Was a 1966 trip to Mexico the first Nazarene Work & Witness trip? Possibly so.


During their 1966 spring break several SNU students and some adult sponsors went to northern Mexico to construct a church. Led by student Leslie Wright, the student body raised nearly $7,000 to purchase construction materials. The beginnings of "Men in Missions" (that developed into Work & Witness) under Dr. Paul Gamertsfelder were still a couple of years away.

So, very likely this team could be called the first Nazarene Work and Witness team. (Note: Work & Witness is the title of the Short-Term Mission (STM) program of the global Church of the Nazarene.)

It couldn't be done? Miracles in Mexico

written by Howard Culbertson in the summer of 1966

"We didn't know your kind of American existed," the dark haired senorita admitted softly to twenty grimy, exhausted United States college students. A warm April breeze played around the moonlit hotel patio in Muzquiz, Mexico.

The twenty students had just passed the midway point in a feat declared impossible even by United States standards. They had set out to construct a church building in six working days. In Mexico, the land of mañana, they faced lots of incredulous looks.

Eighteen months of planning were coming to fruition as the men looked forward to the last three days of work. It had begun a year and a half earlier at Christmas time of 1964. David Uerkvitz, piano professor at Bethany Nazarene College (Bethany, Oklahoma), read a news story about northern U.S. college students rebuilding a burned-out southern black church. Before Dr. Uerkvitz unfolded a vision of SNU students in Mexico. There, during their week-long spring break, they would erect a church building.

Denominational leaders reluctantly gave the green light to the project. The Missionary Emphasis League of Southern Nazarene University -- then called Bethany Nazarene College -- agreed to accept sponsorship. In a special all-school chapel in mid-October of 1965, Dr. H. T. Reza, director of Nazarene Spanish work, challenged the 1600-member student body to not only furnish a twenty man crew, but also to finance the entire Muzquiz project. The seven thousand dollar goal, however, seemed unrealistic for the student body of that size. But students gave up midnight snacks, cokes, dates, and other extras to pledge over $7,500 for "Operation Helping Hand."

Ripples of excitement began to pulsate the student body. From a list of over forty applicants student electricians, carpenters, masons and other construction workers were selected. Once a week for six weeks the crew skipped morning classes to go into nearby Oklahoma City for immunization shots.

A construction contractor from Bethany agreed to go to Mexico as foreman. However, in the middle of the winter, a bad heart condition hospitalized him. With the immunization deadline rapidly approaching, George Lake, Muskogee, Oklahoma, minister, volunteered to supervise the masonry work. A psychology professor donned overalls to head up carpentry work. Directing construction of pews, windows, doors and other finish work would be a professional cabinet maker.

Mrs. Uerkvitz and a college librarian would cook American food for the crew to prevent reactions to unfamiliar Mexican cooking. A registered nurse took her vacation to care for any injuries and other health needs--one of them being two pills per day to prevent dysentery and salt depletion.

Tools, nails, glue, sunglasses, suntan lotion, food, medicine, lots of deodorant (possibility of little water) and other supplies began collecting in rooms and homes. Since few of the crew spoke Spanish, English-Spanish dictionaries went into many suitcases. In mid-afternoon on Friday, March 31, 1966, the "Operation Helping Hand" caravan left the central Oklahoma campus. Suspension systems of five cars and a pickup groaned under loads placed on them. At dawn Saturday, after fourteen hours, many gas stations and coffee breaks, they crossed the United States border at Eagle Pass, Texas.

Mexican customs officials stared at the power tools and refrigerator on the pickup and shook their heads "no." Regulations would not permit those things to enter. After much discussion Mexican border guards finally said the crew itself lacked proper papers to go further their country than the border area.

Since motel rooms had been reserved in the border town of Piedras Negras, the crew left to get three or four hours sleep. They would try to cross again later Saturday morning when more offices would be open and higher officials could be reached. Project director Uerkvitz, who spoke fluent Spanish, grabbed two hours rest and was back at the bridge by eight o'clock.

As a last resort to even get crew members in, Uerkvitz went back to Eagle Pass and contacted the Mexican consul. The official, who happened to be working overtime, said he could issue proper clearance. Re-crossing the border, the students received necessary temporary visas.

However, power tools and the refrigerator would have to stay at the border. Hopes sank, for without power tools, the building could scarcely be started within the allotted week. But the crew, determined to build the church even with hand tools alone, loaded their gear on a bus and set out eighty miles to Muzquiz. Professor Uerkvitz elected to stay at the border and bring all he could of the equipment later in the afternoon.

As crew members piled out of a bus in the town square, the sidewalk swarmed with children. This crowd of spectators rarely dwindled from sunup to sundown during their eight-day stay. After a bit of searching the hotel was located and rooms assigned. Having only three hours' sleep in a day and a half, team members promptly fell exhausted into bed. Since the pickup had not arrived, crew members took hourly turns sitting in two chairs in front of the hotel watching for the pickup -- empty or not.

At midnight a pair of headlights began picking their way slowly up the narrow alley into the hotel courtyard. It was a blue pickup with all the power tools aboard. It had taken fourteen hours for the pickup to go through customs -- as long as the drive from Bethany.

The refrigerator had had to be left behind, but the crew was content to sacrifice it to get the power tools. It was given to the Mexican Nazarene pastor in Piedras Negras.

Palm Sunday dawned. Since the tiny room used as the "Iglesia del Nazareno" in Muzquiz overflowed with the twenty members of the native Mexican congregation, the fellows clambered onto the pickup for a six-mile drive to Palau to attend a larger Church of the Nazarene. Using a guitar one of the fellows had bought at a tourist shop on the border, a hastily formed quartet sang for the Palau Nazarenes.

Pounding on the rickety, rotting hotel doors at 5:30 a.m. Monday brought fellows out of sagging bathtub-shaped beds. After breakfast and devotions they were on the job at seven. A concrete slab thirty by sixty feet on an otherwise empty lot greeted them.

Saturday night and throughout Sunday, the townspeople were quite suspicious of these gringos. Feeling the hostility, crew members dared not leave the hotel except in large groups. From a Muzquiz teenager who spoke English they learned that two years earlier several vacationing U.S. young men had stopped in the mining town and played the part of the "ugly American" well.

Monday morning, the fellows began searching for a key to open friendly relations with the Mexicans. Finding that the town had a volleyball team, the SNU'ers challenged them to a game.

Monday afternoon a sound truck blared its way up and down the streets of the town of 20,000 boldly announcing that at 7:30 p.m., the Muzquiz volleyball champions would play the "University of Oklahoma."

Grandstands filled as Mexican volleyball players warmed up. After finishing an 11hour work day, the construction crew labored to unlimber tired muscles. Mexican agility and skill soundly defeated the North Americans the first game, but U.S. height and brute power squeaked out victories in the last two games.

The volleyball games marked the turning point in international relations between the United States and Muzquiz Mexicans. The devastation of a nation's reputation by irresponsible students in a couple of days two years prior would now take a week's hard, free labor on the part of twenty young men to repair.

Power saws whined through sleeply Mexican siestas. Air hammers pounded finish nails into pews and window frames. Cries of "mud" filled the air as hoes sloshed through mortar mixes.

Walls sprang upward as row upon row of blocks were laid. Fellows had to cope with inferior quality concrete blocks and mortar. Available lumber was huge, rough planks of uneven dimensions which had to be planed and cut. Material did not come as ordered or store stocks were depleted, but the determined crew ignored or overcame the obstacles.

Townspeople gaped as the structure shot skyward on the once bare lot. Because steel beams were unavailable, two-by-ten planks, sixteen feet long were laminated on the concrete floor to form three huge wooden beams. These would span the thirty-foot width of the building. Because a crane nor even a winch was anywhere in sight, Mexicans felt that the attempted lifting of the beams would be the end of a wonderful gesture on the part of those starry eyed Americans.

Wednesday morning was beam raising time. Townspeople crowded around the building to see the gringos meet their Waterloo. Crewmen lined the beams, muscles bulged and strained, sweat poured off distorted faces; but the beams slowly raised into place one by one.

With that hurdle cleared, construction rushed on. Rafters criss-crossed the sky above workmen on the concrete floor. Sheet iron began rattling its way across the framework overhead. An entrance patio appeared on one corner.

After working long hours, crewmen still found energy to play the Muzquiz basketball team a close, but losing game for the Americans. A couple of evenings they played football in the dusty city streets a game which most of the Mexican children had never seen. The Builders' Quartet, formed that first Sunday, went over to the Palau church to sing again one night at a revival service.

Meals for the hungry men -- the cooks used recipes made for over 100 servings -- were prepared in a house rented for use solely as a mess hall. Although some foodstuffs had been brought along, quite a bit was bought at the local market. The cooks wouldn't always say what the bowls contained, but the known ranged from cactus to goat meat.

As the Saturday afternoon shadows stretched across what was less than a week before an empty lot, the finishing touches were put on the building. After supper, the crew went back to the church to transform themselves into a choir for dedication service the next morning. A week earlier, on April Fool's day, the project had seemed like a big joke. But there it towered, ready for its first service on Easter Sunday.

Sunday the men slept a bit later than the usual 5:30 reveille. Then they were up for their last day in Mexico. Marching up the aisle to the platform that Easter Sunday morning, they passed adults sitting in newly made pews while children sat on platform steps, hung in windows and stood in doorways. From a congregation of less than thirty the week before, attendance had jumped to over three hundred.

It was a vacation burned deeply into the hearts of twenty young American citizens. As they left Muzquiz Sunday afternoon to return to Tuesday classes, they left a bit of themselves in that mountain town of northeastern Mexico. More than just building a church, they had tied together the hearts of two nations.

SNU missions course materials and syllabi

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Howard Culbertson, 5901 NW 81st, Oklahoma City, OK 73132  |  Phone: 405-740-4149 - Fax: 405-491-6658

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