South Texas churches plan 75th anniversary celebration for November 23
by Myra Holmes
In the fall of 1936, a group of mostly-white Mennonite Brethren with German-sounding names from the Midwest agreed together to take the gospel to the Spanish-speaking, mostly-Catholic people of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
This was “the most heroic step of faith ever undertaken” by the Southern District Conference (SDC), a district which then consisted of only 17 churches, most of them small, writes Anna Hiebert Esau in What God Has Done: The Story of the Latin American Mennonite Brethren Conference.
By 1937, the work in South Texas had begun, and next month the Latin American Mennonite Brethren (LAMB) district will celebrate 75 years of ministry. The anniversary celebration is scheduled for Nov. 23 at an event center in Penitas, Texas. The speaker will be Josue Contreras, currently pastor at La Joya (Texas) MB Church.
Elizabeth Tagle, LAMB district board member and organizer of the 75th anniversary celebration, says, “We are grateful to the Southern District for embarking on that adventure wholeheartedly and to the missionaries who believed that—in spite of resistance and many hardships—all deserve the opportunity to hear the Word of God. But most of all, we are grateful to God!”
The story really goes back much further than 75 years. In her book, Esau points back to the prayers of two “sin-hardened” men in Los Ebanos, Texas, and a few other scattered believers in the area. “God heard those sighs and prayers,” she writes.
Meanwhile, a Mennonite Brethren preacher by the name of Peter E. Penner championed outreach to the Spanish-speaking people in South Texas, preparing a district to send workers, and God worked in the hearts of a young couple by the name of Harry and Sarah Neufeld (pictured right), giving them a burden for Latin American people.
These prayers and preparations converged in God’s timing and, as Sarah Neufeld says in Esau’s book, “before we hardly knew what was happening, we were designated to go find a field along the Mexican border in Texas and start working.”
Although the Neufelds were sent with enthusiasm, they met with some discouragement. In Eight Years Among Latin-Americans, Harry Neufeld writes about the Valley’s inhospitable heat and the language barrier. One Baptist pastor told them that, although the area was rich with opportunity, “You will appear to these people as foreign devils.”
Elizabeth Tagle says, “Harry Neufeld—alongside other missionaries whom we will always hold dearly in our hearts—struggled with many obstacles to plant the Word of God in an area of the country very resistant to ‘non-Catholics’ and very suspicious of ‘gringos.’”
The first MB mission was established in Los Ebanos, Texas, with the first services held in January 1938 in a rented structure (pictured left). From there, the mission work spread to Chihuahua, La Grulla, Premont, La Joya, Edinburg, Casita and Garciasville, Mission, Pharr and Donna. A school was opened in 1948-49 with 113 students in eight grades, and El Faro School was a major influence in the district for 21 years.
As the work in South Texas developed and matured, it outgrew dependence upon the Southern District Conference. In the early 1960s, the South Texas congregations organized as the Latin American Mennonite Brethren (LAMB), with Inocencio Garcia serving as the first chair for the district’s Administrative Committee.
As LAMB celebrated 50 years in the 1980s, “our churches took God’s mandate to go forth and preach God’s Word,” says Elizabeth Tagle. She notes significant mission and church planting activity: new congregations at Pharr and Palmview, several efforts that are now part of another church conference and four missions established in Mexico.
Today, LAMB consists of eight congregations in South Texas: Donna MB Church, Lull MB Church in Edinburg, Iglesia De Gracia in Garciasville, Grulla MB Church in La Grulla, La Joya MB Church, Mission MB Church, Templo Nueva Vida in Mission, and Casa de Oracion in Rio Grande City.
As LAMB looks to the future, they again take seriously that call to go forth. Moises Tagle, district chair, says, “I am looking forward to working in partnership with Mission USA and LAMB churches to open new church plants in the coming years.”
Two LAMB churches are currently working with Mission USA, the church planting and renewal arm of USMB, to start new works. “I am hopeful that more will begin,” Tagle says.
Grulla MB Church hopes to launch a multisite church plant in nearby McAllen early this month. According to Don Morris, Mission USA director, Grulla pastor Aaron Hernandez will preach live for afternoon services for the first few months, after which they will be using high-quality video to stream sermons live from the Grulla campus to the McAllen campus.
McAllen is the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley, with many young, professional Hispanics—the target demographic for this project. Services will use both English and Spanish, and worship will be “very contemporary,” Morris says. Ozzie and Diana de la Cruz and Albert and Jessica Reyna will serve as core leaders for this new effort.
Mission MB Church has initiated a Spanish-language church plant, Iglesia Biblica de la Gracia Hermanos Menonitas, along what is known as the Seven-Mile Road in north Mission. This church began as a small outpost under a tent on an open lot, attended by a small group of people living nearby. Williams Velez is the church planter.
Grace Bible Church, Gettysburg, SD, has partnered with Mission MB as this project has gotten started. So the Project Team will include a representative from Grace Bible in addition to the Velezes and potential representatives from Mission MB, Mission USA and LAMB.
“That mix of people is exciting,” says Morris. “It means there will be a high-level support network provided to this new work.”
Moises Tagle asks that the larger USMB family pray for LAMB as they move forward into the next 75 years: that unity will abound, that more leaders will rise up and that God will provide the resources to plant new churches.