By Laura McKillip Wood
She was only 9 years old, but Gayla knew what God was telling her.
“I will follow you, God,” she promised, certain she was hearing him tell her to be a missionary. That commitment made at Guadalupe Christian Service Camp in New Mexico stayed in little Gayla’s mind over the next few years, even though she did not know exactly how it would play out.
By the time she was a sophomore in college, Gayla had shelved the idea of cross-cultural ministry. She was studying speech therapy at Arizona State University. Her pastor, Don Hinkle, who had baptized her as a young girl and was now pastoring a nearby church, asked her, “What are you going to do about that commitment?” She replied that she was a little girl at that time and did not know what she was doing. Hinkle sent her with a group of other college students on a visit to what was then Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University). “The rest is history,” Gayla says. She transferred to PCC and made several trips to Tijuana to work in an orphanage with student groups from her college.
By the time she graduated, Gayla was hooked. She called her parents.
“I’ve got my car packed, and I’m going to Tijuana,” she told them. Her college roommate helped her move. “I didn’t really even raise money or anything. I just went on faith.”
It was 1977, and the orphanage did not have a phone. “My parents had to rely on me driving across the border to call them.” As a mom herself now, she realizes what a leap of faith that was for her parents.
THE BEGINNING OF MINISTRY
Gayla began her career as an orphanage worker at the Tijuana Christian Mission. Most of the children were not true orphans, though. They had come from the Tijuana dump, where they spent their days picking up garbage to resell it. These children loved their families, but their families could not support them. Many of them saw their parents on the weekends. “Every kid I worked with wanted to be with the family,” Gayla explains. “You just can’t replace the desire for a family.”
Seeing these families separated by poverty, Gayla began thinking about what she might do to help them stay together. She realized that if the families had a safe place to live, they would be better able to support their children and stay together. “Building a house doesn’t just provide shelter. It keeps a family together.”
It was around this time that Scott Congdon and some fraternity brothers visited the orphanage where Gayla worked. “It was love at first sight,” she says. Not only did Scott fall in love with Gayla, but he fell in love with ministry. He caught her passion for working with orphans in Mexico, and together Scott and Gayla began Amor Ministries. They married in 1981, and their son, Jordan, was born in 1986.
Their 42-year ministry with Amor has been fruitful. Initially, it focused only on building houses for Mexican families. Amor has facilitated groups from around the world who come to build homes, and they have built 20,000 homes in northern Mexico.
As time passed, they saw that not only did their ministry make tangible differences in the lives of people in Mexico, but it often dramatically changed the lives of those who went on the trips. Amor’s policy is that anyone can participate in a trip, regardless of faith background. If people agree to participate in the faith-based portions of the trip, they can go. This means that nonbelievers work alongside believers, sharing their lives and their struggles. Friendships are born, and nonbelievers see believers in a way they may not have before.
More than 400,000 people have participated in an Amor trip since its beginning in 1981.
Today Amor consists of a coalition of ministries in several different areas of the world, including South Africa, the Yucatan Peninsula, Northern Mexico, and Europe. The ministry’s main headquarters is in San Diego, California.
One example of their ministry takes place in Northern California. There Amor works closely with a church located across the street from a high school. Students from the church invite their friends from school on Amor trips. By their senior year, approximately 75 percent of the class has been on an Amor trip. These kids come from all walks of life.
Amor has a philosophy of, “Let’s put down what divides us and pick up what unites us.” Many kids have come to know Christ through these trips; the work of Amor serves a double purpose of creating homes for people in poverty and ministering to students on the trips.
Over time, Gayla noticed a need for women to minister cross-culturally. In response, she started Women of Strength trips that take women from Western countries to South Africa to build homes, meet South African women, and learn about the culture, including the history of apartheid. Gayla says she has found that many women do not enjoy the traditional programs churches provide for their women. “A lot of women . . . want to do something meaningful,” she says. Amor gives them this opportunity to use their gifts, do meaningful work, and share their lives with other women.
Amor has need to make some adjustments since the pandemic began. Restrictions on travel have made their model of bringing short-term groups to build the houses difficult if not impossible. Instead, they have begun using local labor. “Our desire is that more and more houses are built by Mexican locals,” Gayla says, although they hope to continue offering short-term trips as well. As it stands, they continue requiring what they have always required: a local ministry board comprised of pastors in the community where they serve chooses families who qualify for a house, and the families who receive homes must own the property on which the homes are built. Most families work for years to save enough money to buy property. They are invested in the home they eventually receive, and often they join in the building process.
Gayla tells a story of Nery Fuentes, the mayor of a small town along the Mexican border. Amor requested that the town provide building materials for the homes as their contribution to the work. Nery was uncertain that the town would be able to provide the materials, but she asked Amor representatives to return after she had time to try to find them. When Amor returned, they found Nery had indeed procured the materials. She then showed them an old photo of a little girl in front of a house. She said, “That little girl is me. I grew up in one of your houses.” She wanted the same for the people of her town. That is the reason for Gayla and Scott Congdon’s ministry. That is love at work. That is Amor.