessing over the years. Now, however, our needs and focus as a church are a little different. It is possible that we might do another team in 2017, but the greatest need we have here is to train up the local church itself for leadership and for outreach. Indeed, that is the greatest need of our churches everywhere. And so, if you are reading this article and thinking that it would be a great place to send a team, let me encourage you to look elsewhere.
This coming Friday we are meeting as a church to consider and pray about starting an AWANA-style children’s outreach in another part of the city. On Sunday, the young people’s group will be handing out sandwiches and tracts at the hospital, as they do every month. We also have several men in our congregation who are interested in studying God’s Word in greater depth (i.e., at a seminary level). For these things we praise the Lord, as they are not to be taken for granted. How can you join us in prayer? You can pray that the Lord would raise up His church here, young and old, to love and serve Him first. You can pray for me that I would be faithful in my calling to be a husband and a father, to minister the Word, to continue in prayer, and not to spread myself too thin. And you can give thanks, for the Lord is good! It is a delight to see Him working, in the church, in our little family, in all of our lives.
Rev. Matthew Van Dyken is a URCNA missionary in Tepic, Mexico, and is married to Anne-Marie. They have two children, Naomi and Steven, with one more on the way. Matt and Anne-Marie have been on the field for four years.