Calif. church finds ‘Embrace’ ministry 20 miles away in U.S.
Dec 4, 2013

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.

REACHING WOMEN Tijaltepec Mixteco women socialize at the community center of San Pablo Tijaltepec in southern Mexico. Its often more difficult to share the Gospel with this people groups women than with the men, since most of the women speak only their indigenous language. Most of the men also speak the trade language of Spanish. IMB photo
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).

Members researched people groups via, 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,” recalls co-pastor Phil Neighbors. “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 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 [near] 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.

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