On that first trip 26 years ago, three adults and four youth from Canyon Hills Presbyterian Church journeyed to Colonia Lazaro Cardenas, in Playas de Tijuana with a group of churches from the Santa Barbara Presbytery.
“When I first began as the youth director at Canyon Hills they had a tradition of offering youth mission projects but they did not have anything scheduled for the current year,” explained Lissa Smith, now pastor at Canyon Hills. She decided to reach out to synod connections and see if they might have any ideas, which they did, in Tijuana. They invited the Canyon Hills youth to join them.
“That first year we built very modest ‘homes’ and I use the word ‘home’ very lightly – they were more like shelters,” continued Smith. The group from Canyon Hills thoroughly enjoyed the experience and so the following year they joined the Santa Barbara Presbytery group again – this time bringing more than 20 from Canyon Hills. A new tradition had begun.
They began to get to know some of the local people who were involved with Futuro del Oro, the community center in Colonia Lazaro Cardenas – a ministry started by presbyterian ministers and missionaries. Among other things, Futuro provides education, community services and a clinic in the neighborhood.
Over time, what began almost accidentally – the result of a request for mission trip ideas – has become the pilar of the mission work of Canyon Hills. “We have developed great relationships with people on the other side of the border,” shared Smith. Congregations from Los Ranchos have joined in at times – Santa Ana First, Tustin, Fullerton, as well as First Presbyterian in Santa Barbara and Oxnard.
“Our work in Tijuana has been a great training ground in short term mission and community service for our students and adults,” continued Smith. “Because of the positive experiences they have had in Tijuana we have been enabled to think outside the box in how we might serve those in our own neighborhood and across the US.”
It is a project not just for the youth, but that the entire congregation rallies around. Even though only 50-80 people from the congregation actually travel to Mexico each year, it is a project that has a much larger impact. “We have prayer partners for each of the missionaries that we send, other folks make financial contributions or donate other needed items such as rice and beans,” shared Smith. “So, the entire congregation participates, even though we only physically send several dozen people.”
Smith has advice for those who might consider such an opportunity – just do it. “Go to the Los Ranchos website, look at the churches and just call someone up and say, ‘We want to do something in mission, can we partner with you?’ And, of course, ‘mi casa es tu casa’ – or, to put it more directly, if you’d like to join the group from Canyon Hills, you are more than welcome!