Before I left on a mission trip south of the U.S. border this past spring, a Facebook friend was so kind as to post a State Department warning for all of us "crazy enough to travel to Mexico." That same day, I read a wire service report where one source suggested that mission groups going to Mexico "bring a body bag along."
Still, I chose to trust in God and go on the trip. But I prayed hard when a convoy of trucks filled with men toting machine guns and sporting green military uniforms zipped past our church vans and set up a makeshift checkpoint. As it turned out, the soldiers behaved extremely professionally as they examined cargo in our caravan of 13 vans. They assured us they were trying to protect us from any potential threats. I used the trip as a peg for a Christian Chronicle news story on "A rocky road for Mexico missions."
Because of that experience and my previous reporting adventures in places such as Tijuana, Juarez and Saltillo, a Los Angeles Times Column One feature on evangelical missions in Mexico piqued my interest. The headline of the front-page story touted Americans "risking lives to save souls."
A chunk of the top of the 1,400-word report:
MONTERREY, Mexico — Pastor Andres Garza had told the American evangelicals to stay away from his troubled city. The drug war made it too difficult to guarantee their safety.
But now they were back, in their golf shirts and sensible shoes and halting Spanish, happily milling around Monterrey's new headquarters for evangelical Presbyterians.
Garza smiled at his old friends. Al Couch, 81, a retired pharmaceutical salesman from Nashville, had come here so many times in the past that he'd earned the nickname "Monterrey Jack." But this was his first time back since Garza had warned the Americans early last year that the violence had grown too intense. ...
The way Garza saw it, the Americans' return on this September weekend was part of an epic spiritual battle for a city, like Babylon, that had fallen into decadence and was in need of salvation. There was also a little of Jesus' story in their visit.
"They came from a very secure place, the way Jesus came from heaven, to a place that isn't very secure," he said — and they had come to save souls.
The writer does a nice job of setting the scene. In fact, the entire story is filled with compelling details and anecdotes on the security situation and crime concerns in a modern, once fairly safe big city (I recall riding a public bus by myself in Monterrey just a few years ago and feeling totally secure).
However, the full report left me with a hollow feeling as a reader. The old men who ignored warnings to stay home and not travel to Mexico came across as rather shallow figures to me. To illustrate, consider this section of the story:
Most of the Americans figured they would be safe because they were short-timers with no connection to the drug world. Over breakfast, they spoke with a common strain of fatalism: Who's to say I won't get hit by a bus back in San Antonio? Or murdered in my sleep in Dallas?
"I pray they'll keep us safe," said Montana resident Jim Routson, 61. "But when your time's up, your time's up."
There was talk of the renowned Protestant missionaries who had spread the Gospel in dangerous places in times past: Adoniram Judson, who survived a wretched imprisonment in 19th century Burma. Jim Elliot, slain, in 1956, by Waodani warriors in the jungles of Ecuador.
"Once you're not afraid of death," said Whited, 76, the retired pastor, "life gets a lot easier."
Do these men really share a common strain of fatalism? Or would faith be a better word to describe their outlook? Why aren't they afraid of death? Could there be a spiritual reason for that?
Trust me, I've interviewed old men before. With certain old men, I can imagine that a reporter trying to delve deep into their souls might inspire frustrated grunts in response to probing questions. Nonetheless, a few more pointed follow-ups might have gone a long way toward busting the "religion ghosts" that haunt this piece.
Then again, maybe I expected too much based on my personal experiences. By all means, read the whole story and weigh in.