By Gayla Cooper Congdon
In his book, Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald encourages families to make memories rather than investing in the accumulation of things. This was the premise that sparked a discussion 15 years ago with my longtime friends from Pacific Christian College, Dean and Amy Mathis, to impact families by taking them on a short-term mission trip.
We recognized we lived in a culture where a constant spiritual battle was waged for the family. We noted all the factors that made it difficult for families to connect. It begged the question, “How much quality time do families actually spend together?” This concern helped lead to the creation of two “Mexico Family Camp” ministries.
In the mid-1990s, Dean and Amy led the youth ministry at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana. Dean had been bringing high school and college students for many years to serve with San Diego-based Amor Ministries’ church-planting and house-building ministry focused primarily in Mexico. Amor’s goal was to provide a short-term mission trip experience that taught teenagers the value of serving others while reaching Mexican families in dire need. But we all wished to expand the experience to include U.S. and Canadian church families.
THE FIRST CAMP
With the support of the Sherwood Oaks church, the first Mexico Family Camp was launched during the summer of 1995. It consisted of 53 participants from about 15 families. The purpose of the program was to take a family out of its comfort zone by having them spend the week together in Mexico building a home for a needy family. As a result, two families would be transformed—one on each side of the border!Brad Pontius, global outreach minister at Sherwood Oaks, who now leads Sherwood Oaks’s trips, said he loves Mexico Family Camp because most mission trips are age-centered, but this one allows people of all ages to participate. According to Brad, “Parents see kids in action and, in turn, kids watch their parents serving. Sherwood Oaks’s philosophy is to encourage the whole family to attend while also providing the flexibility for a special bonding time for mothers and daughters or fathers and sons.”
Because of an idea more than 15 years ago, “Family Camp has become a part of our families’ culture,” says Brad. “It not only affects how they see material resources, but also determines their overall approach to life.” The best part is that the camp has, in Brad’s words, “enhanced the quality of community life in the church body.”
Dean Mathis now serves as lead pastor with First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, and that church has also partnered with Amor and is also reaching out to Mexico. The jointly created Amor Ministries Mexico Family Camp provides an atmosphere where families across the United States and Canada can worship, build, and sleep together in one tent (which is often the biggest challenge of all!). We find that kids do things with their parents in Mexico that they would never do at home.
THE WEEK’S AGENDA
The week begins with a family’s arrival in San Diego, and then they are transported across the border to Amor’s campground. Each day, families get up around 6 am for a devotional before eating breakfast, and then they prepare their sack lunch for the work site.
Families are combined to create teams that build a house together in four days. This includes mixing and pouring the foundation (without using power tools), roofing, framing, and stuccoing. Families also have the option of participating in a Vacation Bible School for those Mexican families who are receiving homes; community children are also invited to the VBS.
After a day of rewarding work, it’s back to the camp for a much appreciated bucket shower followed by a dinner that tastes better than any five-star restaurant fare. Perhaps this is due, in part, to everyone working so hard all day!
Families then gather together for an evening service where speaker Tommy Oaks shares the Word, while his son, John Thomas, leads worship. Amy Mathis then leads a planned activity the likes of which you could never imagine happening at home. Picture this—a mom and daughter dressed up in ’70s attire dancing to disco music under a big circus tent in Mexico. Does it get any better?
The real highlight of the trip, however, is the house dedication held on the last day. Lunch is taken to the work site and shared with the receiving family. Afterwards, the participants and the Mexican family pray and dedicate the new home to God. There is such joy on the faces of the family—and on our faces, as well—when they receive the key to their front door!
THE CAMP’S IMPACT
Over the years, many families have traveled to Mexico and been changed for the better at these camps. Even families that described their life together as a mess have been blessed on the mission field. A family from Palm Springs, California, had such an experience.
Mom and Dad (who was a chef at a Palm Springs Marriott) believed their daughters needed a dose of reality. Courageously, they signed up for Sherwood Oaks’s Mexico Family Camp. Right before their trip, the mother called to ask about the appropriate type of bathing suit her daughters could wear in the camp pool. Imagine her surprise when I informed her that the swimsuits were on Amor’s packing list solely for the purpose of taking bucket showers. There is no pool at camp. Welcome to Club Mex!
Nonetheless, these parents registered against the wishes of their three teenage daughters—all of whom arrived very well groomed with mouths agape at what they assumed would be the worst week of their lives. Where is that family today? Though they never returned to Mexico with Amor, Dad soon put in for a transfer to a Marriott in Honduras where they now serve with an orphanage simply because they were open to what God intended for their family.
Mark and Marilyn Kinkead, members at Sherwood Oaks, brought their family on that first trip back in 1995 and have not missed a year since. Why? Because, according to the couple, Mexico Family Camp has become a way of life for them. Their daughter, Hannah, promised her heart to Jesus and Mexico when she was just 5 years old—that’s the transforming experience these trips inspire.
Hannah, who is now 19, says, “Mexico captured my heart when I was just 5 years old, on a Family Camp mission trip. Every year I go back, the experience fuels the fire in me to serve the less fortunate. I feel the closest to God when I am out there in the sun and dirt, mixing concrete and loving people. Family Camp has undoubtedly created and cultivated this fire in me, and has led me to pursue a career in international nonprofit work. I can’t imagine a summer without Family Camp; and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”
Hannah’s dad, Mark, says, “Mission trips mess you up.” It looks like Mexico Family Camp certainly messed up Hannah—in the best way possible!
Family Camp is full of stories illustrating the life-changing experiences that take place, like the Mexican father who worked 365 days just so he could take a week off to help build his new home, or the American husband who baptized his wife in Mexico, and they together, in turn, baptized their children.
Luke Mathis, 16, has been going to Mexico Family Camp every year since he was 2. Here is how he sums up the experience: “Family Camp has helped me develop a heart for missions and the poor. It has affected what I want to do with my future.”
If you and your family are looking to draw closer to God and each other, visit www.mexicofamilycamp.org to learn more about Amor Ministries Mexico Family Camp, or call Mission Services at (619) 662-1200 Ext. 121. You may also go to www.famcamp.org for more information about the Mexico Family Camp hosted by Sherwood Oaks Christian Church. You, too, can be a part of “Families Building Homes, Homes Building Families,” but be prepared for it to mess up your life!
Gayla Cooper Congdon is founder and chief spiritual officer of Amor Ministries.