SAN PABLO TIJALTEPEC, Mexico (BP) -- Renan, a 10-year-old boy in southern Mexico, isn't an orphan. But in many ways, he might as well be.
It's been more than three years since Renan's parents, bound for the United States, left him in the care of his uncle in Mexico. It likely will be months or even years before he sees them again.
Renan and his family are from the Tijaltepec Mixteco people group in the isolated community of San Pablo Tijaltepec, nestled among the jagged mountains of southern Mexico. Most residents are subsistence farmers, growing the food that their families eat. Because jobs are scarce, many of these Mixtecos leave home to seek work in the U.S. But not everyone can make the journey, and families like Renan's often end up split between the two countries for years at a time.
Until recently, the Tijaltepec Mixteco were a people group yet to be exposed to the Gospel. But not anymore.
In 2011, Valley Baptist Church of Bakersfield, Calif., selected the Tijaltepec Mixteco people to "embrace," accepting the long-term responsibility of reaching them with the Gospel. Since then, the project has transcended the boundaries of culture and country, linking the Mexican mountainside and the Californian Central Valley in ways the church never imagined.
The starting place
Valley Baptist faced the initial challenge of choosing from among more than 3,000 unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs) in the world. UUPGs are people groups that have no continual access to the Gospel through any evangelical church planting efforts (unengaged) and those in which less than 2 percent of its population is evangelical Christian (unreached).
Church members researched people groups via gettingthere.imbresources.org an IMB website that charts UUPGs and their locations using dots on a map.
"And the first thing that struck me was how many were clustered in southern Mexico," co-pastor Phil Neighbors recalls. "I mean, I was thinking that we were going to be going to some far-flung corner of the world. I couldn't believe that right here in our hemisphere there was this huge cluster of unreached people groups."
To find out more about the people groups, Neighbors contacted Chris Ammons, an IMB missionary in Mexico that Neighbors had known since they attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary at the same time. When Ammons started coordinating a missionary team to serve in the Amazon jungle, Valley Baptist began sending short-term teams to work with him -- to date, a 15-year partnership that has included more than 70 missions trips.
When the church was ready to "embrace" a people group, Ammons offered to help the church find the best fit.
Not long after that, Ammons visited a rural area called Tijaltepec in the mountains outside Oaxaca, Mexico. After speaking with the residents, he made a stunning discovery. A woman there mentioned she had family in California.
"When she said Bakersfield, I knew God was telling us something," Ammons says. "I asked other people if they knew anyone Bakersfield, and almost everyone had family there."
"In the beginning of my missionary career this would have surprised me, but I have seen so many times now that this is just the way God works," says Ammons, a New Jersey native who has been a missionary for 28 years. "Our thoughts are not His thoughts; our plans are not His plans. The difference is His plans work."
Astonished at Ammons' news, Valley Baptist began researching the demographics of the Bakersfield area.
"And to our amazement, we found out that 20-25 miles from us, in a town very close to us, are approximately 700 of our people group," Neighbors says. "They have the same language, the same culture, and they've migrated from Mexico to work in the Central Valley. And when we made that discovery, not only they were there, but that they were here, we felt we were on to something."
Ammons and his wife, Pam, have trained members of Valley Baptist in church starting in Mexico and continue to offer training to the church in California when the couple is stateside.
As a result of their longstanding partnership, the Ammons consider Valley Baptist to be their home church.
For the past two years, members of Valley Baptist have held medical clinics, children's events, worship services and a showing of the JESUS film during several short-term trips to southern Mexico.
Valley Baptist's goal is to not only share the Gospel with the Tijaltepec Mixteco but to help them spread God's Word to "all the other people of the same dialect that are scattered throughout the mountains," Neighbors says.
Soon after finding Mixtecos in its own "backyard" of California's Central Valley, the church invited local Mixtecos to attend a joint fellowship event. Neighbors expected a hesitant turnout but was surprised when 400 Mixtecos came to the event.
"All of a sudden, 400 of our congregation who were in attendance were on a missions trip in our own building," Neighbors says of speaking with the Mixtecos one-to-one. "That dynamic had never happened before, and it brought the whole Mixteco project literally right to our front door."
Valley Baptist has begun leading outreach events for the Mixtecos in California, hoping to eventually start a Mixteco church in the area. So far, the church has begun 12 Bible studies among Mixteco immigrants living near Bakersfield.
Open door to reach 'My people'
Since Valley Baptist "embraced" this people group, Juanita Montoya and her husband, John, have helped start outreach among Mixteco immigrants in California and participated in a mission project among the Tijaltepec Mixteco in southern Mexico. Both of Mexican descent, the Montoyas are part of the Hispanic campus of Valley Baptist Church.
"I know the need that my people, Mexican people, have. So that was an open door for me," Juanita says. "We are able to provide services in the United States that they may need, whether they need a ride to go somewhere or help with their passport," she says. "Sometimes they don't have the facilities or the transportation to be able to get there. So , we tell them stories and tell them about the Gospel."
Most Mixteco in California speak Spanish, so Juanita's ability to communicate with them as a native Spanish speaker plays a major part in the church's evangelism efforts.
But when communicating with Mixteco women in Mexico, she faces the same language barriers shared by any of the Valley Baptist volunteers who don't speak Spanish. That's because most Tijaltepec Mixteco women in southern Mexico speak only their indigenous Mixteco language. There, it's mostly the people group's men who speak the trade language of Spanish.
"I could say, 'I can't teach because of my language,' or 'I have an accent' or all these things," she says. "But once we start telling the stories, it's completely different. Now I know that it's not me, but it's God in His greatness that says, 'I can use you.'
"I've always loved missions," she says, "and as long as the Lord opens the door, we're just going to walk through."
A rewarding challenge
Missions team members have recorded and relayed video messages for family members in both Mexico and California, allowing Mixtecos like Renan's parents to see their loved ones for the first time in years.
The church hopes the gesture will build goodwill in the communities and open doors for sharing the Gospel.
"It gives you a sense for the heart-wrenching story that many of these people are going through to try to make a better life for themselves," Neighbors says. "We have kind of become a liaison between them.
"What a wonderful thing it would be if mom and dad trust Christ and one day we can tell them their son has become a believer. Even though they are separated, they can share a common bond" if they all become believers.
"When we 'embraced' this people group, that means they're ours," Neighbors says. "We've never shouldered that kind of responsibility before in a missions work. I'll be honest with you. I lay in bed at night thinking, 'If they're going to be reached, it's going to be through us.' And that's a heavy burden, but a good burden. We've got to do this."
As Valley Baptist "embraces" the task of reaching the Tijaltepec Mixteco people for Christ, many more of the world's people groups have yet to hear the Gospel. Of the world's more than 3,000 UUPGs, about 230 of these groups live in the Americas.
Through IMB's Embrace initiative, you and your church can take the Gospel to one of these groups. To learn more, go to call2embrace.org. See related video.
Emily Pearson served as an International Mission Board writer in the Americas. Kate Gregory, an IMB editor/writer, contributed to this story.
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