The bridge abroad

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Adios 11-11-11 takes entire church to Mexico

By Myra Holmes

What if an entire congregation could experience short-term mission together? How might that experience not only impact the culture they served but also transform the congregation and their community back home?
And what if the church taking on such a mission was not 50 people or 100, but 1,000?

“Sure it’s a crazy idea,” says Jeff Gowling, pastor of The Bridge Bible Church, Bakersfield, Calif. “It’s a radical idea. But it was God’s idea.”

It was on a short-term mission to Mexico over a year ago that The Bridge leaders began to feel God nudging them toward such a bold move. Gowling describes standing on a small amphitheater stage in Mexico, imagining the congregation worshipping and serving together there. That dream came to fruition Nov. 10-13, 2011, when about 700 people from The Bridge served in Ensenada, Mexico with what they called Adios 11-11-11.

Of course, the logistics of taking so many people into a different culture to serve were formidable. So designated teams tackled each aspect of the project to make sure it all stayed organized and on track.

Seeing God's hand at work

Kelly Geisler, who served as the administrative assistant for the Adios planning committee, was impressed by the massive organizational effort over about nine months, but she was even more impressed by these leaders’ continual focus on God. Leaders began each meeting on their knees. It was a blessing, says Geisler, to work with men and women who were so “God-driven.”

Scott Fults, who oversaw one of 10 ministry “zones” with several project teams in each zone, says he was pleasantly surprised by how well everything came together—so well, in fact, that God’s hand was clearly evident.

For example, Fults says, organizers hoped to have medical personnel near each project team serving in Mexico, but when the team assignments were finalized, they realized they had overlooked that detail. As they went back through the team assignments, they discovered that every team already included a doctor or a nurse.

Logistic teams could not have prepared for unusually heavy rains that provided a significant challenge on the final day, drowning tents and turning roads into mudslides. Participants whose tents were no longer useable moved into a large auditorium to sleep on the floor for the night.

Geisler tells how her team intended to return to Bakersfield that evening, but when roads became impassable, she was forced to stay with others in “The Barn.” “God had no plans for us to leave that night,” she says.

Although anxieties ran high as Adios participants waited for blankets, Geisler says most people remained gracious. Furthermore, the worship and communion that final evening was the highlight of the trip for her—“one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been part of.” The shared experience served to unify participants and give them a glimpse into the challenges that some of those they worked with experience regularly.

“That’s when you know that God has a plan,” Geisler says.

God's hand at work with cement, prison

God’s hand was likewise evident as the teams worked. Adios participants were divided into 41 teams that served in various ways in Ensenada. Most of the projects involved elbow grease and the simple willingness to serve: building, fixing, repairing, framing, roofing, painting.

One team doing cement work ran out of cement as they neared the end of their project. As they were praying for wisdom on how to proceed, a cement truck pulled up, and the driver offered some cement that was left over from his project at no cost.

Gowling tells of another team that worked on a kitchen floor for a Mexican prison. When the floor was complete, the warden held a small dedication ceremony. With unprecedented openness, the warden acknowledged his own belief in God, invited the team to share the gospel and welcomed them to return for future ministry. “You are now partners with us,” the warden told the team.

While the impact of 700 workers serving in Ensenada was significant, the bigger impact was the relationships that were built. Fults says that early on, organizers made a significant shift from thinking in terms of swooping in to do something for the local pastors and ministries, to asking what local ministries needed and seeking to partner with them. And when The Bridge asked, Mexican believers told them clearly that relationships were as important as any project they could do.

Relationships important to local leaders

As Bridge missionaries worked alongside Mexican believers, genuine connections were forged in spite of language barriers—“something that only God can do,” Gowling says.

Geisler’s team worked on adding space to the home of a pastor and his extended family. She says that instead of being saddened by the extreme poverty she saw, she was inspired by the graciousness and joy of the pastor’s family. In spite of the language barrier, she witnessed and experienced their happiness, their hospitality and their contentment. “I was humbled,” she says.

Eric Nielsen’s team built a small home for and with a partially-disabled single father, Roberto. When those torrential rains came, the team refused to stop their work—roofing, at that particular time. Roberto was visibly touched when he saw the soaked workers on his roof. “He could really see God’s love for him in all of it,” Nielsen says.

He adds, “We’ve created relationships there that will last a lifetime.”

Already, individuals and small groups of people from the Bridge have returned to Ensenada to serve and to build on relationships. Gowling says The Bridge will organize more formal trips back as well, and some are asking for an “Adios 12-12-12,” although Bridge leaders haven’t committed to that.

Relationships strengthened in church family

The Adios mission impacted relationships within The Bridge as well. As teams prepared together for the trip, lived together in Mexico and served side-by-side, bonds were formed that will not easily be broken. As some participants commented informally, “We’re brothers and sisters now for sure.”

Each night, Adios participants gathered for corporate worship featuring a key word or focus. The first night, the focus was “carte blanche,” a term referring to absolute surrender. Gowling challenged participants to give any unsurrendered parts of their lives to God. “I think a lot of our people did,” he says.

The second night’s word was “Jesus,” reminding participants to look for Jesus in those they served. The third night, “catalyst” challenged them to use Adios 11-11-11 to change the rest of their lives.

“Our biggest prayer for this trip was that it wouldn’t be just a weekend mission trip in Mexico, but that it would be a life transformation and a church transformation,” Gowling says.

Hoping for "radical" decisions in Bakersfield

While it’s too early to evaluate what kind of long-term transformation this trip began, Gowling hopes they’ll see increased involvement in service in their community, families united and loving in new ways, even people making so-called “radical” decisions that become the norm. He says, “We’re on the right track, but the success of this trip will continue to be lived out.”

One small example of such a “radical” decision: Nielsen says that after building a home and a relationship in Mexico, his family chose to go without a Christmas tree this year, donating that money to Roberto and his family instead.

To leverage the Adios experience for maximum transformation, Bridge leaders are building partnerships with ministries in Bakersfield and encouraging small groups—they call them “impact groups”—to get involved in local service. “Now all the hard work really begins,” Gowling says.

Gowling warns that an all-church mission trip isn’t for every congregation. Without God’s clear leading, it would be truly crazy. He advises those considering such a step of faith to pray first. “Be sure it’s God’s thing,” he says, “then jump in with both feet with reckless abandon.”

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