Journey to Mexico City

The day after Christmas, Langston Brooks wheeled a rusty yellow delivery van into the Torrey Bible Institute quad to load up guys for the Mexico trip. It backfired when he shut it off.

Greg asked him, “Wow! Did you check the truck out before you drove it away?”

“I axed ‘em if this was the truck you reserved, and they said it was.” The van boasted only one tiny window on one side.

It was long before dawn with a bone-chilling wind sweeping across the quad. The guys all stood huddled under a floodlight on the hoar-frosted cobblestones. Sean envisioned traveling hour after hour, seated in the dark van. He thought of his family Christmas in California that he would miss. Wondered if this “mission trip” would help him recover Christian faith.

Sean and Alex remembered Greg’s instructions—”No cameras. We’re on a mission, not a tourist trip. Bring one change of clothes and stuff it all into a pillow case. It’s easier packing that way. And bring your Bible and toothbrush.” Sean wondered why Greg hadn’t hired a horse and wagon—it would have provided even more suffering, more sacrifice. But they needed to get to Mexico fast if they wanted to blanket several square miles with literature.

When Langston flung open the double doors, Sean saw thousands of Bibles and Christian pamphlets strewn two feet deep across the van’s bed. Langston threw two large tarps over the literature.

“Where’re we going to sleep?” Alex asked.

“Ya’ll gonna sleep on top of this,”  Langston told him.

They loaded up and started out through the vast, quiet streets of pre-dawn Chicago. Mexico City lay 2300 miles away—sixty hours of driving time with fifteen guys entombed in the dark van. A low-wattage bulb overhead gave barely enough light to read their Bibles. They sang a few choruses, but mostly slept. The route lay through Joliet, Champaign, St. Louis. It was getting dark, but they continued to drive, stopping only for gas, bathroom breaks, and truck stop food. They drove for hours through Texas, and finally reached the border town of Brownsville in the late afternoon of the second day.

“Okay; the church says we can overnight here on the floor,” Greg said. “We’ll cross the border tomorrow. We gotta pray that all this literature gets through.” Greg acted as if they were smugglers for Jesus sitting atop precious cargo, and prayed a panoply of protection over them.

Next morning they all grew quiet as the van approached the border and pulled up at a small wooden guardhouse where they all piled out of the van. The guards asked Greg some questions, trying out their English. “Where you from? Where you going? What you doing in Mexico?”

“We’re going to help some of our friends,” Greg explained.

Each guy walked into the guardhouse to fill out a visa form. Where it asked Motivo de viaje? (purpose of trip) Sean wrote in “missionary.” The official said, “No sirve.” He scratched this out and wrote “tourista.”Technically no one could enter Mexico as a “missionary.”

Outside, the guards sniffed around the truck, looked underneath it, looked inside the back, then turned to walk away. But one guard stopped, returned, then rolled back a corner of the tarp.

He saw the books. “Qué son estos?” he asked Greg.

Greg said, “We’re taking these books down to give to friends.” (He didn’t mention they were going to charge a few centavos for a copy.)

The guards looked around some more, asked more questions. Sean asked Alex, “Are they waiting for a bribe?”  Sometimes a couple of dollars at the border greased the skids and reduced the delay. All the STL guys were sitting around on the ground waiting.

Then abruptly, they waved them through. Sean didn’t see any money change hands.

The next day, evening was falling as the truck entered the vast outskirts of Mexico City. Street lamps illuminated the grey industrial buildings, and all the signs were in Spanish. Greg hadn’t planned for accommodations (typical of STL; they traveled “on faith”), so the group did what all homeless Evangelical missionaries do when they arrive in Mexico City—they went to “The Kettle” and threw themselves upon the good graces of Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT). In Mexico City, WBT maintained The Kettle, a place of refuge for their missionaries when they came to the capital to renew visas, get government permissions, make purchases or meet other staff. The director told Greg, “You guys can bed down on the floor of this large assembly room.”

Sean and the team felt truly welcome. Greg seemed oblivious to any sense of imposition; he was on a mission for God and graciously accepted the hospitality. It was a good fit anyway, since WBT, like his Spread the Light group, specialized in literature and literacy.

In high, cold Mexico City, the STL guys wore their jackets as they enjoyed hot coffee in the patio. Supper time came, and Sean and Alex helped themselves to a wonderful buffet-style meal of rice mixed with fragrant pieces of pork, mango and pineapple, accompanied by guanabana juice. Behind the counter, Mexican women in white blouses and multi-patterned skirts dished up the food.

Alex and Sean sat under the colonnade in the dim light, eating their dinner at a table with an older WBT couple. Sean asked, “How long have you worked with WBT?”

“Over twenty-five years.”

“Do you like it?”

The woman replied, “Well, yes; it’s been a great ministry for Cam and me”

Sean asked, “Where did you live in the States?”

The man said, “I graduated from Santa Ana High School. My wife, Elvira, also comes from Southern California.” He began attacking his rice and beans.

“Oh, I’m from Santa Ana! What parts of Mexico did you work in?”

Elvira said, “All over. Cam came here single at first, worked in Guatemala translating the Cakchiquel New Testament. He and I’ve been working together now for fourteen years.”

That night as Sean lay almost asleep on his cot, he thought about the tasty food. Then it hit him. Cam? Why does that name sound familiar? Cam . . . Cam . . . short for Cameron?

He jerked awak—“Uncle Cam” Townsend! He and Alex had just eaten with the legendary man who’d started WBT thirty years before. Uncle Cam knew the former Mexican president personally and had negotiated their broad presence in the country where they created alphabets for the Indian dialect languages and taught people to read. He was also founder of JAARS (Jungle Aviation and Radio Service), the air arm of WBT!

Sean yelled and Alex’s eyes flew open. “Dude! The guy we ate dinner with tonight started WBT. Cameron Townsend! He’s world famous; written up in Reader’s Digest.”

“What? What time is it? Why are you yelling?” Alex clearly didn’t grasp the awesomeness of the encounter. Exhausted, they fell back again on their cots and were soon asleep.

The next day the STL group transferred to a local church where they set up housekeeping on the floor of the auditorium. Greg walked in. “Here’s some, coffee, pan dulce, tortillas, beans. Just serve yourself.” After breakfast they sat around, sang a couple songs and prayed.

“You’re going to split up into teams of two,” Greg told them. “Each team will carry a supply of Dios Llega al Hombre plus lots of pamphlets.” (Dios Llega al Hombre was a simplified New Testament that uses only a few hundred Spanish words.)

Plunging into the vast city like innocents abroad, Sean and Alex went from door to door trying to sell their low-priced wares. They canvassed a dozen little pedestrian cul de sacs, knocked on a multitude of doors.

Someone had fabricated a little plasticized card with a message in Spanish that they gave to the people: “We are visiting Mexico to distribute Christian literature. We have some free things for you, and a few books to sell, cheap. Do you wish to buy a Bible?”

Usually, busy housewives answered the door with a couple of kids, black-eyed and serious-faced, peeking out from behind Mother’s brown legs. The women were polite and kind. Some practiced their English on the guys. All the stuff was deeply discounted. Most took the free literature and didn’t purchase anything. But some bought a Bible (fifty centavos) or a small booklet (five centavos). Sean kept track of the coins they accumulated.

Farther on they began seeing more upscale stores. On the sidewalk by Neiman Marcus, a girl walked up to them. She appeared a middle teenager¾thin, with large dark eyes, black hair, long eyelashes and too much eyeshadow. A smile showed lipstick on her white teeth. She wore flip-flops and a short, flowered skirt. Sean glanced up and saw a man lounging in a nearby doorway, staring at them.

Quiére pasear?” she purred. He didn’t know much Spanish but discerned this wasn’t a question, but a proposition. The guy standing nearby was probably pimping her. They gave her a tract.

Late morning they bought pan dulce and coffee in a tiny bakery. They’d each exchanged fifty dollars or so into Mexican pesos, an amount that needed to last their whole time in the country.

Walking outside, they inhaled the black diesel exhaust from the passing busses. Each had an Aztec barrio name over its windshield—Coyacan, Chapultepec, Tlatelolco. Alex said, “I think Tlatelolco is ours.” After they rode for twenty minutes they exited the bus and walked back to their church. Sean thought he’d write Kathy, and he had bought some Mexican stamps downtown. They’d hardly talked all semester. She’d traveled home to be with her family for Christmas, so she wouldn’t get the letter until after she returned to school. He sat on the cold floor with a notepad in his hand.

Dear Kathy,

You probably won’t get this letter before I come back. I hope you enjoyed a great time in California with your family.

Two days ago, we arrived here in Mexico City at “The Kettle,” a hostel run by Wycliffe Bible Translators. You’ll never believe who we ate dinner with—”Uncle” Cam Townsend and his wife! He’s the founder of WBT. We didn’t even recognize him.

I hope we can see more of each other when I get back about January 7.

Best wishes,


The time finally came to leave Mexico City. After three days of constant traveling the truck rolled into the school’s quad. Sean stumbled out the back, climbed the stairs to his dorm room, then fell exhausted on his bed, sick with diarrhea. Greg brought him up some Lomotil but warned him not to tell anyone he was sick because TBI might cancel future Mexico trips.

Sean smiled to himself. How strange he’d survived, even thrived, on this trip, even though he was telling some people he no longer believed in God. Interesting how a person can soldier on, even as they are losing their faith.

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