Richer in Spirit

In 2003, Todd Garrett was a young Marine second lieutenant who had returned home from the war in Iraq in time to share the letters he sent to his family with our readers. He wrote about sandstorms and Scud missiles, refugees and dead bodies, charred tanks and burned buildings and the unexpected camaraderie that arose out of a war. His words painted the brutal reality of a combat tour of duty.

Today, the 1998 graduate is a husband and father of four, a managing partner in a commercial real estate firm, and a pillar in the community whose commitment to a life of service has never waned. He currently serves as the president of Medical Missions, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to building Presbyterian churches, hospitals and schools in developing countries. For nine years, Garrett has led an annual mission trip to Chiapas, Mexico, one of the poorest regions in the world, where they work, play and worship alongside the indigenous people they serve. Here is his story of the trip he led this year in June.

A long day of travel

A mission trip starts similarly to a military mission.  The group gathers before dawn at the airport.  You check to make sure everyone is ready, gear and all, and then you begin your mission. From Charleston to Atlanta to Mexico City to Villahermosa, I lead a team of 13 to work with the Presbyterian churches in the northeastern corner of Mexico’s southernmost state.

In our travel downtime, I call my friend Army Col. Dan Fitch, ’99, at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, and he assures me he’ll get us out of Mexico if we run into banditos in Chiapas.  After 12 hours of traveling, we land in Mexico’s state of Tabasco, where we board two vehicles to drive south to Palenque, Mexico.

Tabasco has oil along the coast, but if you travel farther to the rural south, the landscape gets greener, with small corn and Brahma cattle farms, dry goods stores and mechanic shops dotted by rock quarries dug into the hills that rise in Chiapas. Palenque was home to a large Mayan civilization that arose around 200 B.C. and collapsed nearly 900 years later. The cities fell, but the people remained in the hills and jungles, surviving on subsistence farming and speaking their own Mayan dialects. In any given community, nearly a quarter of the people we meet and work with don’t speak Spanish, only Ch’ol or Tzeltal. 

Annual controlled burns light up the horizon as we drive south in the dark. We arrive in Nuevo Sonora late at night. Evangelical missionaries from the Presbyterian Church began work in this area in the 1920s, spreading into the Mayan communities, or ejidos, in the 1950s. Today, the Presbyterian Church consists of thriving, tithing, evangelizing churches that seek to spread Christ’s message of forgiveness and redemption.

This week, our work will be construction on an expanding church sanctuary and preschool in two of the ejidos. Most of the work is done by the local church members, and we sweat, break bread, and then cool off with them in the nearby turquoise creeks and rivers. 

A celebration

Well before dawn, roosters and chickens welcome us to the day. Hummingbirds sample the hibiscus around the compound. After 18 hours of travel yesterday, I need to stretch my legs. Linda-Marie Hamill, my sister and a Citadel health and human performance professor, joins me and three other group members, running sprints up the one-mile route from the highway, down to the creek, and up to the crest of the ridge above us in the ejido of Nuevo Sonora.

Later, we drive to the ejido Gethsemane to visit the Chankala Zapote Presbyterian Church.  Through years of tithing, tortilla sales and saving, the church was completed by locals with labor supplied by other Presbyterian churches in the region.  Medical Missions usually provides churches with the last 25% towards roof trusses, roof panels, lights, windows and fans. 

Beside the church is a tent. There are balloons and streamers, and dinner cooking over wood fires behind the cinder block kitchen next door.  Guitars play during the ceremony, and a band plays during lunch as the church community from Gethsemane and neighboring towns comes together to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the church dedication. Dr. Salvador De La Torre and his wife, Irma, introduce us.  

Nine years ago, our Medical Missions board met with the church leaders to plan a 10-year construction schedule to meet the needs of the growing church community with new churches, kitchens, fellowship halls and pre-schools.  The couple originally met in Chiapas, where Irma was raised and Salvador was a medical school resident. A trained nurse, Irma followed Salvador into the mission field in 1978 to Haiti, Kenya and Zambia, where they served for more than 35 years.  Since his retirement, Salvador has taken over as the director of the Nkhoma Mission Hospital in Malawi, but he spends two to three months a year in Chiapas.

I first met Irma and Salvador in Mwandi, Zambia, in 1996, after my sophomore year at The Citadel. I traveled there with Medical Missions to help the Losi people build a hospital in the Kalahari Desert. Over the years, we stayed in touch, and by the time they retired, I was the volunteer president of Medical Missions, and together we found an opportunity to serve the people of Chiapas, which fit within our mission of building and sustaining construction projects to serve Christian preaching, teaching and healing ministries. 

With lunch over, we board the bus for Roberto Barrios, another ejido where we cool down in a waterfall. Relaxed from our swim in the limestone pool, we head back to home base, and I saddle a horse to ride up in the mountains to get a better view. The horses are ridden daily by local men to their plots of land, where they tend their corn or their cows.

Preachers, teachers and businessmen on a construction site

Linda-Marie and two others join me for one mile of sprints followed by calisthenics and then a breakfast of beans, eggs with ham and pepper, salsa, pineapple and hibiscus juice. We slather on sunscreen and drive back towards Palenque, taking a left on another two-lane highway that winds through the mountains west and south. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrive at Ruiz Cortinez. 

Ruiz Cortinez is the site of the mother church for this synod, Mt. Sinai Presbyterian. The first thing most visiting groups notice is that there are no crosses in the church or on top of it. Evangelicals in Chiapas believe that crosses and crucifixes are symbols of the Catholic Church only. Annually, Mt. Sinai Presbyterian Church holds a large conference here to host young people from across the area.   Teenagers and young adults here, as in the United States, tend either to find their way or to lose it. The conference hosts Christian bands, and welcomes youth, lost or not, to continue in their faith through study and prayer.

Built on a hill, the church complex is two fenced acres and dominates the high ground of the ejido. This week, we’re helping to level out the main courtyard, digging out clay on the high side and filling in rock and gravel up to a foot within the cinder block wall surrounding it. Dump trucks from Punta Brava arrive from the quarry to dump their gravel, and we begin to load it in wheelbarrows and spread it out. 

Anyone who has visited a construction site knows that the church congregation does not need a bunch of preachers, teachers, businessmen and young people from Charleston to build anything. Among the local church, there are masons, carpenters, roofers and plasterers who do a good job of not letting us mess anything up. They don’t need us. The work would get done. It might take a little longer without the additional 25% that churches in the southeastern United States give, but they don’t need our labor. It’s the sweating, the sharing of lunch and the getting to know each other that are important. 

For lunch we have tamales with barbecue, fried chicken and rice with hibiscus and pineapple juices. This morning, the women of the church dispatched, plucked and prepared every chicken that we eat. After 100-degree heat all morning, we sit resting in the shade of the church, while part of the group unpacks a suitcase full of crafts and Bible storybooks that we share with local school children. Mothers stand along the wall watching their children, while some can’t stand just watching and jump in to participate.

Later, we head to Misol-Ha, a local waterfall, to cool off.  It’s a good-sized creek that empties into a cauldron of rock, dropping 100 feet below into a round pool as wide a football field is long. The walls of the limestone recede below the semi-circular cliff, with trees and vines clinging to the upper walls and small waterfalls seeping out of the sides of the rock walls. Along the edge of the lower wall, water streams out of a large hole, and with a flashlight you can follow the stream into the cave 100 feet as it curves back to the left and opens into a larger cavern, with a waterfall dropping 15 feet into the pool. Stalactites and stalagmites surround it, and if you keep your flashlight on the dome above, you can see the bats fly with you out of the cave. 

While the young people ride off on horseback to the mountain above, the rest of us clean up for dinner. A devotion follows dinner, and I give out the plan for the next day.

Ruiz Cortinez

My daughter and I begin the morning with a run up and down the route from one side of the small valley to the other. Afterward, we congregate for breakfast and coffee in the main house.

We drive back to Ruiz Cortinez. Most of the group falls in with the leaders in the church, continuing to spread the rock and gravel for the courtyard. There’s one week left before it should be complete. The two in charge of leading the Bible school this afternoon head into the sanctuary to set up. The sun is hot early, reaching 100 degrees, and within 30 minutes of shoveling rock gravel for the base, we take the first water break. 

Rev. Tracey Daniel, one of our preachers from First Scots Presbyterian, and some of the women of the church spend part of the morning sharing knitting techniques. The local women in the ejidos are known for the designs of this region that they sew on their blouses. In the background, the women of the church cook and clean, while the men do the manual labor.

Lunch is caldo, a soup with potatoes, chicken and green herbs. Tortillas are served on the side with very hot chiles and watermelon juice. The trucks from Punta Brava are delayed for a day, leaving everyone to participate in afternoon Bible school.  Children, ages 2 to 13, gather with parents and grandparents for games, songs, crafts and story time. Local Pastor Sebastian Arcos leads a devotion. Pastor Arcos is mostly retired but still provides the vision for church growth. Over the past nine years, we’ve worked together to complete 17 church expansions, and going forward, the focus is on rescuing young people, growing the churches spiritually and numerically, educating new believers and raising a new generation of children in the church. Ruiz Cortinez has 45 children being raised in single-parent households.

We pack up and head back to the Roberto Barrios waterfall to cool off. We climb and jump off some of the waterfalls. On the way out, we stop at the cinderblock store for the young people in the group to grab a bag of Mexican chips and sodas. In a tree beside the store, we see a green parrot squawking. 

A look-see day

Today is a look-see day. Three of us rise to run at dawn. After a shower and breakfast, we drive an hour east to turn left on a gravel road through Ejido Pancho Villa and then turn right up a gravel road towards Ciudad Agraria. There are four of us in the first vehicle. As we climb the cutbacks up the mountain, I wonder if we will have to hop out to push the van carrying the other 11 up some of the steepest parts. 

Elder Lorenzo greets us as we arrive. He proudly takes us on a tour of the newly completed church. We walk up the hill to see the old church building, a wooden structure made of mahogany planks that looks like a one-room schoolhouse. The mountain community is fed by two springs flowing with enough water to create an instant creek that runs down to the mountain community. Men, women and children of the church gather to show us the new sanctuary. They beam with pride, telling how they saved and tithed for five years, selling tortillas and tamales to build the foundations and raise the walls. Medical Missions contributed the roof and electric wiring for lights and fans. 

We drive down the mountain to Ciudad Agraria, pulling into the ejido by the church, where the elders, deacons and women of the church are working to put finishing touches on the structure—last-minute painting and wiring lights.

Across the gravel road from the church beside the local school, the kids begin playing soccer and basketball under a domed court built by the government. Three dozen school children are either coloring Biblical scenes or playing. The teacher calls the kids into the church, and our preacher leads Bible school.

Sunday is the church inauguration. I ask if they plan to cook a cow for the celebration. They grin and nod yes. The celebration will be like the one we had at Chankala Zapote on Sunday with a band, balloons and streamers, and food that has taken days to prepare. The church is the center of their community, and they will be rejoicing in the completion of it.

We board the van and bump our way back down the gravel road, past Brahma cows and vaqueros on horseback traveling to their land to tend their corn and beans.  Some families raise cows, chickens and pigs for their families, but they occasionally have a surplus to sell at the local market. Some larger landowners grow palm trees for palm oil. They can harvest them about every three weeks, but the closest oil processing plant is in Texas. Deacon Nicolas says his land is a three-mile walk from the church. Some in each ejido have a motorcycle, but it’s rare and usually means that someone in the family has gone off to Palenque or a larger city to work for wages. Part of the group travels to Welib Ja to cool off in the waterfalls. We spot howler monkeys swinging above the river.

20 de Noviembre

Well before daylight first comes over the mountains, the roosters begin crowing. We run four miles up and down our loop from ridge to ridge. Breakfast is black bean empanadas, scrambled eggs with salsa and cut pineapple with local fruit.

After breakfast, we drive to the town of 20 de Noviembre. When the young people in our group ask why the ejido is named 20th of November, I joke that it’s in honor of Clemson football Coach Dabo Sweeney’s birthday. With a group of three Clemson grads and 10 Clemson fans, it’s a readily accepted answer, but it actually marks the day of the Mexican revolution of 1910. 

With minimal cell service in the mountains and no hard-wired internet, communication takes planning.  Weeks before a group arrives, the preacher, elders and deacons, women of the church and Irma communicate about dates, logistics, and what we’ll be doing. Construction materials are pre-staged by the church, bought and delivered from Palenque. Of the 18 ejidos where we work, only one church owns a truck that can transport the materials.

Typically, we arrive at a church site that’s already humming with activity. After a week of flawless coordination, the ball is dropped in 20 de Noviembre. When we arrive, the gates are locked, and the church is empty. We find an unlocked gate, unpack our van and get ready to paint. When no one shows after 20 minutes, we pack it all back up to go to our next stop for the day. Just before we pull out of the ejido, one of the church deacons walks up to the van. He thought we were coming in the afternoon, but he is glad to welcome us. He walks to his house to get the key, and we are back in action. We paint the church, and soon enough the children of the church trickle in to see what we are doing. The young people in our group spring into action, playing soccer, bringing out coloring books and Bible stories, and soon an impromptu Bible school is taking place in the shade of the church, while the rest of the group paints. 

Back at the compound, lunch is delayed when the propane tank runs out. We enjoy the break and after lunch head to Ejido Nuevo Sonora to mix concrete. We load and move 28 wheelbarrows of gravel and sand to the mixing area. We carry fifteen 60-pound bags of cement to the pile, cut them in half and dump them out. Without a mixer, the next process looks like making a cake on a concrete floor. Using shovels, we mix it all into a pile, 4 by 8 feet in diameter. Then we mix it into two piles before mixing it back into one low and wide pile with the edges built up like a pie crust. We pour in water, and then a couple of the members of the church step into the mixture to start churning it with their shovels, trying to keep the edges from breaking and the water from pouring out. 

We rinse the wheelbarrows to wet them and start filling them with the concrete mix, then roll them to the area to pour the new floor as two masons spread the mixture out and level it for the new church kitchen floor. While we work, one of the church elders, Anciano Miguel Mendez Arcos, calls the children of the church from the loudspeaker to join in Bible school activities. That leaves four of us hauling concrete in wheelbarrows and nine preparing for Bible school. 

The Bible school group begins with games and coloring. Back in Charleston, as their annual project, the First Scots Kindergarten had prepared a library of Spanish-language children’s books for the new pre-school in Nuevo Sonora. Rev. Daniel formally donates the library to the preschool teacher at the church. 

Before leaving, Salvador and I, along with one of our group members, Jack Callahan, get a sample of the water from the area. The government dug a 400-foot well for the 1,000 people who live in the ejido, but the water is murky. Water Missions, which is headquartered in North Charleston, has operations in Chiapas.  We hope that with the information we take back we can raise the funds to pay Water Missions for the cost of installing a small water filtration system to meet the needs in Nuevo Sonora.

In the late afternoon, we board the bus to head back to our base camp. The group is slam worn out, which makes for a quiet drive back. I had arranged for Don Pedro from Nuevo Sonora to bring up four horses to ride us into the mountains for the final afternoon. I pay him for his time, and it’s a good deal for the both of us. Up and over the mountains into the dying light we climb. Saddles made for a community of people who average 5 feet don’t necessarily fit Americans, but it is a great way to end the trip.


We rise at 5 a.m., run two miles up and down the mountainside, do calisthenics, shower and meet for breakfast. The last day of a mission trip is always an ambush. I’ve been leading mission trips since 1998, and inevitably, someone you’ve been working with shows up for one last goodbye. Today, the retired pastor, the director of children’s ministry and the director of music for the Presbytery come to say goodbye just as we are about to sit down to breakfast. 

After a week of being welcomed by the churches into their communities, we make time to enjoy one last visit. We welcome Pastor Sebastian Arcos, Edgar and Abigail to coffee and then breakfast. When it’s time to go, we depart in two vehicles, waving goodbye to the locals who took care of us all week.

The van leaves for a tour of the Palenque ruins. In the small SUV, a few of us head for Ejido Tortuguero. I have never been to Tortuguero, but Irma wants to introduce us to the ejido to visit the church there. We drive for 45 minutes on the two-lane highway through the mountains, and another 45 minutes on a gravel road. We make our way past Ruiz Cortinez, San Miguel, Santa Maria and onto Punta Brava before crossing the river to make the climb up the mountain to Ejido Tortuguero. As we pull up beside the church, an excited crowd of older men dressed up in white shirts, women wearing local blouses with a colorful knit design and skirt, and younger boys and girls peer from the walls of the entry gate to greet and wave.

In the church, we take our assigned places at the bench behind the pulpit, looking into the crowd of churchgoers nearly 20 rows deep. The music picks up with the familiar hymn “How Great Thou Art,” led by the president of the session of elders, and someone hands us a hymnal in the Ch’ol language. By the second verse, Rev. Ben Sloan and I are doing our best to sing in Ch’ol.  

When the song concludes, the lead elder welcomes us and leads the congregation in prayer. In the United States, Presbyterians are more formal, and the prayer leader is the only one who speaks. In the Ch’ol Presbytery of eastern Chiapas or the Alpha Omega Presbytery where we have just travelled, the person leading the prayer speaks the first few words, but then the congregation erupts in a cacophony of prayers. The prayer leader gets louder as he wraps up, and by the time he finishes, there are only one or two who haven’t finished. He then introduces the leaders of the session, diaconate, youth leadership team and women of the church.

Five minutes of conversation turns into 15 as we translate from Ch’ol to Spanish and some English for Rev. Sloan.  He understands a lot but sometimes needs a translation in response. Our meeting is to introduce the church to Medical Missions and vice versa. After nine years of working with the nearby churches, they learned about us through a Tortuguero hometown boy who had moved to Nueva Sonora and is now a deacon in the church. Don Pedro from Nuevo Sonora, who had previously spoken to the church about the work we have done, introduces us. The elders present a plan to expand their youth program by building a paved, covered play area for the church to gather and kids to play and have church events, rain or shine, just outside the building on the adjacent land. 

The church organization across Chiapas is almost identical to the United States, with the session, deacons and committees to plan and execute work. They understand as we explain that I have to take the request back to the Medical Missions board to get approval in next year’s budget. The Tortuguero church is understanding. They are moving forward with confidence that God will provide sooner or later.

We close with one last hymn and prayer, and the crowd spills out into the courtyard where the project is planned. As we exit the side of the church, we step into the courtyard, perched on the edge of a steep cliff that looks out across the entire river valley at the mountains on the other side of the blue river. The crowd moves to the front of the church to share fresh fruit juice and take a picture in front of the church. We talk about the work of their church, shake hands, and 10 minutes later, we pass through the crowd, out of the church entrance to the car, and head back to Palenque to board our bus. I am soaking wet, head to toe from sweat, and the first thing that I want to ask to donate is a truckload of industrial-sized fans for the church in Tortuguero. 

Our sightseeing group went to the ruins with no cash, and as we arrive back to Palenque, I am sent to get cash for my sister, Linda-Marie, and one other group member to buy souvenirs. In the mountain communities where most families rarely have cash at all, credit cards are useless and ATMs and foreign currency exchanges are found only in large cities. Souvenirs bought, we board the bus back to Villahermosa to spend the night. 

The return home

From the airport, we begin the long trip back to Charleston. There are 13 of us total, ages 13 to 79, from four churches, and we all make it back safely. Now we head back to our own churches to plan for the next year, setting dates for trips, asking for projects to be included in budgets and sending updates to the churches in Florida, Alabama, Missouri and North and South Carolina. As we put the summer behind us, we remember a magical week in Chiapas where we toiled and broke bread in shared faith with good people from a rustic land who sent us back to the comfort of our urban homes richer in spirit.